50 years on, will there ever be another?

Anthony Pickles reflects on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon.

The announcement of the renaming of the Severn Bridge has sparked a fierce debate over the past fortnight. The announcement, to coincide with next year’s 50th anniversary of the Investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon, offers a moment to look back but to consider if there would ever be a repeat.

Back in 1969, Wales was a very different place, politically and socially. A ceremony to mark the coming of age of a young Prince, saw the then Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, preside over events with George Thomas, the Welsh Secretary – a role only five years old at that point. The 1969 ceremony was watched by over 500m people, with 19m of them watching in the UK. For many overseas it would be their first experience of Wales and its language (even if the entire ceremony was made up). As a soft power tool for Wales, it was effective.

Looking back at that time, it’s interesting to consider that a post-war Labour government undertook such a celebration of royalty in a part of the United Kingdom with sensitivities to its place in the story of the British monarchy. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a repeat.

50 years on, the current Prince of Wales is now the longest-served. As a young man he was thrust uncomfortably from an Edwardian-era court into a world being shaped by baby boomers.

The events at Caernarfon in 1969 are almost invisible in Wales today. The story of this prince – whether you are pro or vehemently against – is worthy of note in Wales’ story. For nearly five years, I have campaigned to have the regalia used at the investiture to be placed on public display in Wales (something that has now thankfully been agreed to, although there is no current plan for their display). These ‘crown jewels’ belong to Wales whether they’re used again or not.

Why bother? Quite aside from the clearly anarchic and frankly bizarre elements of a ceremony invented largely by Princess Margaret’s husband, it was a chapter in modern history worthy of note. In the lead up to this event, Charles spent two months preparing at Aberystwyth. His time spent living in Pantycelyn was both a sign of intent, but also a developing acceptance that the crown could no longer be distant from the people of Wales.

When the occasion is marked in July 2019, the issues that will be discussed are almost inevitable. Firstly, there will be questions over the legacy of a Prince of Wales in an age of questioning of established institutions. Secondly, there will be differing views over Charles’ own attributes and legacy over the past half century. Latterly, questions may be asked over whether we will see another investiture again.  

Lord Snowdon, the ‘Great Steward of the Castle’ but more importantly the architect of the ‘69 investiture, said in 2009; “…I’m not sure there will be another one like it, because it was very much of its date. I can’t imagine there were many people who were against it, and I can’t imagine it happening again.”

I suspect Snowdon was right. An event of this scale takes planning and costs not insignificant public money. The more important reason is that the monarchy has changed fundamentally since that time too. Princes William and Harry both reflect their own generations whereas, even at the age of 20, their father didn’t. And for this reason the idea that they would want to be somehow presented to a grateful nation would be anathema to them, let alone to modern Wales.

This said, monarchy is built on tradition, and this tradition evolves with time. Much of modern royal ceremony is an invention of King Edward VII in the early 20th century. Given the global appeal of the younger royals, and an overwhelmingly positive view of them (according to recent polls in Wales and elsewhere) would a Welsh Government/Wales Office view an opportunity in a modern event?

Would not an event, held say in the Senedd, Wales’ parliament and modern voice, with young people and charities appeal? Welsh designers showcasing their manufactures to a global audience worn by globally renowned young royals. An event looking to the now, not to the past. No echoes of fortresses, no utterances of the ‘P’ word. A simple, dignified ceremony to symbolise a modern settlement.

The truth is that any decisions along these lines can only be broached upon the demise of the monarch. Whilst current discussions are whispered around the role of next Head of the Commonwealth in High Commissions in London, and Charles discusses the idea that ‘Defender of the Faith’ (the other title which sits alongside ‘King’) might be changed to just ‘faith’; nobody talks about a future Prince of Wales. Civic society in Wales is at best ambivalent, and whilst the anoraks (certainly me) might discuss these issues, any decision will only be taken if it feels appropriate at a date in the future nobody yet knows.

In the meantime, let’s continue to talk about a motorway bridge….

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Anthony Pickles is former Welsh Conservative Chief of Staff.

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