If ever there was a time for stocktaking, reflection – even second thoughts – it would be in the transition from one long reign to the next one. Monarchy doesn’t let this happen. Grief for the Queen is transmuted – by the alchemy of trumpets and Edwardian notions of medieval pageantry – into loyal enthusiasm for the next reign.
The grief is widespread. It is powerful. I shared it. The Queen’s uncomplaining sense of duty and her Christian emphasis on compassion and forgiveness comprised a good model for modern times. She stood in contrast to the selfish behaviour of many elected politicians, and against the self-righteous preening of contemporary celebrity culture.
But we are being carried along rather fast, are we not? Among the church services and the queues of condolence, there seems no space or time for a discussion of constitutional monarchy itself. It would seem – what? Impertinent?
Thus, there is the majority of the country united in grief, represented by the establishment. There are a few puce protesters, waving tiny placards, bellowing their outrage before being bundled off by embarrassed police officers. What is there in between?
“Continuity” is just conservatism in formal clothing. The shift from the Elizabethan to the Caroline reign seems, so far, most unlikely to trigger an upsurge of republicanism. Among the quiet majority, it is not entirely impossible – much depends on how Charles III performs his role – but for the time being, there is an upwelling of sympathy for a man in loss, and a great paroxysm of patriotism. He will have the benefit of any doubts for years to come.
[See also: King Charles is popular – but for how long?]
Charles’s early speeches were well-made and thoughtful. We are told he understands the need for further reform of the monarchy – fewer senior working royals, perhaps fewer palaces. The very first signs of a rapprochement between his warring sons will delight well-wishers.
Many of us who feel uneasy about words such as “liege” and “subject” will discuss our feelings largely with the marmalade jar and the unresponsive newspaper. We all know that the idea of a single God-chosen bloodline standing at the apex of a lively, disputatious democracy is a weird one. But it’s not the time. (It’s never the time.)
Let’s turn to some of the arguments in favour of constitutional monarchy, because they certainly exist. A politically mute head of state provides a gentle anaesthetic in angry times. Seeing rival party leaders clustered together, muttering affably, was almost cheering. Not being led by Donald Trump’s (fictitious) cousin Hector doesn’t seem such a bad idea; if we had a president, I would prefer Alan Bennett or David Attenborough, but they may not be available.
Second, elected leaders, by definition, are turfed out, often quite quickly. A democratic system may lack the retained experience – the detailed recollection of previous failures and successes – that a monarch can offer in private. Everyone says it: the late Queen was a kind of memory stick whose advice helped inexperienced ministers.
At the same time her devotion to the Commonwealth, whether you regard it as a relevant organisation or not, ensured that from an early age she appeared to have less racial prejudice than other public figures of her generation – just look at the pictures of her dancing delightedly with Kwame Nkrumah during her 1961 visit to Ghana, three years before the Civil Rights Act came into force in the US. Full-throttle Enoch Powell race politics had no chance in the Britain of Elizabeth II.
But the third advantage, which is an injection of long-termism into inherently short-term, elections-driven democratic politics, makes me rethink some of what I have written before about the man who is now King Charles. Like many, I’ve always argued that on the throne he must relinquish his previous views and campaigning – conducted in person and by “black spider” letters. His first speeches suggest strongly that he agrees.
It’s a popular argument. We all understand it. In a vigorous democracy, constitutional monarchy is never quite safe and a King who “meddles” in politics would seem to be in particular danger. Indeed, he has views many of us would find outrageous if foisted on an elected government – homeopathic medicine and a hostility to modern architecture, for two.
But on the central question facing mankind, our impact on the natural world, which begins with an interest in soil and builds up to the climate crisis, Charles has been early, and right, to recognise the crisis, and his voice is needed more than ever. To put it bluntly, right-wing ministers thinking about a difficult election in 2024 and with a record of hostility to “green crap” can’t be trusted. A King who feels differently, and who tries to think in centuries rather than electoral cycles, might be the best short-term argument for monarchy of all.
What’s ahead might be more interesting than it seems. Charles is a passionate and thoughtful man who, I imagine, believes that the environment is more important than even the future of the House of Windsor. When he gets his teeth into something, friends of his tell me, he doesn’t let go. Watching the first meetings between him and Liz Truss, I couldn’t help wondering whether she thought her life was about to get just a little more complicated.
[See also: How the Queen changed Britain]
What, finally, of the wider politics? For all our brief national self-congratulation across many areas of public life, Charles’s Britain is broken. He cannot mend it. Only ministers can. Public services are thin and tired after the years of austerity. A stuttering, too-low-growth economy has been hampered by Brexit bureaucracy. From public bodies such as the Passport Office and DVLA to the postal service, privatised utilities and the criminal justice system, there is simply too much that isn’t working. It all needs close, persistent political attention and investment – and now we have radical-right ministers who don’t really believe in the state.
King Charles can’t meddle in those kinds of politics. But he has to recognise the political environment in which he operates. In gentle ways, the monarchy can indicate whose side it is on socially; think of Prince William going out to sell the Big Issue. In hard times a smaller, more self-aware monarchy, perhaps using a reformed honours system to reward only those giving something back rather than those with plenty already, would be prudent.
Keir Starmer will probably get a bit of stick at the Labour conference in Liverpool at the end of September for showing loyal enthusiasm for the new reign. But a patriotic, centre-left movement has a very good chance of winning a proper majority at the next election and then undertaking a huge programme of reform and rebuilding. Starmer is right, in the spirit of 20th-century Labour leaders, to do nothing to jeopardise it.
None of the above is a convincing, let alone slam-dunk, argument for constitutional monarchy. In 2022 we are nowhere near a republican moment. Recent polling by YouGov shows that 62 per cent are in favour of the monarchy – hardly an overwhelming proportion. But the narrowest of gaps is among younger voters, and over the past decade, the numbers have been moving against monarchy.
So, again, it is not safe in a democratic culture. At the very least, this means the King must keep making the case for himself. He must be eloquently relevant. There is no subject more important – not even the war in Ukraine – than the climate crisis. It follows that if a monarch centred the final act of his life on that great cause, while also demonstrating a decent appreciation of how hard life is for millions of his “subjects” (I still don’t like the word), he might have a fighting chance.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession