A Coronation and an Election Leave a Restless U.K. ‘in a Waiting Room’
As milestones in British life go, the two could hardly have had less in common: Saturday’s coronation of King Charles III, the grandest of all royal spectacles, and two days earlier, grass-roots elections for the mayors and other officials who are responsible for fixing potholes and picking up the trash.
Yet each, in its own way, confirmed a Britain on the cusp of change.
The stinging defeat of the Conservatives in elections on Thursday suggested that Britain’s governing party could very well be swept from power in the general election that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call by January 2025. The crowning of Charles definitively turned the page from the 70-year reign of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and thrust the monarchy into an uncertain future.
Three years after Britain left the European Union, and nine months after Britons grieved the death of the queen amid political and economic upheaval, the country is still groping for a post-Brexit identity. But even if its ultimate shape is not clear, Britain seems poised for a new era, both in politics and the monarchy.
“The country is in a waiting room,” said Simon Schama, the British historian and author of “A History of Britain.” “People are saying, ‘Let’s give our peculiar new king a chance,’ while the prospect of an election pacifies a lot of the frustration and rage that people would otherwise feel.”
Change is not assured, of course. Charles, as a 74-year-old monarch, could prove to be a more cautious figure than his biographers expect. The coronation, with its medieval rituals — the king was anointed with holy oil from a silver spoon dating to 1349 — was nothing if not an exercise in continuity.
Likewise, the Conservatives, depleted as they are after the loss of more than 1,000 municipal seats, could yet cling to power. Their leaders pointed to polling estimates, extrapolated from the results of the local elections, that would still leave the opposition Labour Party relying on the support of smaller rivals to govern.
But political scientists prefer to focus on longer-term trends, and those are running strongly against the Conservatives. The elections laid bare anger and impatience with a party that its critics say has left the country scandal-scarred, divided and facing lingering economic costs from Brexit after 13 years in power.
Similar pressures are building on the monarchy, which has reigned over Britain a lot longer than that. Recent polls show that many Britons, particularly younger ones, view the royal family as irrelevant and question the need for it.
“The royal family will have to think about the future,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “Like other organs of the state and government, it is less trusted than it once was. You do have two currents of change pushing the same direction across the waterway.”
“The coming together of elections and the crowning of a monarch ought to lead to a moment of national introspection,” Professor Travers added. “One hopes it won’t devolve into a battle between boosters and declinists.”
As the parties draw battle lines for a general election, there are signs that some of the cultural and social issues that have dominated Britain’s political debate since before the Brexit vote in 2016 are finally fading.
With the inflation rate in double digits and the economy on the edge of recession, the local elections were fought largely on economic matters, not on immigration, sovereignty or the promise to “Get Brexit done,” which propelled Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, to a landslide victory in the 2019 election.
“We have passed peak Brexit,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University. “The structural problems that flow from Brexit are still there, but it’s the beginning of a long, slow, painful journey back.”
Among the biggest questions is the future shape of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. This will shape the political debate, Professor Garton Ash said, but it will not be answered for several years, perhaps by the winner of the general election after next.
Under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the government has taken steps to reset its relationship with the rest of Europe. Mr. Sunak eased tensions with President Emmanuel Macron of France, a guest at the coronation. Britain signed a deal to settle a trade dispute in Northern Ireland with the European Union, which sent three top leaders to the ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The king played a symbolic, if scrutinized, role in that deal by inviting one of those leaders — the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen — to Windsor Castle shortly after she and Mr. Sunak had signed the agreement.
Critics said the king had been drawn improperly into politics, an impression heightened by the fact that Downing Street called the agreement the Windsor Framework. That suggested to some that he had put his imprimatur on it. Windsor is his family name, as well as that of the castle west of London where on Sunday evening Charles and his family celebrated the coronation with a star-studded concert.
Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and the English band Take That performed on a stage that framed the castle’s eastern facade. The fashion designer Stella McCartney praised Charles for his work on climate change. Tom Cruise appeared in a video sequence, piloting a vintage warplane as he declared, “Your Majesty, you can be my wingman any time.”
Lights and lasers turned the castle into a backdrop for fluttering Union Jacks while a fleet of drones created the image of a twisting blue whale in the night sky.
For all the razzle-dazzle, the concert felt slightly less starry than one held last year for Queen Elizabeth on her platinum jubilee. That captures the challenge Charles faces in succeeding his mother, a beloved figure who reigned longer than any sovereign in British history. Elton John, who dedicated an affectionate performance of “Your Song” to the 96-year-old queen, was conspicuously absent this time.
“She was such an extraordinary figure that one could speak of a second Elizabethan age,” Professor Garton Ash said. “Most monarchs in the 21st century will not have ages named after them.”
Still, as an emissary for British values, he said Charles was “turning out to be a good king.” On his first foreign trip, to Germany, he won praise for his speech to the Parliament, in which he switched seamlessly from English and German, and delivered a robust expression of Western support for Ukraine.
On Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine congratulated Charles, and paid tribute to him, during a speech to the nation. Recalling a meeting he had with the king at Buckingham Palace in February, Mr. Zelensky said, “I remember the sincere emotion for Ukraine and Ukrainians.” He sent his wife, Olena Zelenska, and Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, to represent him at the ceremony.
The importance of the king’s role in these moments should not be underestimated, political scientists said. At a time of domestic political and economic flux — of restive local elections and extravagant royal spectacles — the monarch is an enduring symbol of British identity and its place in the world.
“All of that,” Professor Garton Ash said, “gives a country, which is not in very good shape or spirit, at least a bit of comfort.”
Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Dnipro, Ukraine.