Prime Minister Liz Truss stood outside the door of 10 Downing Street and announced the accession of King Charles III. It is a sentence that could not have been written, a sentence that was hardly even contemplated, a week ago. But all things change. Even Queen Elizabeth II who had been, as Keir Starmer remarked (channeling TS Eliot), for so long “the still point of the turning world”.
Stillness was the hallmark of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The instant tributes struggled to set out what the Queen had done and said to make her time remarkable, because her core appeal was precisely the opposite. It was what Queen Elizabeth did not do and did not say that distinguished her. In a raucous time, she reigned quietly. Saying little, rarely speaking in public, offering no running commentary on events, she became a screen on which people could project whatever image of the nation they wanted but which had, in truth, passed away.
This is why the monarch is the only subject on which politicians can agree. The statements put out by Truss, by Starmer, by Boris Johnson, by Tony Blair and by John Major were, in effect, all the same. David Gauke made the point in this magazine: “She was inscrutable about her own opinions; she just wanted the best for her country. It was so refreshing.”
Refreshing, certainly, but impossible to emulate. Inscrutability, silence, refraining from a point of view. These qualities are a disqualification rather than a virtue in politics and, to the extent that our progress as a nation actually depends on democratic politicians sorting out problems, the great respect for the monarchy is, at the same time, a measure of our disillusionment with politics.
The commentary is already repeating itself because the abiding appeal of the Queen was simple and easy to state. She was the constant in a world that changed around her, and she was able to satisfy so many people precisely because she offered no public opinion. She could therefore be the one person who could stand as a symbol of the hope that the best might happen. Those writers who blithely ask why politicians cannot be more like the Queen ignore the fact that it is written into their very status as politicians that they cannot.
We may now have a King who dramatises the difference by refusing to acknowledge it. If King Charles III reigns as monarch in a way that recalls his tenure as the Prince of Wales then the silent compact of monarchy established by his mother will be broken. It has been difficult enough to have a Prince of Wales well known for his views on traditionalist architecture and climate change, who is keen to engage ministers of the Crown in exchanges of letters – but it will stretch the idea of monarchy if he were to carry on doing so.
[See also: What happens now Queen Elizabeth II has died?]
In all probability, King Charles III is smart enough to understand that a period of inscrutability on his part will be required. He will now become a popular figure – in the arithmetical sense – purely by becoming King. The trick of the monarchy – and a hard one to pull off, though Queen Elizabeth made it look easy – was first identified by Tom Nairn in The Enchanted Glass (1988): to be both ordinary and extraordinary, at the same time. The Queen seemed like us even while, obviously and objectively, she was not remotely like any of us.
The question that confronts King Charles III is whether he can find his own way to be relevantly and cleverly silent. His mother took to the throne before rationing had been lifted. In the year she became Queen it was still not legal for a woman to take out a mortgage in her own name. Through the prosperity and the consumer revolution of the 1950s, the birth of popular culture in the 1960s, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the industrial unrest of the 1980s, the Queen was simply there. The remarkable fact that the Queen met every Labour prime minister there has ever been – including Ramsay MacDonald as a young girl – shows that Elizabeth II was the hardy perennial of British life. She dominated the 20th century in the way Victoria had dominated the 19th.
Though Elizabeth and her consort Philip did not reform the practice of monarchy as thoroughly as had Victoria and Albert – largely because the monarchy had by 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen, passed from powerful to ceremonial – the monarchy prospered. In a time in which most of the nation’s institutions – the political and business classes and the free press – have all lost people’s trust, the monarchy has withstood the ill winds. There have, of course, been moments of difficulty – the death of Princess Diana in August 1997 threatened to create a rupture between the monarchy and the nation, the sexual abuse allegations against Prince Andrew, the accusations levelled by Meghan Markle that the royal family harbours racists – but the monarchy retains a level of popular trust of which politicians can merely dream.
Her death marks the second act of a national realignment, the first of which was the UK’s departure from the European Union. Historical periods rarely obey the strict discipline of the calendar and the long 20th century in Britain will surely be said to come to an end in 2022. The death of such a long-serving monarch leaves a nation unsure of its place in the world, governed by its fourth prime minister in just over six years. It leaves a nation that cannot be sure that the country in which the Queen has just died will remain part of the Union for much longer. The symbolic power of monarchy has been strong under Queen Elizabeth II and with her death the question is raised about whether it will persist under her successor. But as long as she lived she recognised that power. As she once said to a courtier, in a phrase that reveals both wit and wisdom, “I have to be seen to be believed.”