There is a curious disconnect in Britain today, manifested in the coronation of King Charles at Westminster Abbey on 6 May 2023. The ceremony at Westminster was extraordinary in its expression of pomp and majesty. Prepared and rehearsed for months, costing millions of pounds, it drew on centuries of tradition, and was a vivid, memorable spectacle. The long velvet train behind the king as he entered the Abbey, the music, the orb and sceptre presented to him; a simple white shirt to be covered up by a weighty gold coat and fur cape; and the heavy, ornate crown which was copied in paper by primary school children countrywide. It was like watching a film, a fiction. Occasionally, what felt like an inappropriate close-up of Charles showed a human, 74-year-old man with an impossible-to-read expression — a contrast to his mother, the very young queen crowned 70 years ago.
As expected, people queued for days just to see the golden coach on its way to and from the Abbey. Millions watched this spectacle on television across the world. The whole ceremony was impressive and, in its invoking of centuries of ritual and tradition, oddly moving. The crowning was followed the next day by a long concert and a most extravagant party at Windsor Castle, one of the many ‘stately homes’ belonging to the royal family, as well as at other venues.
But there was another side. The whole event looked and felt anachronistic, like an escapist fiction. In fact, in spite of the crowds, far fewer of the UK population now agree with the monarchy — or at least with a monarchy that has so many members supported by the state, and with eye-wateringly enormous private wealth. An ‘invitation’ that had been made for the whole British population to join in the oath of allegiance made to the king by the congregation was quietly dropped. Potential protestors were ‘pre-emptively’ arrested just in case they caused disruption. It seemed that everyone had to accept the centuries-long status quo, and the myth of a ‘Great’ Britain which is no longer great; instead rather foolishly isolated after Brexit. Having a monarch means we are still implicitly invited to see ourselves as ‘subjects’ of the crown rather than as free ‘citizens’.
Meanwhile there is indeed a disconnect with the ‘real world’ of Britain where the monarchy has in fact become much less popular. (A pared-down monarchy to give stability without the exorbitant financial privilege of this extended family which, unlike everyone else in the country pays no inheritance tax, is perhaps what most people would probably prefer.)
In this country, now, many people are suffering from real, material poverty. Although still very wealthy, Britain has recently become more shamefully unequal. The pomp of the Coronation, the richly-dressed guests and the following celebration extravaganza party might recall the words of Maitreya: “the rich parade their wealth before the poor”. There is a ‘cost of living crisis’, which means that some cannot pay for the most basic needs. Food and energy costs have risen by up to 30 per cent. Elderly people are offered ‘warm hubs’, for instance in local churches, to escape from their own homes where they cannot afford to keep themselves warm. Children cannot learn in school because they are hungry. Teachers are buying them food.
And the people are beginning to protest. Many public workers have been going on strike: transport workers, so people can’t get about; doctors, and nurses for the first time ever, are withholding their labour, not just in protest at their low pay but in outrage at the failing of the country’s National Health Service, once the pride of the nation.
By contrast with all this pomp, Maitreya comes as a ‘simple man’, to appeal to and bring out the genuine best in all people: “My teaching is this; learn to share, to grasp your brother’s hand and know him as yourself.” (Maitreya, Message No. 91)