Did the deity rescue the monarch(y), or did apathy reign?

How were your local coronation festivities for you?

I wanted to let some time pass before writing this piece if only to let the dust settle and see what was left behind. This post is less about what happened in London, and more about what didn’t happen in Cambridge & elsewhere – with a few comparisons to past local history. I’m not going to get into the politics of whether we should have an hereditary or elected head of state other than to note that the Metropolitan Police’s response to protests organised by the anti-monarchy group Republic gave them far more publicity than they could have dreamt of – the sort that the organisers probably wanted to avoid. I remains to be seen how many new members and how much money the group raised as a result, but chances are it was more than they had anticipated.

Local festivities were listed, but it wasn’t like the main streets into the city were covered in wall-to-wall bunting – or did I miss something?

I was still recovering from the local elections and it was also raining outside so I didn’t go anywhere on Saturday. But I managed to make it to Limoncello on Mill Road on Sunday, and noticed that apart from a street busker at the big R by the railway bridge, your average passer-by would not have noticed that this was a weekend at which a new monarch was being crowned – the last such occasion being 70 years ago.

When I look at my own part of the city, the community celebrations put on were mainly by local Church of England churches. Understandable given the constitutional role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the coronation ceremony, and the role of the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Established Church. And yet the whole thing seemed to pass by many of us – perhaps in the same way the local elections passed by many people in our city – not least those who do not have the franchise because of nationality. Or age. Turnout is seldom high in local elections, and in Queen Edith’s ward it was under 50% of the eligible voters. (You can see the election statistics for Cambridge 2023 here).

“Was there a golden age of mass participation in celebrating coronations? And if so, what are the similarities and differences between then and now?”

One can look at a photograph of the parades for Edward VII’s coronation on King’s Parade in Cambridge.

Above – Cambridge celebrating the Coronation of King Edward VII in August 1902

Outside of the fashions, the railings, and the horse-drawn carriages in this otherwise timeless street scene, it’s not like last weekend’s streets were shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrians watching ornately-decorated carriages trundling past beneath streets of bunting, flowers, and displays. But then this was also a time when Cambridge’s infant mortality rate was one in eight, when there wasn’t a national health service, and there wasn’t any form of national insurance or national state pension. We are reminded of this by the large banner at the back of the parade from the United Friendly Benefit Society – whose records are deposited in the County Archive in Ely.

“What’s a ‘friendly society’?”

Friendly societies were organisations that were formed to provide their subscribing members with social insurance benefits in return for regular (eg weekly/monthly) subscriptions. They were a means of self-help and of enabling workers to insure themselves against things like ill-health or the death of a subscribing member – at a time when accidents in the workplace were commonplace. One of the reasons why trade unions traditionally have a strong health and safety focus is because it was their members who were being killed and injured in the workplace. So the next time a strike is threatened on the railways on health and safety grounds, there’s over 150 years of history behind that social culture – something that also aligned with friendly societies who had to pay out to the families of those affected. As a result, both became social institutions in themselves across towns and cities.

Friendly societies declined in the face of the development of the nationalised welfare state. For all of the best efforts of those running them – and also those running church-based charities for those in absolute poverty (and the infant mortality rate more than reflected this), their efforts only went so far. As I sometimes state: “We tried Victorian-style charity in the Victorian Times: it failed. Hence the welfare state.

At the same time, income taxes were very low. Note how low at the time of Edward VII’s coronation. Hence social histories often cover the struggles between ‘labour and capital’ and ‘Edwardian levels of inequality’. It was only due to the demands of war, and then the requirements of the post-war welfare state that the top rate of income tax rose and remained high – until Margaret Thatcher’s Government.

Above – WikiP citing Piketty (2014) tables S9.2 and S14.1

Structures of communities and commuting distances

One of the things the Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69 (AKA the Redcliffe-Maud Report) demonstrated was the massive growth in commuting distances – one of their maps showing the huge rise in both the number of people living in rural areas who commuted to urban districts (shaded in grey below). Comparing 1921 (below-left) to 1966 (below right), the most pale-shaded areas show most areas around Cambridge had fewer than 10% of their workforce commuting to urban districts. By 1966, the northern half of what is now South Cambridgeshire District Council (then Chesterton Rural District) had between 40-50% of its workforce commuting into Cambridge – up from 10-20% over the space of just under half a century.

Above – from the Redcliffe Maud maps (vol 3 – commuting patterns 1921 – 1966)

Fast forward to today and commuting distances have increased still further. Whether this is sustainable in the era of the climate emergency is another question (have we reached peak office-commuting?)

There are a whole host of other social factors – changes in densities of housing, the growth of social institutions around workplaces, and changing communications technologies, and the increasingly globalised patterns of employment where (especially in somewhere like Cambridge) the end of a fixed term contract for a highly specialised scientist or engineer might mean having to move countries to find similar paid work in their field of expertise. I was reminded of this earlier today at the Cambridge Europe day event at St Giles where a woman from Ukraine told me that even as a highly-qualified scientist, Cambridge did not have any firms that covered her specialist area. Hence working for an institution outside her specialist field. She also informed me that although the core reason for many of her fellow citizens being in the UK is the same, each and every one of them has their own unique experience and story that is different from the other. Which got me thinking about how not just the UK but Western countries & communities provide support for refugees that accounts for this. Especially given the habit of the UK print press and too many politicians to lump an incredibly diverse group of people into a single monolithical entity.

“Has 13 years of public sector austerity and polarising political decisions from ministers had an impact?”

Inevitably. Even for somewhere like Cambridge. Furthermore, policy decisions around things like energy bills have resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the many to the few – even more so with the failure of ministers to tax the unearned profits from the rise in oil and gas prices that have enabled wholesalers to charge more because the nature of the industry is one of inelastic supply. (i.e. short term price rises do not result in fast rises in production to bring supplies up to match them). Thus the profit isn’t one due to a rise in productivity, new innovation, or even the investment in productive capacity or investment in the workforce. That amongst other things means people have less disposable income, so less to spend on community events, let alone community celebrations.

“Why didn’t the council do anything?”

It did – but inevitably there wasn’t much that it could do beyond putting on free screenings and refreshments at community centres it owns in two of the more economically-deprived communities in our city. Had they done so, they’d have been criticised for splashing out on a party at a time when so many people are dependent on food banks. Under the current system of funding, they cannot win.

“Why didn’t the rich people pay for it?”

Why would they if they didn’t feel any civic connection to any of their local communities? Which brings us back round to some of the social conventions of the past where – taking the reports from newspaper archives as a given, subscriptions for large celebrations were often published in newspapers – particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s. Hence some of the names of individuals have made their way into the names of corporate firms we’re familiar with today – such as the Bidwells. There’s also the impact of professionalising ‘corporate social responsibility’ programmes and budgets where large firms might outsource that work to a professional firm with a remit to ‘maximise the brand’. In the case of Cambridge that all too often means (for firms in the sci/tech sectors at least) trying to associate their brands with the University of Cambridge, and in particular with science and technology initiatives. Paying for coronation parties for people in economically-deprived neighbourhoods does not fit that criteria. The same goes for supporting local history and local civic projects – as I found out when I tabled a public question on 11 May 2023 to Cambridge City Council’s Strategy & Resources Committee asking about establishing a permanent capital fund for Cambridge. It turned out that even when Cambridge has a wonderful civic building in need of restoration, interests in donating evaporate when the collection bowl is passed around. (This being the Mill Road Library – although fortunately the preferred bidder is one of my favourite local charities, so it’s not all bad news)

“Did the relatively few number of coronation celebrations reflect how fragmented our city is?

I think it did. I also think it reflected a wider disconnect between the Political Class in Westminster (a class I used to be part of – let’s not forget) and the rest of the country. The longer the time I have spent away from it, the more glaring their shortcomings appear to be. Made worse by the worsening behaviour of successive ministers and advisers to the extent that members of national civic institutions that form part of that class have felt compelled to call out such behaviour in increasingly stark terms. Not only that, the titles of the books that greeted me in Heffers (Blackwells) in Cambridge today was one that reflected the parlous state of politics and democracy across the country. This summer is not the season for soft, easy-reading political biographies/ghost-written autobiographies in current affairs and politics. It’s the summer of hard-hitting tomes on how bad things have got, and whether there is any hope of turning things around before the climate emergency engulfs us. Well…that was the impression I got anyway.

Which brings me to the conclusion about how we repair this fragmented city of ours. I said what I had to say at the local elections and don’t intend going over old ground. Rather, have a look (or a re-look) at the City of Quarters Report from Cambridge Ahead’s Young Advisory Group. Given the state of our city, county, and economic sub-region, what is our collective response (as well as individual and community responses) to our shared problems? How do we ensure we don’t become an area full of economically and socially segregated communities that live side-by-side but that doesn’t talk to each other, let alone interact with each other?

I get the sense from the new King’s past form in terms of the causes that he supports publicly that he does not want his reign to become synonymous with the extremes of the Edwardian age of his great-great grandfather, King Edward VII. The challenge that any constitutional monarch in such a situation faces is how to demonstrate some sort of sympathy for, and empathy with the public – a critical mass of whom are struggling economically, while staying out of politics. Because this time 30 years ago Francis Urquhart (brilliantly played by Ian Richardson in House of Cards) demonstrated what might happen if a modern day monarch became Political. “To Play the King”.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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