Britain is still reeling from a cost-of-living crisis, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from its plans for King Charles III’s upcoming May 6 coronation. The country is pulling out all the stops for the crowning of its sovereign—a three-day jamboree that will feature nationwide street parties, a Windsor concert, and a symbolic ceremony at Westminster Abbey followed by a grand public procession. It’ll be a party fit for a king, with a price tag to match: The long weekend is expected to cost British taxpayers at least £100 million ($125 million).
Unlike the last coronation, which was held in 1953 for the late Queen Elizabeth II, this one—codenamed Operation Golden Orb—will be a more scaled-back affair, with a shorter duration and fewer attendees. It’s a decision that has been explained in part by King Charles’s sensitivity to the cost-of-living crisis afflicting the country, as well as his ambition to have a more modern, slimmed down monarchy (an aim that was partially achieved with the departures of Prince Harry, Meghan the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Andrew from the coterie of working royals, of which there are now 11). Still, the opulence of such a spectacle stands to run in stark contrast with the bleak backdrop that is Britain’s economic crisis, in which decades-high inflation has led to crippling labor strikes. Hundreds of thousands of British workers, among them doctors, teachers, and train drivers, have walked out of work in demand of better pay in recent months. Further strikes by traffic wardens and Heathrow Airport workers stand to cast a shadow on the coronation celebrations.
Neither Downing Street nor Buckingham Palace will confirm the exact cost of the coronation, though British media outlets have thrown the £100 million figure around as speculation, a sum roughly double the cost of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The 1953 event was the most expensive ceremony ever held by the monarchy at the time, according to the New York Times, costing £1.57 million or the modern equivalent of £56 million. The higher price tag this time around is attributed at least in part to security, which would not have been as big of a concern decades ago.
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Graham Smith, the chief executive of the anti-monarchy group Republic and the author of the forthcoming book Abolish the Monarchy, suspects that the £100 million estimate is conservative.
“I suspect it’ll be at least that,” he tells TIME during a press briefing. “It’s an inordinate amount of money for the taxpayer to be spending. We know that there are lots of public sector workers who are struggling to get a pay rise. We know that there are people in work who are having to use food banks. There are hospitals struggling to make ends meet, schools struggling to get resources for their kids, police services struggling to keep the lid on various types of crime.”
Graham concedes that £100 million isn’t a sum that will necessarily go very far if directed toward the National Health Service or the police. “But it’s going to do quite a lot of good for a lot of people if it was spent on public services, homelessness, poverty, and so on [rather than] to spend it on one parade for one man.”
Some British government ministers have bristled at the notion of scaling back the coronation, with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden noting that “people would not want dour scrimping and scraping” on what will be a historic moment for the nation. After all, past coronations haven’t always occurred at convenient times. The 1937 coronation of King Charles’s grandfather, King George VI, took place amid an economic recession just two years before the start of World War II. By the time Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, post-war rationing was still in place. “I don’t think, in retrospect, people cared what it cost simply because it was a vast success and a huge spectacle,” says Richard Fitzwilliams, a longtime royal expert.
But this history is unlikely to be of much comfort for many Britons. More than half of them believe that the coronation shouldn’t be funded by the government, according to a recent survey by YouGov, compared to just 32% who said it should be. Some have even questioned why the royal family won’t just foot the bill itself. A recent investigation by the Guardian puts King Charles’s personal fortune at an estimated £1.8 billion, though the full picture of the monarchy’s finances remains largely opaque.
Bob Morris, an honorary senior research associate at the Constitution Unit at University College London, says that the royal family is financed by two primary sources. The first, called the sovereign grant, comes from the Crown Estate, a multi-billion pound real estate portfolio; a percentage of the Crown Estate’s profits are used to pay the royal family for performing its official duties. (This year, that sum came to £86.3 million, or roughly £2.40 per taxpayer.) Their second source of income is made up of revenues from the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estates of the monarch and the heir, respectively.
The reason the cost of the coronation falls on the British state, rather than the royal family, is because “it’s a state event,” Morris says. A coronation isn’t necessary for a monarch to become king or queen—that automatically happens the moment the previous monarch dies. It’s perhaps for this reason that other European monarchies don’t bother with coronations. Still, to ask Britain’s official head of state to pay for their own would simply be “weird,” Fitzwilliams says—something that he warns could ultimately lead to calls for the monarchy to pay for itself. “You couldn’t have a head of state work like that,” he adds.
As unhappy as many Britons may be about the cost, polls suggest that that displeasure doesn’t extend to funding the monarchy writ large. More than half of Britons (54%) believe that the royal family represents good value for money, according to another recent YouGov poll. Proponents of the monarchy are quick to point out the role that the monarchy has in drawing tourism to the U.K., though the exact sum is difficult to quantify. Opponents, however, are unconvinced. “There is no evidence at all to support that tourism comes to Britain because of the monarchy,” Smith says, who argues that for all the people who may be traveling to London for the coronation, there will be just as many who will be leaving because of it.
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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at email@example.com