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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  King Charles gets a lot less credit than the man deserves

King Charles gets a lot less credit than the man deserves

For all the criticism, his coronation was an impressive display of the diversity he upholds

Britain's King Charles and Queen Camilla (via REUTERS)Premium
Britain's King Charles and Queen Camilla (via REUTERS)

Saturday’s coronation often seemed like an endless ceremony for a man who performs a largely ceremonial role. Ordinarily a natty dresser in double-breasted suits who was fit enough to play polo till he was 57, King Charles’ embroidered robes were so voluminous that by the end of the service at Westminster Abbey, two clergy were clutching him by the arm to ensure he didn’t trip. One was reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s response to reporters in the 1930s who wondered if he was under-dressed in his dhoti and shawl for a meeting with George V. The king, Gandhi memorably joked, was wearing enough for both.

But the coronation, all too easy to mock as an anachronistic medieval affair, was in many ways a grand declaration of the UK’s unique multiculturalism. Some of this was circumstance. Who could have predicted that the first coronation in 70 years would be attended by a UK prime minister of Indian origin and a first minister from Scotland, a staunch republican, who is the son of Pakistani immigrants? Or, speaking of diversity, that Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf would be the best-dressed man that morning in his Bollywood bling jacket and waistcoat, designed by Anjali Modha, worn with a kilt? Or that Penny Mordaunt wouldn’t only be the first woman to carry that four-foot long sword that weighed almost 2kg for almost the entire 1,000-year-old ceremony, but do so with the ramrod-straight posture of a marine?

But much of it was orchestrated by King Charles, whose selection of music and performers was pitch perfect. Early on, South African opera singer Pretty Yunde put her stamp on the event, singing a new composition by a woman composer with power and grace. As memorable was the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel who has the physique of a rugby player and yet the delivery of a head priest. By choosing a famous Welshman to perform at his coronation and sing in Welsh, King Charles was reaching out to Wales.

Service was the theme of the coronation, but so too was inclusiveness. Decades ago, The Prince’s Trust charity made a name for itself by enabling disadvantaged youth to jump barriers of racism and classism with training and help finding jobs.

At the end of the service, King Charles stopped for a blessing from a diverse group of priests who were Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. Decades ago, Charles had said that as king he would like to be known as “the defender of faith" rather than as “defender of the faith." This is an important distinction in a country where the monarch is also head of the Protestant church. For the coronation, the chief rabbi was housed at the king’s former residence Clarence House, an under-the-radar act in a country that more than occasionally shows signs of anti-Semitism, most recently in an offensive Guardian cartoon on the resignation of a BBC chairman that had to be removed from its website. A Time magazine article this month showed the king sitting cross-legged rather awkwardly during a December visit to a new gurdwara in Luton, but listening attentively all the same.

Farhan Nizami, director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which Charles has been the patron of for three decades, told Time: “It is very important that we have a king who has been consistently committed to (inclusivity). It is so relevant in the modern age, with the diversity that exists, that the head of this state should bring people together, both by example and action."

All this offers a striking contrast with the majoritarian impulses of democracies as wide-ranging as the US, India and the UK itself (within the right wing of the ruling Conservative Party). King Charles is a monarch more likely to apologize for Britain’s colonial past and its role in the slave trade. Whether this will happen would also depend on the party in government. My bet is it could under a future Labour government.

Covering the Hong Kong handover in 1997 for Time, I was impressed by Charles’ understated approach at the ceremony. At the jetty from which the royal ship Britannia sailed on the night of 30 June, the prince was sensitive to the fact that the last governor Chris Patten, his wife and their young daughters were in tears at leaving their home of five years. The prince seemed content to be part of a supporting cast that night.

Amid Netflix’s part fact, part fiction The Crown and the British tabloids’ narrative of the king’s messy break up with his late wife, King Charles’ more noble pursuits have been given relatively short shrift. The coronation and the concert afterwards were clearly an attempt to correct that. His views on diversity, preserving the environment, organic farming and building more public housing in the UK long-predated these becoming hot-button issues. He is that rare royal who has been well ahead of the curve.

As antique as some aspects of the coronation inevitably were, and as destructive as the Conservative Party’s break with the European Union has already proven, the UK, despite and paradoxically also because of its imperial past, is instinctively inclusive—as is its monarch. The coronation reminded me of a previous church service in London in 2005 that was a moving memorial to 300,000 victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami months earlier. Twelve candles were carried to the altar bearing the names of the countries affected by the disaster. Petals of jasmine from Indonesia, water lilies from Thailand and Sri Lanka lotus from India and protea from Somalia rained upon the 1,800 in the congregation. It was hard to imagine a lovelier metaphor for the world’s diversity.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent. 

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Published: 10 May 2023, 11:26 PM IST
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