By Nels Abbey
First Puublished: Sun 7 May 2023 17.23
Is this as ‘diverse’ as Britain gets?
Perhaps it’s naive to expect equality from the family in the diamond hats – but a bit more inclusivity would be nice
When it comes to diversity and anti-racism, the coronation was a perfect metaphor for where Britain is today.
The gospel choir, the Blackest moment of any coronation, crystallised this perfectly. The choir was amazing: proud in presentation, visually grand, groomed to perfection and perfectly choreographed. But there was one issue: it was not gospel music being performed. There was no soul, it wasn’t particularly moving and in terms of the actual singing, it was about as Black as Cliff Richard.
If the group had been allowed to perform a true gospel throwdown – think Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond or even a Jason Nicholson-Porter set – the people in Westminster Abbey would have been on their feet clapping along. They would feel it, not just hear it. It would have been something truly new and refreshing – a change to what we consider the norm in worship in the Church of England. It would be diversity doing what diversity is meant to do. What we had instead was a group of excellent Black singers swaying to a hymn.
This is what I call Johnsonian diversity: a continuation of Boris Johnson’s legacy and his approach to diversity when in power. The former prime minister presided over the systemic divorcing of diversity from equality – the replacing of actual root-and-branch change and enhancement, especially for minorities, with meaningless symbolism. Johnson steamrolled once unthinkable changes in political diversity – his cabinet was unbelievably diverse. Yet it could not have been less progressive; some would say it was alarmingly regressive. And the source of the regression was often the very people who were supposed to symbolise racial diversity and therefore progression towards equality. Rishi Sunak owes his premiership to Johnsonian diversity. The symbolism of a Sunak is where the change stops. Everything else remains the same – at best. Thanks to Johnson, diversity has gone from a poison to the status quo, to the ideal condiment.
The great Floella Benjamin hailed her inclusion in the coronation as proof that “the king embraces diversity”. In reality, Benjamin’s role in the ceremony – carrying the sceptre with dove through the abbey – was more of a testament to the brilliance, perseverance and achievements of the Windrush generation. Benjamin was made a life peer in 2010 after working for decades to earn all the respect that is due to her. I would argue that the king had proved his own commitment long before the coronation. From the work of the Prince’s Trust to condemning the “appalling” Rwanda migrant scheme, Charles has done quite a bit to condemn racism and enhance diversity.
‘Perhaps the most honest commentator of the day.’ Bridgerton star Adjoa Andoh. Photograph: Piers Allardyce/Rex/Shutterstock
Nevertheless, the argument that diversity – like charity – starts at home is difficult to rebut. In this regard, there was a discernible 5ft 6in-sized hole at the coronation. And in a unique perversion of science and societal norms, that hole managed to cast a shadow over the entire event. The absence of the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, said more about the coronation, the nation and our media than any of its effortfully diverse elements.
Perhaps the most honest commentator of the day was the Bridgerton star Adjoa Andoh, who correctly pointed out the glaring lack of diversity during the era-defining money shot on the balcony. “We’ve gone from the rich diversity of the abbey to a terribly white balcony,” she said. “I was very struck by that. I am also looking at those younger generations and thinking: ‘What are the nuances that they will inhabit as they grow?’”
Andoh was right, and her bravery must be saluted. The balcony was neither a symbolic reflection of modern Britain nor an actual reflection of the modern royal family. Never has the presence of Meghan, Archie, Lilibet and Harry been more missed. It was an own goal for brand Britain, and a seeming victory for those voices that oppose diversity and anti-racism.
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Nevertheless, many found Andoh’s glaring observation too hot to handle, and we were back on familiar ground – back on Johnsonian terrain – tearing chunks out of each other on social media and in the papers (but rarely in real life). No enlightenment, just engagement. No light, just heat. Most importantly: no substantive change, just clicks.
Of course, in an age when British nurses – who are disproportionately people of colour (especially women) – are reliant on food banks to survive, a £250m (by some accounts) medieval party that culminates in a man and women having diamond-encrusted hats placed on their head while sitting on the “stone of destiny” is a strange reflection of national priorities.
No one expected a Louverture-style revolution to break out at the coronation, and perhaps it is laughably naive to expect anti-racism and equality to be offshoots of a ceremony so rooted in the antithesis of both concepts. But, having newly discovered its commitment to “diversity” at the highest level, it would be nice if Britain would understand the meaning of fairness, inclusion and equality, too.
Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and former banker, and the author of Think Like a White Man