Tomorrow is the big day. Whatever your political affiliation, it is true to say that Americans make a big fuss about installing a new president, and tomorrow is the 57th Presidential Inauguration in America’s history.
This got me thinking about comparisons between the relatively quiet, low key installation of British prime ministers, and the pomp and circumstance around presidential inaugurations, which appear to have more in common with the relatively rare occasion of the coronation of a new British monarch.
The USA’s presidential inaugurations seem to my foreign born eyes to have a lot of showbiz and razzamatazz. Starting with high profile concerts the day before, Inauguration Day itself comprises many smaller ceremonies and traditions from the procession to the capitol, the swearing-in ceremony, a number of balls around Washington, and of course the inaugural address.
In the United Kingdom, most of the pomp and ceremony is generally associated not with government but instead with the royal family, or as we have seen in recent years, the celebration of royal jubilees to celebrate the queen’s 50 and then 60 years on the throne. Because of the history of England and the way that government was established alongside the monarchy over 350 years ago, the installation of a new prime minister tends to be a very unceremonious and workmanlike affair.
The prime minister is the political leader of the United Kingdom and head of the government. So far there have been 15 prime ministers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The official residence of the prime minister of Britain is 10 Downing Street, which is a couple of blocks from Big Ben and the Parliament Building in London. The "PM" is not directly elected; instead, he or she is appointed by the queen after a general election. The leader of the party that secures the most seats in the House of Commons (roughly equivalent to Congress) automatically becomes prime minister and subsequently forms the government. He or she (the British are on their second female prime minister — Teresa May) then just shows up for work and carries on.
When it is time for a general election, which must be within five years of the last one, the prime minister requests an appointment with the queen to ask for permission to dissolve the parliament and the election. This is largely ceremonial and dates back to when the monarch still had real power, and is a quaint British tradition like the fact that the queen still signs laws and opens parliament. However, the last time the monarch refused to sign a law was 1708, and it would be unbelievable today for the queen to refuse to sign a law or agree to her government’s requests.
Britain’s last coronation was in 1953, the year after Queen Elizabeth acceded the throne on the death of her father in 1952. Hers was the fourth of the 20th century and although she is now 90 years old, she remains extremely popular.
The coronation is an occasion for pageantry and celebration, but is also a solemn religious ceremony which has remained essentially the same over a thousand years. For the last 900 years, the ceremony has taken place at Westminster Abbey, London. The service is conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury, and (almost) always has been since the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Upon the death of the reigning king or queen, the coronation of the new sovereign follows a few months of mourning. Present are representatives of Parliament and the Church of England. Prime ministers and leading citizens from the commonwealth and representatives of other countries also attend. During the ceremony, the sovereign takes an oath, promising to rule according to law, to exercise justice with mercy, and to maintain the Church of England. These promises are symbolized by the coronation regalia, more commonly known as the crown jewels. The sovereign is then "anointed, blessed and consecrated" by the archbishop, whilst the sovereign is seated in King Edward’s chair (a throne made in 1300, and used by every sovereign since 1626). After receiving the orb and scepters, the archbishop places St. Edward’s crown on the sovereign’s head. Then comes a countrywide day of parades, and celebrations by millions of people.
God bless America, and the next four years!