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The mission of King Charles

He has the task of preserving a system that even he knows can no longer be justified

Image: The New European

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of a constitutional monarchy is that the most crucial phase of the new monarch’s professional life comes at such an awful time in their personal life.

King Charles III has spent 73 years waiting for the job he has been told since early childhood he was born to do, to which the rest of his life would be nothing but prologue. He has also known throughout that time this task would only begin with the death of his mother.

That is a tension most of us would find awful for a short time, let alone for seven decades. But it is the fundamental core of hereditary monarchy; in short, it is the deal.

What makes the situation even more difficult is that the period of transition is the moment of greatest risk for both the institution of the monarchy and the monarch themselves. In history, the danger generally came through contested successions.

King Charles will not face military danger from his siblings, children or nephews. Instead, in the modern era, he faces political risk. The world has changed over the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: society is less deferential, it is far more assertive.

The British royal family owns billions in assets – and huge swathes of land – across an almost incomprehensible portfolio. That kind of unaccountable and unearned wealth, with unique laws governing and protecting it, is deeply anachronistic. There is also the subliminal threat that, so long as the crown continues, so does the UK’s unhelpful historical view of itself and its place in the world.

The Queen succeeded in pushing aside such tensions and anachronisms essentially through a particular personal brand, and through her exceptionally long tenure. She served as a symbol of continuity – a constant presence in a changing world – and as a link to what many Britons think of as the country’s “finest hour”, even if the passing of time means that only one in ten of us were actually alive during the second world war.

She embodied the ethos of service through both her time driving trucks for the Wrens in that war and through her long reign. And she had an almost Delphic public image – we know so little about what the Queen actually thought of particular issues that trying to guess through fashion or other choices became a whole industry of its own.

However good his intentions and however effective his strategy for his early reign, King Charles can be none of those things. While he is older than the average Brit, he is not a connection to the wartime era in the way his mother was. He is a new monarch – he cannot change that either.

And while he has vowed to continue his mother’s traditions, serving as an apolitical head of state, we know his opinions on numerous issues, and we cannot erase that.

We might like some or even all of his views on modern architecture, alternative medicine, conservation and environmentalism, but they do serve to make him a more naturally divisive figure than his mother.

As Prince of Wales, Charles was more than willing to let his views be known to governments, and to act as an influence on policy. Those of us who have followed such things closely know the government and Crown were aware of the risks to the monarchy of this being known.

The government fought a years-long legal battle to prevent the disclosure of letters between Charles and ministers (the so-called “black spider memos”). They eventually lost that battle – but many journalists were nonplussed by the correspondence, which turned out to be surprisingly anodyne.

This posed the question: why try so hard to suppress them in the first place?

The danger for King Charles is that, without the incumbency advantages of his mother, people see through the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy to its core unjustifiability. There is no good reason for one person to be Head of State (and a billionaire to boot) simply by accident of birth. His future, and the institution’s future, relies upon retaining the monarchy’s mystique while simultaneously presenting it as the practical option.

The monarchy must appear more likely to keep the UK and its people together than any alternative.

He is not without some advantages on that front. He has obvious, deserved, public sympathy for the circumstances of his elevation. And in his first days as King, Charles has also behaved admirably. Even the hardened republicans and cynics among my own WhatsApp groups, for example, grudgingly acknowledged that King Charles’s first address to the nation hit a very good tone, with many appreciating his apparent effort to reach out to Harry and Meghan.

Perhaps surprisingly, King Charles has an asset too in Camilla. While the Queen Consort was once portrayed as the scarlet woman, she has steadily built up public support and perhaps even admiration.

Given how many of the wider royal family are perceived as grasping, stupid, elitist, or worse (hello Prince Andrew), that the King, his Consort and the Prince of Wales are seen as relatively popular and decent gives the monarchy a chance, at least – as both supporters and opponents of the monarchy would acknowledge.

Charles made perhaps a surprising choice on becoming King – he chose not to change his regnal name. Monarchs are under no obligation to use their birth name as the name they adopt when they become King (or Queen), and Charles had been rumoured for years to be considering elevation as King George VII.

Charles is not a regnal name with the proudest of histories. King Charles I remains the only monarch deposed and then executed by parliament, leading to the (temporary) installation of a republic.

His son, eventually King Charles II, led Scotland and England to war with one another (he was on the Scottish side) and eventually set up the circumstances for his brother to be deposed in an invasion, assisted by his own daughters, after but a short reign.

Perhaps King Charles III is hoping to compete against low historical expectations – perhaps it is not difficult to be the most successful monarch of his name. But as hopes for “third time lucky” go, Charles is playing with high stakes.

Readers of this newspaper will likely be divided as to whether they are rooting for the success or the failure of the new monarch – it is no longer heretical nor beyond reasonable politics to be a republican in the UK. But perhaps he will elicit a little sympathy from all factions, not just for the circumstances of his elevation but also the difficulty of the task he faces. Heavy is the head, indeed.

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Photo: Jane Barlow-WPA 

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