When Queen Elizabeth II died last year, she took with her an idea of the past. The opulent state funeral aimed to keep a grip on the glory years, a hyperactive rush of public mourning that attempted to find something that was once there.
An explosion of brands tried manically to honour the moment: Domino’s changed its Twitter banner to black and Crossfit released a “Queen Elizabeth II workout”. Football was cancelled for a weird amount of time. Paddington was quickly hoisted back into the public consciousness as the country reminisced over a bit created for the “Platty Joobs” of a bear drinking tea (now nominated for the P&O Cruises Memorable Moment Award at the upcoming Bafta Television Awards).
But all the Queen’s death revealed was that no-one knew much at all about this secretive, dutiful and omnipresent British figure, the face on all of our fivers, part of public life for as long as the vast majority of us can remember. She loved a gin and Dubonnet before lunch (cool ritual, to be fair) and had a regenerating army of corgis. But aside from that she was an opaque billboard for an idea of Britain.
Enter Charles, who’s landed himself a new job way past retirement age and isn’t exactly feted in the same way his mum was. I always think of my nan as a decent litmus test of the national mood. She passed away recently, aged 99, but had previously made it clear that she wasn’t bothered about receiving a “Happy 100th Birthday!” telegram from “that man”. Maybe that’s why she decided to die.
The rest of the nation seems to agree. A YouGov poll called “How much do you care about the forthcoming coronation of King Charles?” doesn’t reveal any bubbling excitement about the event: only 9 per cent of people said they “care a great deal”, while 35 per cent said “not very much” and 29 per cent said “not at all”. In another poll, nearly half of Britons said they were unlikely to watch the television broadcast. The whole thing gives the impression of when someone you don’t really know starts a 67-person WhatsApp group about their “birthday week”.
This apathy isn’t new, though. Prior to Lizzie’s passing the monarchy had already been sliding into cultural insignificance, with discussions about its abolition growing more fervent. For years, our understanding of what – if anything – it all means has been rapidly disintegrating. And the quarrelling royals she leaves behind don’t inspire much hope for the institution’s survival: a king that people either dislike or are indifferent to, a prince who was tight with a nonce, “H&M”, who fled a vicious, racist press to launch an irritating second life in LA as heroic truth-tellers with books, podcasts, Oprah interviews and Netflix shows. Let’s be honest, no one cares about Wills and Kate. The tragic spectre of Diana looms large, the last Brit in a position of power that anybody truly admired. But even the people’s princess only reminds us of the royal lineage of silence and misery, one that we’re not only supposed to find aspirational but deify.
Charles probably thought he’d have gotten the gig at an easier time. His mum became Queen during the relative privacy of the 1950s, whereas he took charge under the glare of smartphones, stuck in the panopticon and grimacing at aides about fountain pens. Republicans smell blood. An organiser of the #NotMyKing protest, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, told Reuters: “I think the monarchy is in a lot of trouble because they have lost their star player. Support is clearly going down, interest is going down, and that is a big problem for them. Charles has not inherited the deference, respect and sycophancy that was enjoyed by the queen, so people are far more willing to challenge him.” The rest of the UK breaking with the monarchy is not a fringe idea, either – Humza Yousaf and Mark Drakeford, leaders of Scotland and Wales, respectively, have spoken openly about a break with the crown and having a “legitimate debate” about the Welsh titles.
The pressure’s on, then. We haven’t had a coronation for 70 years and there’s a palpable apprehension within the royal household about how to go about it, particularly after more than a decade of austerity. The first official portrait of His Majesty eschews traditional regal gear in favour of a blue pinstripe suit – more Alderley Edge accountant than reigning monarch. There were also early reports that the coronation would be “modest”, despite it costing £100 million of taxpayers’ money (more than half of the nation think the royals should foot the bill, and this was a poll run by the right-wing Daily Express), and the official dish of the coronation is a vegetarian quiche, a deliberately utilitarian yet oft forgotten food, and a nod to Charles’s lifelong support of environmental sustainability.
But while whispers about dialling back what might be the final imperial march claim to reflect a “modern idea of monarchy”, it’s more likely to be because Charles is being crowned during a cost-of-living crisis. In a country where three million emergency food parcels have been distributed to people in the past year and our post-Brexit supermarket aisles are looking bare, it’s not a great time to be getting your jewel collection out on the telly. When Charles had his last big live TV moment and married Diana, Ghost Town by The Specials was No. 1. It wouldn’t be a bad fit more than 40 years later.
The problem that the monarchy faces, even with its half-hearted attempts to modernise the whole shebang, is that it looks like, feels like and maybe genuinely is some sort of medieval cult. The ancient “Stone Of Destiny” arrived in London from Scotland, without incident, on Sunday, which Charles must sit on to officially become king this weekend. In the meantime, the public has been encouraged by the Dean of Westminster to “pray for their majesties King Charles and Queen Camilla”, two people worth billions of pounds and exempt from inheritance tax, thanks to a deal that former Conservative PM John Major organised with HMRC in 1993.
What we’ll be faced with on 6th May is a celebration of the past in a country that’s unable to map out a future, one last homage to Blighty before the lights come on and the ushers start sweeping up. If Queen Elizabeth II was a blank canvas for the nation’s hopes to be projected on to, Charles is the opposite, a mirror reflecting Britain back to us. As the head of a family besieged by infighting, underpinned by tense racial dynamics, and throwing a nostalgic party that attempts to normalise obscene wealth, he neatly captures the story of the past decade. But this is all Charles feels like, a symbol of something wrong.
For a few days, people will drink more and briefly remember what bunting is. Brands will, of course, go insane. But let’s be honest about it: all we’re looking forward to is the bank holiday he’s “given” us on Monday. When the show’s over, Charles will become the country’s first ambient king, a side note to people enjoying an extra day off work.