By William W C Scott © 11th May 2023
I watched the coronation on TV for about six hours and was riveted. It brought the country together, the 20 million at least who saw it.
This country has evolved over the centuries. We cut the head off one king and thought better of it. Every monarch since has evolved gradually through the years of empire that were, by and large, a beneficial action educating, leading and inspiring the native peoples absorbed until, when they were ready, the were accorded independence and took their places in the commonwealth, becoming our friends thereafter, knowing they could apply for help and would receive it.
I saw this for myself about 25 years ago, after I had written some articles published in The Herald (one of them a Herald Essay entitled: Redefining God, on 20.7.96). Suddenly, out of the blue, I received a letter from someone in, I think, Trinidad. The man was on death row, he had seen my name in a newspaper and asked me to help him. As I learned later, he had written to everyone he could in search of help.
He was due to face a panel that would decide his fate: execution was likely. Would I send him some clothes? His were badly tattered over the years. He wanted to make a good impression. Of course, I agreed. Having got his details, I collected in shops a shirt, a pair of trousers, a pair of shoes and a tie. I sent off two parcels, only one of which reached him: the other would have been appropriated by the prison warders, who were probably poor themselves. I was also asked for a copy of the lawbook that would have the procedures in a case like his. The current books of law were unavailable: very costly, I realised, not on the library shelves. I found an older version which I took to be the best I could provide. Its pages, I soon found, were uncut. How was I to deal with them? Time was running out. I decided to tear the pages to make them photocopiable. I hated doing it but there seemed no alternative. The book had never been opened, though present on that shelf for many years.
I sent the pile of copies I had made, having poured money into the machine and mailed them the next day. I found out later that a London barrister had been approached by him, had agreed to accept him as a pro bono client and eventually got him off. A year later he was free.
What that taught me was the value of the commonwealth in aiding even convicted criminals on point of execution. The commonwealth, even though that country has left the security of the empire, was still a vital factor in people's lives.
The value of the monarchy, the whole royal family, is in providing for the award of medals to deserving citizens of whom there are very many every year, as well as all the charity work and work for young people that has been such a shining example ever since Philip, Duke of Edinburgh took up that cause over fifty years ago. From all of which we are all of us deeply conscious in our daily lives. The entire country benefits from this facility: the recognition that everyone is of interest and is cared for by the state, far beyond the squabbles of parliament where politicians try to arrange our affairs better than before, assisted by thousands of civil servants.
Thus, we all know our king because we have been watching all his moves all his life. We know about his flying a Chipmunk because he favoured an appointment with the RAF and his parachuting from a plane because he wanted to be qualified in that too. We know about him attending Trinity College, Cambridge, (where the sixth Marquis of Bute went) because he needed to be a scholar of our history, where he graduated at the proper time. (exception was often made in the past for noblemen). Perhaps of all these Prince Philip, his father, was unwise to send him to Gordonstoun because the effect of bullying was unwisely passed over. A son is not as tough as his father, though the latter expects it.
There is a story about Isaac Newton who attended Grantham Grammar, while living with his uncle, an apothecary. Newton was bullied and fought a much larger, older boy and won. Of course this was unusual but Isaac had one of the most original minds ever seen, an advantage, perhaps, that tilted the scales in his favour. Phillip was unwise to suppose that his son would thrive at Gordonstoun.
Charles's difference is intellectual: he is a scholar, in the same way that our current PM is. As William Hague told us in The Times, Rishi Sunak told him he was getting up at 4am the next day to learn about milking cows. 'Why bother?' said William. 'Because one of my constituents does it. I need to see what it feels like. I need to understand his problems.'
Charles has a continual fascination for the great questions of existence along with those which directly impinge upon him: those that tell him how to respond to situations and problems that continually arise on his path. Hence his long friendship with Laurens van der Post, the great South African writer. When I met Laurens at a book launch in Glasgow c1970 I was over-awed. Charles will have read most of his books but would not be over-awed for long: he had too much to gain by the contact. This is why Charles has been educated far better than any king up to this time and is, already, for many reasons, the best king we could have. And because of his natural quest for wisdom, he is never satisfied with himself or even with the answers he receives. This will mean he will continue to strive for all these subjects he has led the world in, like climate change, the construction of the right buildings in the right place, the correct use of every aspect of our natural world and new ones will doubtless occur to him. This monarchy has never had a better king. That is because his parents and their advisors and all the wise men at whose feet he has sat and listened have given him a remarkable knowledge, insight and capacity for further self-improvement which is inevitable.
Apologies for slavery? No one in the 18th century thought there was anything wrong with slavery until the 1780s when Quaker anti-slavery committees first met. Slavery had been practiced for millennia, even by the beloved Greeks and Romans who were read in all the public schools as the chief educational resource, admired by all. People had to be convinced it was wrong. Wilberforce took 24 years to get it abolished but not till 1807.
Why would we imagine that a monarch in the 18th century had committed a wrong by having some connexion with slavery (however tenuous)? At a time when no one thought about it? It was not thought to be wrong until the next century and only after Wilberforce and others had collected the evidence that it was so.
For more than fifty years, I have considered myself to be expendable. That is, if my country calls, I must answer the call. I am a Briton and I am that first, not a Scotsman. I am extremely proud of being a Briton. I think the coronation did much to enable people to see just how proud they are of their country. All the things I ever did were done principally for my country. Teaching mathematics, philosophy and psychology; serving on the Scottish Mathematical Council setting and marking problems for the ablest students in the country (the one chosen from all the teachers in the country); publishing hundreds of articles, papers and letters in journals and newspapers; solving The Bannockburn Problems; explaining the witch craze in Bute; publishing a dozen books on these. As the first of my family to attend universities and become a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I am the only one of my family to understand the achievement. But it was for them too. I may have sold many books but I never made much of a profit at any time. It was a great privilege to solve these problems despite the lack of finance and recognition. I am pro English, pro Welsh, pro Irish as well as pro Scots. I am for the union and delight in the fact that Shakespeare and Newton as well as George Eliot, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Betjeman are my countrymen, (among others) as well as David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell and Burns. Who could not admire the Irish when they play the best rugby in the world and the best golf in Europe? Every one of the countries of the Union has its share of great excellence in which we should all rejoice; and I do often.
And yet many people in this country do not value it as I do. I say that they ought to. They have forgotten their history or never knew it. The British, aided by a few other countries, succeeded in winning the Napoleonic Wars which lasted from the 1790s to 1815, when Wellington led a motley crew and defeated Napoleon for the last time. Then there were the two world wars. The first with Lloyd George in command; the second with Churchill. These wars were fought against forces that seemed invulnerable but were eventually crushed. Winston is thought by many to be the greatest prime minister of all time. His success in leading the country against Hitler [when we were alone! The rest of Europe already conquered] with an army of 3 million and 2,500 planes at the start, when we had barely 338,000 men and 500 planes was a fantastic and totally unexpected achievement. The country was put to work and inspired and the British would not give up, unlike most of the rest of Europe who were soon under Nazi rule. That they were eventually freed is due to that heroic resistance. To know that is to be proud of all that was achieved. To be alive in Britain in 1940 was to know great fear. You saw it in your parents' eyes. A relative flew spitfires, facing hundreds of enemy bombers and fighters at a time in a squadron of a mere dozen. And thousands of young men died within a few days - of sheer inexperience. And yet the war effort of the whole country produced new generations of planes like the Mosquito, the Lancaster; and many came to fight with us from the commonwealth. The British have shown their courage, their mettle, their inventiveness as well as their goodness to every decent people on the planet. To be British is therefore a matter of intense pride and many have joined us because of it.
© William W. C. Scott