Identity politics at the king's coronation
Adult immigrants often feel that they are homeless. Not homeless in the literal sense of the word, of course, but homeless in a cultural manner. The problem is easy to state: Your adopted country can never truly be home because you have internalized the intuitions of your homeland by the time you emigrate and you will always feel something of an outsider; but your homeland changes in your absence so that it ceases to be the place that you remember and that made you the person you are. In short, you end up not really belonging anywhere.
My old country is now a foreign country to the one in which I grew up. This became strikingly clear to me last week, when it was announced that the king’s coronation celebrations in May would feature an LGBTQ+ choir. To be clear, it is not the make-up of the choir that makes the most striking statement about how Britain has changed from the country I knew. More significant is the fact that the monarch is taking account of identity politics at his coronation. Indeed, I would suggest that in making this move, he renders the monarchy redundant and makes a better case for republicanism than any contemporary British republican, whether of the left or the right. It is precisely in this quest for relevance that the monarch gives proof of his determination to be irrelevant.
Growing up, I never thought much about the institution of the monarchy. My class resentment was reserved for the public schoolboys (what the British call students at elite private schools) who were born with the advantages I lacked. The monarchy seemed an anachronism but appeared benign enough. The queen, after all, was not a competitor for a coveted place at Cambridge University. Yet over the years I came to respect both the queen and the institution she embodied. Compared to the mediocrities and the mountebanks that republics routinely elected as their heads of state — ambitious, greedy, sleazy, and of recent years foul-mouthed and crude — she was the epitome of grace and reserve. I could point my children to her and say, “That is the behavior and demeanor to which you should aspire when you grow up.” This is something I have never been able to say, for example, about any American or French president of recent memory. And the institution itself, often decried because it was not democratic, had this to commend it: Unlike politicians seeking election, it had no need to take account of public opinion or of the latest political causes. In a paradoxical way, the monarch could represent the nation precisely because the monarchy was not representative. The queen stayed out of politics and was thus able to function as a reminder that the nation had an identity that transcended the particularities of party politics and of class.
The monarch could do this, of course, because there was a national narrative that was not subject to the tastes of the day or the ascendant lobby groups. And that is why the accent on “inclusivity” is so significant. I have never lived through a coronation, but I cannot imagine that I will feel particularly excluded because former grammar school boys, classics graduates, or Presbyterian ministers will not be explicitly present as a category in the celebrations. Being part of the nation the monarch represents, a nation whose identity is not tied up with this or that identity group, should — and for me, will — suffice. But clearly the monarch no longer thinks that is enough.
One can understand why. The constant dismantling of the national narrative has been advancing for several decades now, without anything of equal coherence and power available to replace it. And the rhetoric of inclusivity that now grips the contemporary mind is, of course, a political confidence trick. “Inclusivity” is simply the rhetorically powerful word used to exclude people, the people of whom the “inclusive” do not approve. The model of society these progressive inclusivists propose is not really more all-embracing than that which it is replacing. In fact, it looks likely to be far more exclusive, given that subscription to the contemporary credo of identity politics is fast becoming a condition of being considered a legitimate member of society — unprecedented outside of shamelessly totalitarian regimes. That’s why a man who served his country — the old, non-inclusive country, that is — was fined last year for merely praying in silence outside an abortion clinic. It is doubtful that any choir featuring his cause will make it onto the A-list of guest performers at the king’s coronation.
By legitimating inclusivity, defined by the categories of contemporary identity politics, the king demonstrates the redundancy of the institution he embodies. If he is going to bow to politics, then he will really be no more representative of the entire nation than Biden or Trump is representative of the United States. He risks, in fact, making himself a source not of unity but of further division, exclusion, and polarization.
The greatness of modern monarchy lies precisely in its immediate and intentional irrelevance, in its ability to point to a unity deeper than the ephemeral issues — and identities — of the day. Thus, as soon as there is enthusiastic talk of a coronation that will not be traditional, the game is over. If tradition is useless, something that needs to be overcome, then the reason for monarchy has long since gone. How ironic that the king himself seems determined to make the republican argument in a more powerful form than we have seen for many years. In such circumstances, the British people might as well become a republic and elect the same kind of shallow, careerist partisans for which America and France have had to settle.
Originally published at First Things.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern Self, The Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.