keeping up with the royals

A Lukewarm Coronation

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

You know that moment in a long-running television series when the beloved protagonist is written out, and everything just feels off? The show might seem like it can trundle on — but it’s just not the same. This precise energy has gripped an even longer-running saga: the British monarchy. With the coronation of King Charles III this weekend, the royal institution is attempting to relaunch itself and draw a line under a dramatic few years. But after the loss of the biggest star, Queen Elizabeth II, it’s difficult to detect much enthusiasm for the new lead.

Before Queen Elizabeth died, I had an unscientific theory that pretty much every British gay man over 40 loved her. Even if they didn’t necessarily care for the monarchy as an institution, they would secretly stan her from afar. I sing in a gay choir in London, and when she died, I’d say my thesis was underlined by the reaction: There was a two-minute silence at rehearsal and even a rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which was filmed and sent to the royals with deepest sympathies. (Let’s hope they’re Sondheim fans.) At the following week’s rehearsal, a choral rendition of “God Save the King” was recorded. Outside, I found myself huddled with a small group of fellow choir members who weren’t keen on being filmed singing about how happy we were to have our “gracious” king reign over us. In a cloud of cigarette smoke, there was something rebellious about it — the dissenters were very much in the minority in the group, but also in the wider country, where a period of national mourning was being enforced so rigidly that even food banks were closed out of “respect.”

Seven months on, I think that nicotine cloud would certainly be larger. There isn’t quite the same eagerness to mark the coronation with song, or anything else, for that matter.

On my walk back from choir rehearsal this week, I passed a charity shop run by a homeless crisis organization in North London. Its windows were decked out in red, white, and blue clothing — presumably in a nod to the coronation. The display stood out to me, partly because of the obvious bleakness of a homeless charity celebrating the crowning of a billionaire who lives in a literal palace, and according to new reporting, is also a landlord. But it stood out even more because, apart from some half-hearted bunting at train stations, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of displays like this in London. Compared to the queen’s platinum jubilee in 2022, the contrast is stark.

The vibe I’m sensing from London is not necessarily representative of the entire country, of course. I’m sure there are places where Union Jack flags and patriotic shop windows are the norm. But polling also reflects a nation that is remarkably unenthused: Just 9 percent of people care “a great deal” about the coronation, according to polling company YouGov. Over half of respondents said they don’t care about it “at all” (29 percent) or “very much” (34 percent). A clear majority of Britons also do not think the coronation should be funded by the government, with even the more conservative over-65s concurring.

In response to public ambivalence, the coverage from some media outlets has become predictably manic and undignified. One journalist from Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid The Sun defended the coronation costing “hundreds of billions” of pounds because of the “exposure” it would give the U.K. — as if the nation were a medium-tier Instagram influencer participating in a panel discussion for free rather than a country where millions of public-sector workers are currently striking for better pay and child poverty is terrifyingly high.

Some outlets need urgent chiropractic intervention after bending over backwards to show fealty to the king: The BBC got ratioed into oblivion after a report praised him for “recycling” a chair by using it more than once. When concerning new figures suggested more people are being forced to work into their 70s, Sky News’ angle was that the 74-year-old king was “leading by example.” Even the right-wing press has turned a blind eye to his more political interventions on climate change, with some favorably (and ludicrously) describing him as an “activist king.” It has been surreal to watch consent become manufactured in real time.

Just like the aftermath of the queen’s death, I’m seeing a stark contrast between mainstream media coverage and the types of discussions I’m seeing on social media and having in person. If the media coverage is to be believed, the British public adore King Charles and can’t wait to watch him finally get his sausagelike hands on the crown. But on Twitter, the news that people watching at home will be asked to declare their allegiance to the king out loud during the ceremony was met with mockery. Even the official dish of the coronation — a spinach and broad-bean quiche — has failed to drum up any noticeable enthusiasm. “I’m just excited for an extra day off work,” said one of my friends, speaking for the nation.

After a controversial few years for the monarchy, with Meghan Markle’s allegations of institutional racism, Prince Andrew settling a multimillion-dollar sexual-misconduct lawsuit, and Prince William and Kate’s disastrous tour of the Caribbean, perhaps the royal press office will count ambivalence as a win. And it’s true that a collective shrug at the coronation doesn’t necessarily mean that British people are against the idea of having a king. After all, the whole thing is an objectively weird ritual. It’s sort of like when one of your friends has their birthday in winter and decides to wait and throw a big party months later in summer. You’ll post a cute pic on Instagram, sure, but it’s difficult to get as excited about something that has already happened. (Oh, and it’s not their birthday. You’re celebrating their mother’s death.)

This week, I attended a book launch and, over a cold glass of white wine, the topic turned to the coronation. One person reminded me of a specific moment in the aftermath of the queen’s death, where the new King Charles was seen rudely gesturing to an aide during a ceremonial document signing. The clip went viral, and soon a second video emerged of the grieving king losing his temper. (“Oh, God, I hate this!” he complained at another signing.) “That was the moment he lost the room,” said the person who brought it up. “It set the tone.”

It’s going to take a lot more than a few unflattering clips to turn the U.K. against the royal institution entirely. The monarchy is bigger than one person, and there is a cultural masochism that is deeply embedded within British culture, where we’ve completely normalized being ruled and exploited by the elite. But after weeks of sycophantic media coverage, it would be difficult to argue that Charles currently has a place in the nation’s heart or is someone who is respected even by people who aren’t devout royalists.

In the coming days, we’ll see crowds of people waving flags and smiling. There will be themed snacks and bubbly. But really, unless Princess Diana rises from the dead during the coronation to snatch the crown from Camilla’s head and declare herself the rightful queen, the national mood is best summed up as: “Meh.” After a lifetime in a supporting role, King Charles is now officially the lead. But he’s not yet a beloved star.

It’s Going to Be a Lukewarm Coronation