The annual slot for the monarch is always short but, in his inaugural address, King Charles shortened it further. Opening with a choral rendition of the national anthem was a sung way of saying “I am the King now” which might seem like a rather unconfident claim to make but was clearly intended to anchor the new monarchy in the tradition that sustained the old.
The problem in drafting this speech was balance. It was imperative for the King to pay tribute to his recently departed mother, not to mention his father, but he would not want the whole speech to look backwards, even in fondness. The need to pivot to the present and the future derived in part from the requirement of the monarchy to renew and in part from the desire of the King to get a few things said.
This, then, became the focus of the speech. Of all the many issues on which the former prince of Wales has been previously voluble, which one would he choose to broadcast to the nation? Would he treat us to a disquisition on traditional architecture, on climate change or complementary medicines? Would there be a glimpse of a more activist monarch, in clear distinction from the practice of his mother whose perennial themes – family, the Commonwealth tradition – never betrayed anything resembling a provocative view?
In point of fact, and contrary to the worst expectations, King Charles is smarter than that. He seems to know that he has to put behind him the days in which he would routinely write complaining letters to government ministers. These days he can greet departing prime ministers every few weeks with a drily delivered “oh dear” but he has no call to intervene in their affairs.
This was what he did here. He referenced his mother’s belief in both God and the people of England and wrapped himself in the latter. This helped to establish the unprovocative conflict of the speech – our preference for the everlasting light over the dark – he praised “the selfless dedication of the armed forces, the health and social care profession and our teachers” in an extended tribute to “all those who so generously give”.
As he referenced the living standards crisis (“this time of great anxiety and hardship”), one was reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s complaint that “the Queen is the kind of woman who could vote Social Democratic”. (During the coalition years, David Cameron was struck by the overlap between Charles’s favoured policies and those of the Liberal Democrats.)
All that remained was the second of the two musical bookends, to pick up the reference of everlasting light that structured the speech. After an account of the King’s visit to the Church of the Nativity, O Little Town of Bethlehem played us out. This linked the late Queen’s belief in everlasting light with the ecumenical message that the King has been waiting decades to impart. Here, finally, was the point. This was a speech that went out to the synagogues, the temples, the mosques and the gurdwaras, as well as the churches.
As the music played to the credits, the parade of images of the family featured, along with the King and the Queen Consort, the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Anne and Prince Edward but not Harry and not Meghan. The most important speech the King could deliver at the moment remains a private one.
[See also: A history of snowfall in the UK]