The coronation of King Charles III might not appear, at first sight, to be an occasion of organisational interest to the wider corporate events planning industry. Nor would the British Monarchy as a whole seem like the kind of institution which business schools might take as a case study. It is unlikely that the typical CFO would look at the like of the Civil List and consider it relevant to their responsibilities.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Nor for nothing did the late Duke of Edinburgh refer to the Royal Family as “the firm”. It may be an unlikely business model but for long-established companies where the history of a brand remains the basis of their appeal, it is not an inconsequential one. The essential challenge here is actually familiar. What is the ideal combination of continuity and change?
The coronation is not exactly an Annual General Meeting. There are still lessons to be learnt from it. It has, to put it mildly, been a big challenge for those in charge of it. This is partly because it is such a public moment, yet literally no one involved in the 2023 coronation is of an age that they could have been even minor participants in the planning of the last one held seventy years earlier. If it had not been for the late decision back then to allow the television cameras in (despite the firm objections of the Queen Mother and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to the idea), then those who have had to deliver the ceremony this time would have had nothing to go on bar a yellowing Order of Service.
Sticking to a known script, nevertheless, might have been comparatively straightforward. Continuity would have been natural as the coronation of George VI in 1937 (held on the date that had originally been selected for his brother) was essentially the same as that for Queen Victoria 99 years earlier. It was the 1937 formula that was more or less run again in 1953 in a triumph for the old-school camp. The only notable change in content in 115 years occurred in 1911 for George V when, following the entente cordiale, it was deemed right to end the claim that the monarch was also “King of France”. Repeating the 1953 format might have been a little dull but it could also have been the safe option.
Charles III wanted change. By the standards of these matters, the reforms desired were sweeping.
He wanted the coronation to be held as soon after the death of his mother as feasible and tasteful. This made for a compressed timetable which verged on the outright rushed. He wanted to witness an adoption of other faiths in what had for centuries been an exclusively Church of England service. He wanted the service itself cut back from three hours to much closer to sixty minutes. He wanted the list of attendees reduced from about 8,000 people to around a quarter of that number. He also wanted a completely different category of people to be included who were to be representative of “diverse communities” or associated with outstanding social activism (not a priority back in 1953).
This meant cutting the “old” list of 8,000 invitees (dominated by those with hereditary titles, the Privy Council packed with politicians, foreign dignitaries, senior Anglican figures and courtiers), back to around 1,250 persons and then bolting on another 750 or so souls never before thought qualified.
This is the classic “continuity versus change” conundrum albeit on a grander scale than the rest of us endure. How do you decide what sections of a three-hour ceremony to drop? They must have been in there originally for a reason of some kind. What role can you offer to leaders of other faiths when the text is framed in the Canon Law of the Church of England? What faiths should be included? The Zoroastrians have been around an awfully long time, should they not receive some recognition? How do you break it to the 12th Earl of Somewhere, whose family have been at coronations since Charles II was brought back, or the Bishop of Home County, whose predecessors have always had a ticket to this show, that they are being bumped for a tea-lady with a British Empire Medal and a young boy who has slept in a tent to raise funds for a worthy cause? Such conversations might not have had the prominence of the Harry and Megan melodrama (or excluding Sarah Ferguson) but they will still bite.
That is the trouble with change. There are always existing, arguably vested, interests to be adversely impacted by it. The resentment of the now excluded is at least as forceful as the appreciation of the newly included. The price of friends is enemies. Yet if Charles III had proceeded on the old blueprint with an entirely Anglican coronation with all other faiths marginalised, with many millions of viewers turning off their sets out of sheer tedium two hours plus through, and with a retro audience of 8,000 individuals (assuming contemporary Health and Safety regulations apply in Westminster Abbey and are compatible with such a crowd) who were about as representative of modern British society as a Chicken McNugget is of a farmyard rooster, he would have been condemned as a total anachronism. Change as a concept is not a choice. It is deciding how on much of it to embrace that is the dilemma.
This is likely to be merely the opening episode in what will be a relentless “continuity and change” theme for the monarchy in general and for the King himself in particular. He has waited longer for the baton to be passed than even the characters in Succession. Finding himself finally crowned at the age of 74, he has a decade in which to have an impact on the institution, not simply mark his time. As he clearly wants to be more than Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in the epic film Being There, he will have to move at unusual speed and with atypical determination if his aims are to be realised.
Which will make the House of Windsor a seriously interesting case study for business leaders. Many a family-founded business has reached the point where the number of persons holding positions of authority in the company purely because of their bloodline has become a menace to profitability. If imposing “slimming down” is hard at Walsall Widgets, imagine what it is like at Buckingham Palace. The agony of the exercise will be amplified by the fact that all of the “minor royals” will have a set of their own supporters (and let us be candid, sycophants) whose standing is about to be diminished.
The King is also an enthusiast for the notion of a “public service monarchy” which can intervene in areas where passing party politicians are not trusted by the public. He will want to assist in bedding the devolutionary settlement in (the opening for which has expanded with the SNP’s implosion), be the personification of the Net Zero campaign on the basis of his environmental credentials, conduct personal diplomacy of the format seen in his State Visit to Germany, overhaul the Duke of Edinburgh Awards to suit the social media age (and connect the monarchy to the next generation) and so on. In every sphere, there will be some lobbies cheering him on and others – including a few around the Cabinet table – muttering to themselves “go back to cutting ribbons and opening public buildings”. Traditionalist monarchists as much as confirmed republicans will be quite confused by the spectacle.
All in all, something for the CFO to savour. There are not many experiments as enormous as this one. It will determine whether a hereditary monarchy can not only survive but thrive in the 21st Century, as strange as it may seem, or is destined, with Prince Harry as the pioneer, to be exiled off to Netflix. The rise and fall of huge companies over the years suggests that this could be a roller-coaster ride.