King Charles and the future of the monarchy
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Just over a week into the new reign and the British have been getting the hang of singing “God Save the King” for the first time in 70 years.
Senior barristers with the title Queen’s Counsel have been instantly transmuted from QC to KC. It is again polite to use the King’s English, and not to breach the King’s peace especially when travelling on the King’s highway. And Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End will follow its own tradition of switching genders, as it did in 1837, 1901 and 1952. Such are the pleasing little quirks that arise from having a constitutional monarchy.
We need to savour all this because there is unlikely to be any reversion in the lifetime of any current adult. The witches in Macbeth conjure up apparitions to torment the villain with a line of eight kings, all of them evidently descended from the murdered Banquo. Charles’s line already has two putative kings — his son William and his grandson George. Not a queen to reign in sight.
This has happened even though the law was changed nine years ago to fit with modern thinking and make the line of succession gender-blind. If George’s sister Charlotte had arrived first she would have had precedence. This was not true for Queen Elizabeth II. If her father George VI had ever fathered a legitimate son, she would have been immediately bumped.
Yet if the notion of kingship is currently a novelty, it is also in a sense obsolete. Ancient kings won power, respect and gratitude through their skill in battle. By the 18th century, when George II insisted on leading his troops into battle against the French at Dettingen in 1743, there was betting in the London coffee houses on whether the silly middle-aged fool would get himself killed. No king has tried that since, though the tradition of military service has continued and royal males are the only men in Britain still effectively conscripted.
It remains a useful way to instil manly virtues into pampered princes. But one of the great changes in Britain under Elizabeth II has been national demilitarisation. The armed forces comprised 872,000 personnel in 1952; the figure is now below 150,000, not even matching the much-derided electorate of Conservative party members who made Liz Truss prime minister.
“Monarchy is no longer about the clash of steel,” says the constitutional expert Lord (Peter) Hennessy. “It’s a welfare monarchy. It’s about the clink of scissors cutting the ribbon at the opening of some new National Health facility. About perking up people who need perking up. And the whole family is good at that.”
Nonetheless, these are nurturing skills, traditionally associated with women, and there is other evidence close at hand that they can be valuable in a head of state. The Republic of Ireland’s presidency was dominated by superannuated male politicians before Mary Robinson — sparky, charismatic and progressive — was elected in 1990, to be followed by Mary McAleese, who came from a similar mould. They transformed the office and did wonders for Ireland’s international image.
It is true that one of the late Queen’s lesser-known attributes was the traditional male one of courage. On several occasions she swept aside the concerns of courtiers and ministers and went to countries they thought potentially unsafe. As her namesake Elizabeth I is said to have told the troops setting sail to fight the Armada: “I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
In his first week, King Charles III has displayed more signs of public impatience, usually involving pens, than his mother did in the average decade. One must make allowances. He is 73, suddenly facing the greatest challenge of his lifetime immediately after the death of his mother, enduring an unspeakably exhausting week under the critical gaze of the public and media. And he has had to deal with the relatives in varying degrees of disgrace or estrangement, even adjudicating about what uniforms Princes Andrew and Harry are allowed to wear when. (At most British funerals in the 2020s, no one cares whether men even wear a tie.)
One trusts he will be granted a lie-in on Tuesday morning, when the immediate ceremonial is over. Later will come his coronation, presumably next summer. But all that is the easy bit. In addition to the daily crises on the desk of his equally neophyte prime minister, the United Kingdom faces an existential threat not seen since 1940, and that is very much the King’s business.
First there is Scotland’s longstanding restlessness, which, if it is finally translated into independence, is likely to be conducted with icy civility if not much goodwill. But the sleeping dragon of Northern Ireland is also stirring. This is not just about the Protocol, the document Boris Johnson signed (but probably never read) in an attempt to allow Brexit to happen without restoring a full-blown frontier in Ireland.
Imminent census figures will reveal whether the Catholic population of Northern Ireland has finally overtaken the Protestants, thus creating the possibility of a referendum on the province joining a united Ireland. There are many possible outcomes from that, including a return to violence.
An independent Scotland would probably keep the monarchy — the people who lined the roadsides this week were the sort who always vote. But a united Ireland emphatically would not. And anyway, Scotland would become a separate realm. Charles’s main title would be “King of England and Wales”, pending the possibility of the Welsh flouncing off as well, and it would all be a pretty miserable legacy for him to pass on to William.
Far away, the 14 other independent nations who maintain the monarch as head of state are flirting with change. Barbados, an improbable trendsetter in such matters, defected to republicanism last year. Charles gamely attended that ceremony and wished them well. Jamaica and Antigua are expected to follow, a product of the attention now being devoted to Britain’s record on slavery.
What used to be called “the white dominions” — Canada, Australia and New Zealand — are being more cautious. All three have left-of-centre governments and an increasingly heterogeneous population without ties to Britain. But — even in Australia, where republicanism is strong and to an extent bipartisan — leaders are happy to let sleeping dogs lie, sensing distraction, high political risk and little gain.
Neither Australia nor New Zealand can even find a consensus on a way of removing the Union Jack from their flags. Canada successfully adopted the maple leaf nearly 60 years ago, but there the republican flame burns almost as feebly as it has in Britain. One Canadian journalist told me of a republican meeting he attended in Toronto a few years back, which drew a crowd of four.
This is not through massive bow-and-curtsy zest for the monarchy. But for one thing, the Canadian constitution is very difficult to amend and any discussion of the subject would create all sorts of troublesome issues. Both the long-quiescent Québécois and the increasingly assertive indigenous peoples would want to impose their own priorities. And keeping the King has a special appeal to the Canadians’ fragile national ego, perpetually attenuated by its overbearing neighbour. As Stephen Bates, author of Royalty Inc, puts it: “The monarchy is one thing the Americans don’t have.”
But even in Britain the antis now have the moment for which they have waited almost as long as Charles. Graham Smith, head of the campaign group Republic, says: “We paused for a couple of days but we have picked up thousands of pounds in new funds and a lot of engagement on social media.
“It’s partly because of the baggage Charles brings, but mainly because he isn’t the Queen, the heat shield that deflected all criticism,” says Smith. “People did get outraged if you said something bad about her.”
Republic commissioned a YouGov poll in May, showing that the longstanding 70-plus per cent approval of the monarchy had dropped to 60. That was before the excitement of the platinum jubilee and of course the events of this black September. Early signs show these could work in favour of the monarchy. YouGov reported that this week 44 per cent of their respondents had admitted to crying or welling up in response to the Queen’s death. That meant a small majority for the dry-eyes, but it is a startling figure nonetheless in a nation once notorious for its stiff upper lip.
In his first moments of grief, the new king made an outstanding impression, touching all the right buttons in turn. It made a strong contrast to the new prime minister, who sounded like a sixth-former addressing a school assembly after a quick flick through Eulogies for Dummies. To be fair, Charles had a lot more time to prepare.
He does have a longstanding capacity for screwing up. Faced with an almost infinite choice of marital partners, he made the most disastrous choice imaginable in Diana, without even having the excuse that he loved her. The consequences of their sensational break-up in the 1990s left a stain that faded after her death but never vanished.
Charles has always come across as formal, awkward, even anachronistic, as though older than his own mother: his enthusiasms are not those of his people, and his too freely expressed past opinions may yet impede his ability to follow his constitutional duty to “counsel, encourage and warn” his ministers as effectively as his mother did, with her studious public neutrality and her mastery of the raised eyebrow. There have long been stories about his sense of entitlement. And even this week, the office that ran his affairs as prince managed to disgrace itself by sending out redundancy notices to the staff in the midst of the Edinburgh thanksgiving service on Monday.
Against that, he is intelligent, diligent, altruistic, idealistic, concerned. And everything suggests that his second marriage is a triumph. Camilla, human and humorous, has been welcomed into the family firm with that all-purpose British compliment: “a good egg”, perceived as an excellent antidote to her husband’s stuffiness.
He still has to cope with the wayward family members — Andrew, with the taint of sexual allegations, and Harry and Meghan, who sometimes have given the impression of becoming republicans themselves. But one must remember that part of the British royal family’s success is as the world’s longest-running soap opera. With the proviso that the entertainment should never deflect from the faux-sanctity that surrounds the throne, part of royalty’s job is not to be boring.
Constitutional monarchy, muses Lord Hennessy, is like cricket. “It may look bonkers, but it just happens to work.”
It is no coincidence that Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands — four countries long admired for their stable governance — operate on similar principles to Britain. After the Nazis occupied Copenhagen, King Christian X rode his horse, alone, round the city regularly as a signal to his people not to despair. In the 1970s it was King Juan Carlos who led Spain back to democracy after General Franco’s dictatorship.
Britain is an outlier in that it has no document that can be described as a written constitution. It thus depends on what Hennessy christens “good chap theory”, in which the monarch and the prime minister understand the boundaries of their authority and behave accordingly. He believes that has been under stress since Brexit and especially under the corner-cutting regime run by Boris Johnson. He is confident that Charles, after history’s longest apprenticeship, is so steeped in the niceties of all this that he will not fail. Indeed, we all know pretty much everything about him — a little too much when it comes to some aspects of his sex life. This would not be the same with an elected president.
“If you couldn’t regard the decency of the head of state as a given, the royal prerogative would have to be given a precise status,” says Hennessy. “To make it work would take several lifetimes. But we know that’s not going to be necessary with Charles.”
Dire though Britain’s financial and political situation might be, its fundamental constitutional system is regenerating before our eyes. Look at the US, where a megalomaniac ex-president has turned himself into an idolatrous cult, the legislature has largely seized up and the Supreme Court has mutated into a group dominated by political hacks-cum-biblical scholars, seeking 18th-century scriptural justifications for the outcome they prefer.
An elected but essentially powerless president? Who in Britain would qualify for that? Some much-loved figure off the telly, unversed in the political arts, without the credibility to act as arbiter of last resort? Or one of yesterday’s politicians — Tony Blair or John Major — who would always be distrusted by at least half the nation?
The monarchy may never again work as well as it did under Elizabeth II. But it is the best hope of continuing to provide dignity, stability and a sense of self-worth to whatever remains of the United Kingdom, as well as flummery, gossip and entertainment. So God Save the King, and the line of kings scheduled to see out the century.
Matthew Engel’s book ‘The Reign: Life in Elizabeth’s Britain — Part 1: The Way It Was, 1952-1979’ will be published by Atlantic Books on October 6
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