Tragedians sense how the reign of King Charles III will play out. In Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, the new monarch (played by the uncanny Tim Pigott-Smith) meddles in politics and loses his crown to his son William, who says: “This is a job/You should have got it right/And you did not”. In To Play the King, a Charles-like king (Michael Kitchen) does it again. The writers of both dramas imagine Charles’s duality – his self-loathing and self-love – meeting in calamity, at least for monarchists. For these writers his fatal flaw is movement. He cannot be. He must do.
Are they right? It has been leaked that Charles opposes the government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. What decent human being doesn’t? (Clarence House refuses to comment on reports that the heir to the throne called the policy “appalling”, so it is likely true.) It is also true that, despite his almost 64-year apprenticeship – he is the longest-serving Prince of Wales in history – Charles does not understand the job as monarchists understand it. A monarch is not meant to be a human being with human feelings: the stamp and the coin are true representations of what is expected. They are images of a god, and gods cannot choose between mortal things and remain gods.
The flaw of monarchy, long-forgotten under Elizabeth II’s polished silence, is that not everyone is temperamentally suited to it. Edward VIII wasn’t, and his government pushed him off his throne. (A Freudian would say that is exactly what he wanted.) Elizabeth is suited because she is serious, secure and without hubris. She did not know she would be queen when she was a child, and her mother was the star in that family. She knows who she is, and who she can be. She creates unity by saying nothing: everyone can agree on the merits of silence. That – and her seeming reluctance – is her skill. We each design our personal Elizabeth II, and she agrees with us.
People practise Kremlinology: they try to guess what Elizabeth II thinks. As Theresa May designed her Brexit deal, the Queen said: “As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view.” This was analysed as meaning she is pro-Brexit. Or maybe anti-Brexit. We don’t know. Before the Scottish referendum she told a woman standing outside a Scottish church: “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” It was analysed as meaning she is pro-Union. Or maybe anti-Union. We don’t know. We don’t even know if she thinks she should be queen, and that dream is plausible too: the writer Sue Townsend had her living ecstatically in a council house, while Alan Bennett made her a scatty female intellectual with a gift for nosing out spies. The Daily Mirror called her “a secret radical leftie” when she wondered who was coming to Cop26. “Still don’t know who’s coming, no idea” was their evidence, and it was flimsy. She has a talent for misdirection. We are admiring smoke.
Charles has none of these gifts of concealment because he is not secure or immune to flattery, and nor is he self-aware. “What is wrong with everyone nowadays?” he once asked, with glorious irony. “Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?” I wonder if he thinks that he is stupid (his father’s voice inside?), because he is keen to prove that he is not. He is notorious for his minor political interventions. In 2015 his “black spider” memos to ministers (named for his handwriting) were released under freedom of information rules. They explained his views on GM crops, architecture and the countryside, sometimes with laughable phrasing. He wrote to Tony Blair, passing on the view of one Cumbrian farmer: “If we, as a group, were black or gay we would not be victimised or picked on.”
He has the potential – the vanity and the idealism – to do much more. Mark Bolland, his former deputy private secretary, said: “The prince’s very definite aim… was to influence opinion… He often referred to himself as a ‘dissident’ working against the prevailing political consensus. He was never party-political, but to argue that he was not political was difficult… These letters were not merely routine and non-controversial… but written at times in extreme terms… containing his views on political matters and individual politicians at home and abroad and on international issues.”
Bolland said that in 1999 Charles refused to attend a banquet at the Chinese embassy in London during President Jiang Zemin’s state visit, then had his snub leaked to the press. He was reportedly “delighted” with the results. His biographer Robert Jobson was told by a “close source” for the biography Charles at Seventy: Thoughts, Hopes & Dreams: “He will want a seat at the table, not just to be briefed or rubber-stamping the decisions after they are taken.” Jobson summarises his intent: “Charles will continue to lead as he always has: from the front.”
But there are others at the front: elected others. One of Tony Blair’s aides reportedly told a journalist: “Whatever view you take about GM crops, it is the declared policy of the government of the day to continue testing them. Yet the heir to the throne goes around proclaiming them the devil’s work. If he goes on like that, sooner or later there will be real constitutional trouble.”
Leftists may yearn for a “progressive” king, but he will be a rocket in the sky. He won’t last long. I have always sensed that support for the monarchy is an inch thick and a mile wide: if it ceases to please us, we will toss it out. Does Charles understand that if we know rather than imagine him, he has the potential to displease us? That an alliance with progressives will not last, because it is ridiculous? He is safer in smoke.