Dispatch from London: Can we put more of our problems in a castle on an island across the sea?
On the apparent bust of the third day of official commemorations, and why Canada is lucky (in a way) to have the monarchy.
By: Matt Gurney
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
I guess we shouldn't be shocked to discover that it's easier to get people to show up at a party than to volunteer.
King Charles III's coronation celebrations were divided into three official days of commemoration. The first day was, of course, the coronation itself, and I've shared my little slice of that here already. The next day was a day of so-called Big Lunches, and a coronation concert at Windsor Castle. Any of you with any interest in the concert have seen it already; I hope my second dispatch from London gave you a little insight into what was up with the Big Lunches. The third and final day of commemoration, and also my last day in London, was Monday, May 8th, 2023 — day of The Big Help Out, a national day of volunteering in your community.
I didn't see much of that going on, though.
After an unexpectedly gorgeous Sunday in London, the weather turned cool and wet again overnight. The rain wasn't as hard or miserable as it had been on Saturday, but it was pretty steady. I spent about 15 minutes sitting in a park on Monday afternoon, doing a radio interview with my SiriusXM Canada colleague Arlene Bynon, giving her the latest from London. A bit of cover from a tree kept most of the rain off. That wouldn't have worked on Saturday. But it still wasn't exactly pleasant. The streets were noticeably emptier than they'd been the day before.
Monday was a holiday in the U.K., too, it's important to note. A "bank holiday," in the local jargon, which had been declared as part of the official period of celebration. There were still lots of people working, of course. Restaurant staff and taxi drivers and all the rest. But there were a lot of people who could have been volunteering. And I didn't see any. Not a one.
I'd gone looking, too. There was a website for the so-called Big Help Out, where you could put in your address and what kind of volunteering you were interested in, and find local opportunities. I used my hotel address and selected every possible category of volunteerism, and was offered ... not much. I broadened the search area and … still not much. I could download a few kits to collect some signatures for petitions. I was invited to pick up some trash in my local park, whichever park that was, and just as a solo effort. I was asked to fill out some surveys about nature and wildlife for some local conservation groups. And that all sounds ... uhh ... worthwhile. But this wasn't what I had in mind, I admit. No group activities? No community activism?
It seemed odd especially because the entire point of Sunday's events, the Big Lunches, had been bringing people together. To celebrate. It seemed fitting and appropriate for those same people to then get together the next day and contribute something. But no. No one seemed interested. I didn't have as much time to wander the city on Monday as I'd had on Sunday, but I still had a few hours, and I didn't see anything. It was quiet.
This had been foreseen as being a problem. Even before I'd flown over, as part of my research, I'd come across this article in The Guardian, warning three weeks ago that volunteerism was at a crisis point in the U.K., was trending further down, and had been for years. It's not that anyone seemed to think that the idea of the Big Help Out was bad. It's just that no one seemed to think many people would actually show up.
Some events certainly seemed to go off as planned. Mainly the ones where royals or other VIPs attended. The BBC reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales, and their children, helped improve a Scouts facility. The prime minister and his wife prepared and served food to the elderly. The BBC also reported that 55,000 events were planned across the U.K. I truly and sincerely hope they did well, and that good things were accomplished in communities and for people that needed the help. But I can only tell you what I saw, as I've done in my other dispatches, and I didn't see anything in London on Monday. I asked around a bit, and people either just shrugged it off and went about their day or hadn't heard of The Big Help Out at all. They’d sure as hell heard of The Big Lunches, though.
Again, probably not a shock that an invitation to party got a better response than an invite to help out. But still.
I had lunch at a pub in London, leaving my bags at the hotel again. In Trafalgar Square, work to return the place to normal continued. I spent some considerable time in the second dispatch talking about how fast the signs of the coronation had come down in most of the area around Trafalgar, but in the square itself, there were still large security barriers in place, particularly around Nelson's Column. Those finally started coming down on Monday. After a few hours, about the only sign left that anything in particular had been happening there a few days earlier was the continued presence of an elevated platform, on which TV cameras and watchful police officers had been perched during the royal processions to Westminster Abbey and then back to Buckingham Palace.
Also as mentioned in the second essay, the homeless population continued its return to prominence. Entirely invisible in the secured area during the main event, by the time I was getting set to return to Heathrow to catch my flight home on Monday afternoon, they were out in numbers in many of the areas I'd spent the last few days roaming. I still don't know where they went during the event, and I've sent out emails trying to find out. If I ever get an answer, I'll include it in one of our weekend dispatches.
Oh, and here’s an update I can give you now. Remember how I described the arrests of the republican protesters I was damn near to when it happened, and how they’d been controversial? Well, the police are already apologizing. That didn’t take long. Ooops!
In terms of telling you all what I saw on that third and final day of official events, I regret that that's about it. By Monday, London was largely back to normal, with no obvious sign of any organized volunteering. This gives me a chance, though, to do something I'd consciously avoided talking about until now. I've spent two and a half essays telling you what I saw. I hope you’ll indulge me a few moments, where I now tell you what I think.
I am, in the Canadian context, a reluctant monarchist, and always have been. I've watched The Crown and The King's Speech. That's largely the extent of my interest in the royal family as people. I know a bit about the royal family as a historical institution because I know a bit about British history, and you can't really separate the two. But in terms of strong feelings about them, as people, or the monarchy itself, as an institution? I really don't have any. And I find people that do have strong feelings, for or against, kind of weird.
If I was starting a country from scratch, I would never decide that the logical thing to do would be to invest our notion of sovereignty and much of our government's powers in an old man who lives in a castle on an island across the ocean. No one would. It's absurd. But ... it works? And, more to the point, I have zero faith — absolutely zero — that we'd ever be able to replace what we currently have with something that functioned at least as well. That has to be the minimum bar. And look around, at the state of things in Canada right now, and for the foreseeable future. Does anyone think we're going to be in a place to design a new Canadian republic from scratch without just epically screwing it up? Julie Payette, President of Canada, anyone? David Johnston, Eminent President?
We all know that's exactly who we'd end up with, right? Would we just skip a lot of fuss and bother and just make the president whomever happens to be the youngest (or oldest, or median) member of the Trudeau Foundation board of directors at any given moment? Alternate between astronauts and retired Supreme Court justices? Tack it on as a side gig for whomever happens to be hosting The National that week?
If you think I’m being unduly flippant or sarcastic, I beg you: imagine the president we’d end up with if we locked Justin Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre and Jagmeet Singh in a room together until they could sort it out. If ever. And then tell me you don’t find yourself reconsidering whatever thoughts you may have re: Charles over in Blighty.
I confess that I'm not as seized by a lot of other Canadians with some belief that the monarchy is inherently and automatically bad. It has been bad, and it has done or overseen terrible things, but the only useful standard is to judge it against its contemporary peers, and the monarchy at its worst has been about as bad as anything else at the time. I don’t think the tale of humanity is how we end up with bad institutions that lead people astray, into terrible things that would otherwise have been avoided. I think people are hardwired to be pretty awful and our institutions all broadly end up reflecting that, whatever that may mean in the context of that time and place. That’s the problem with social and historical progress: the further back in time you go, the less of it there is.
Nor am I wowed and by arguments that we won't be a "grown up" country until we get rid of it. I think that's absurd. We aren't a grown-up country, but it's not because we have a king in a castle across the ocean. A Canadian republic that still functioned as this country does wouldn't be grown up, it would just be a republic with official properties that were falling down and really dumb politicians. There's a long list of things I think we need to fix in Canada that I'd put above "the monarchy thing" in terms of our priorities, and in terms of assigning blame for the current state of things, Charles and his mom don’t crack my Top One Billion.
Hell, given our institutional problems and the political duds — across the spectrum — running our parties these days, I think we're damned lucky to have the situation we do. Whatever we spend on the monarchy each year, and it's not much, I consider it money extremely well spent. It keeps a big problem we'd inevitably screw up many thousands of miles away from us, out of sight and mind except for the odd visit every few years. This is, I say with all sincerity, probably some of the best money our federal government spends every year. You mean we can just foist this stuff on an old man in England? What the hell else can we dump onto him, or just store in random castles in England? Ever having to debate bike lanes again? The phrase “softwood lumber”? The Green Party? Please, God, can we send the Green Party to England?
If all of the above sounds a little cynical and defeatist, well, hey. Guilty as charged. In terms of Canadian political maturity and state capacity, I am absolutely defeated and cynical. The only thing I find weirder than making someone sit on a specific rock and have swords waved at him for a few hours before declaring him officially super-duper the king are the Canadians who aren't as defeated and cynical as I am. What the hell country are you guys paying attention to?
So yeah. Reluctant monarchist, very much of the "It ain't broke, and we couldn't fix it even if it was" variety.
For all that, though, I can say this with total sincerity: I think Charles will do fine. I don't think the monarchy is doomed or going anywhere. And I think Canadians, despite what we tell pollsters, will probably line parade routes and wave little flags at the poor guy the first time he shows up here for a big tour.
People are, I generally think, not as rational and smart as we tell ourselves. We are easily won over by pomp and circumstance and ceremony. I think that some institutions get this truth about people better than people themselves collectively do. At some point during Saturday's proceedings, I found myself watching the Prince of Wales on TV, all decked out in robes and festooned with symbols I didn’t understand, and I thought how strange it is to do this to a person who is already actually genuinely good at a very difficult thing. He's a helicopter pilot. Apparently a perfectly competent one. That's hard! This guy is accomplished at a very difficult task, one that society values, but now we're draping him in robes and anointing his dad with holy oil to that he may make a better ceremonial figurehead.
But it works. I'm sorry. It just does. People are suckers for this stuff, and always have been. Charles won't reign as long as his mother, and will probably never be as popular as she was. He simply won't have enough years ahead of him to become the kind of enduring, generational figure Elizabeth II became. But William, and Catherine, whom I noticed the camera kept dwelling on during Saturday's proceedings? I suspect we'll see a lot of them in the years ahead, and eventually, when they take their turn on the special rock and have swords waved at them, they'll do fine, too.
We live in unsettled times, as the last three years should remind us. And as a matter of professional preservation, I rarely make predictions. There's just no upside for me there. But all things being equal, I think things that have endured a long time will probably keep on enduring, so long as they're taken proper care of. And nothing I've seen from the monarchy of late, or on the faces of the crowds gathered in the rain in London to catch just a glimpse of the procession, or even in the opinion polls I’ve read in my own country, has given me the slightest reason to doubt that Charles will do fine, and the monarchy itself will be fine. Because those guys seem to know what they’re doing a lot better than a lot of us seem to know what the hell we’re supposed to be doing.
By the time you read this, I'll be back in Canada, God willing, at home in Toronto with my family, and my thoughts about the monarchy and the royals will return to their typical standard of near-absolute zero. But sometime soon, the King and Queen will probably come to Canada, and if any of their stops are nearby, I'll take my kids so they can, if nothing else, see what all the fuss is about. And perhaps wave a little flag.
To be a member of the royal family, especially the royal, is not a job I would want. For all that, and maybe because of that, we are, on balance, I think, lucky to have them. If we were a more mature country, maybe that wouldn't be the case. But we aren't. We just aren't. And we definitely aren’t trending in that direction, either.
I hope Charles does well with it, whatever that even means, and that his seemingly dysfunctional and weird family finds some peace, some happiness and avoids anymore awful scandals and tragedies. And I look forward to resuming not thinking about them much, at least until the next season of The Crown comes out. I watch that with my wife.
So for now, from London, I say with all sincerity: God save the King. And us all.
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