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6 February 2024

The ailing King and his public

Charles III is handling his cancer diagnosis as a modern monarch ought to: with transparency. But speculation cannot be stifled.

By Andrew Marr

If there is a case for modern monarchy, it is mass projection. Millions of less-privileged people, often older, often lonelier, live vicariously through it. No great harm is done. They colour and animate their own stories through the unending Windsor family drama.

This is not trivial. The birth of grandchildren, the first steps of toddlers, the marriages, the sibling rifts, even the choices of clothing: for dedicated monarchists, all these can satisfyingly fill in the gaps of lives requiring ornament. So that the monarchy becomes a kind of synthetic family, similar to media celebrities, yet superior because of its complexity, its felt national connection, and because the Royals seem somehow both more immediate and less specific – belonging to no particular team, TV show or locality, but to a whole country.

Stories about illness make this feeling of contact just more intimate. We all know we don’t have a butler or a grand country house, or the obligation to open roundabouts. But we all get ill. Everyone of a certain age can imagine what King Charles is going through now.

In that sense, he is acting as a knowing, modern monarch ought to: by being open about his condition and allowing millions to project their emotion onto him. And again, this can be useful, not trivial: as soon as Charles was admitted to hospital for his benign prostate problem, many men of a certain age quietly took note and called the GP surgery. Some would have had prostate cancer, and will survive as a result of noting what the king had done.

But the big, insoluble problem from the point of view of Buckingham Palace is that having released information that the king has “a form of cancer” in order to, avoid “speculation”, they will now have opened the gates of speculation and encouraged an insatiable desire for yet more information – exactly where, exactly how serious, treated with exactly what therapy? Knowing King Charles’s enthusiasm for alternative medicine, there will emerge a media cottage industry in holistic treatments for cancer. And so forth…

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And there is nothing – nothing – that can be done about that. So long as we know he has cancer, but no more than that, we have no idea whether this is an easy to treat, early-diagnosed, almost mere nothing – and I write as somebody who had kidney cancer, treated entirely successfully overnight and requiring no more than an aspirin the following day – or whether this is a potentially fatal diagnosis. The long and ignoble history of palace dissimulation means that few people will take official missives entirely seriously.

And on that question – something or nothing? – so much else depends. Must Prince William now step up? Should we dust down the 1937 Regency Act? Might people even scrutinise the 1811 Care of the King During his Illness Act? Where, by the way, is Prince Harry in the line of succession, and will this reconcile him with his brother at long last? The answers are probably: yes; no; no, don’t be silly; fifth; and perhaps. But speculation in these matters cannot be stifled and the thirst for yet more information will be insatiable.

None of that is King Charles’s fault, any more than it is his fault that he has become ill; but we live in a voyeuristic, exhibitionistic culture in which, to survive, the British monarchy cannot hide. As I say, there is a place and a purpose for vicarious living; but being at the centre of the hoopla must be beastly.

[See also: The King of suffering]

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