Charles’ reign will be of a different hue
Royalty comes in colours. The monarch’s crowns are capped in purple; long before William of Orange came the Black Prince; and Philippa Gregory has written about Queens both Red and White. For Charles III, it is green which comes to mind.
He is a man of many causes, but nothing is more central to his personality and purpose than environmentalism. It’s been this way for more than 50 years. He first spoke publicly about the dangers of oil, chemical and air pollution in 1970, a year after his investiture as Prince of Wales and a year before Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were founded. He was only 21. At the time, and for years afterwards, he was widely derided not just as a tree-hugging, plant-conversing crank but a hypocritical one to boot: a man who, when it came to frugality and consumption, manifestly failed to practise what he preached. But preach he continued to do, and much of what he said and warned about has now been vindicated. Ironically for one so tied to an ancient institution like royalty, he turned out to be a man ahead of his time.
He has spoken out against the dumping of sewage in the North Sea, against genetically modified foods, and against the lack of proper flood defences. He has appeared at UN climate change conferences. He has surrounded himself with heavyweight advisers: Natural England chairman Tony Juniper, WWF ambassador and Thames Water advisor Richard Aylard, Sustainable Food Trust founder Patrick Holden. He has written opinion pieces and books, including the 2010 Harmony, in which he said: “If we were on a walk in a forest and found ourselves on the wrong path, then the last thing we would do is carry on walking in the wrong direction. We would instead retrace our steps, go back to where we took the wrong turn, and follow the right path… I cannot stress the point enough: we are travelling along a very wrong road. We desperately need an alternative vision: a future where food production and its distribution will have to all happen more locally to each other and be less dependent, certainly, on aircraft; where the car will become much more subordinated to the needs of the pedestrian; where our economy will have to operate on a far less generous supply of raw materials and natural resources.”
As head of the Church of England Charles is automatically Defender of the Faith, but he has expressed unease at the definite article
This insistence on holistic interconnection, on the need not to see problems in isolation but as part of a greater whole, has been apparent since that very first speech in 1970. “Conservation means being aware of the total environment that we live in,” he said. “It does not mean simply preserving every hedgerow, tree, field or insect in sight, but means thinking rationally and consciously just as much about the urban environment as about the countryside. All too often the architect seems to forget that a town or a street is made up of individual people and families who happen to have been flung together, and usually the designer is never obliged to inhabit the ecological niche he has created for other people. The word ecology implies the relationship of an organism to its environment, and we are just as much an organism as any other animal that is often unfortunate enough to share this earth with us.”
The environment (both natural and built) apart, Charles has two other grand causes, both of which also speak to dislocation of some sort. The first is the plight of disadvantaged young people, of whom he has helped almost a million under the auspices of the Prince’s Trust, founded in 1976 with his severance pay from the Royal Navy. The trust offers not passive dependence on charity but the teaching of skills, marrying the preservation of tradition with innovation and change: Charles as Janus Man, looking at once both forward and back, a tweedy radical. Former Labour minister Chris Mullin described the way Charles “always comes back to the same point. How to widen the horizons of the young, especially the disaffected, the unlucky and even the malign. I confess I am impressed. This is a man who, if he chose, could fritter away his life on idleness and self-indulgence.”
The other is the need for dialogue between and within faiths, particularly in a nation that is much more diverse than the one his mother inherited in 1952. He has visited not just Christian communities but Sikh, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu ones too, has studied both Islam and Judaism in depth, and believes that “the future surely lies in rediscovering the universal truths that dwell at the heart of these [three Abrahamic] religions.” His interest in Islam is controversial in some circles, but he – patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies – is undaunted, describing Islam as “part of our past and our present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.” As head of the Church of England he is automatically Defender of the Faith, but he has expressed unease at the definite article. He has said he wants to be “seen as ‘Defender of Faith’ because I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of The Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.”
These problems are perennial ones, but there are always more urgent things in the short term to deal with, and the situation facing Charles as he begins his reign bears this out in spades. Britain faces a cost-of-living crisis, many of its public services are at or beyond breaking point, and Europe is seeing its most vicious war since 1945. None of these are within Charles’ power to solve – and nor should they be – but they have a marked negative effect on the national mood, and if the monarch must be cognisant of anything, it’s that.
Of the problems which are within Charles’ purview, three stand out. The first is the structure of the Royal Family itself. Charles has often spoken of the need to slim down the monarchy, knowing we will no longer tolerate multitudes of minor royals maintained at public expense. The core family is seen very much as being the direct line of succession: Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, and in time their children. But there is surely room for the monarch’s sister and youngest brother. Princess Anne has long been the hardest-working member of the family: brisk, efficient, down-to-earth and on top of her many briefs. Prince Edward has flown rather under the radar – memories of him quitting the Marines and staging the cringeworthy It’s A Royal Knockout die hard – but he and his wife Sophie also do much unheralded work.
They need to, for the monarchy has already drastically slimmed down over the past few years. The Duke of Edinburgh is dead, Prince Andrew is disgraced, and Prince Harry has departed to California. That’s a lot of patronages to redistribute, a lot of causes and engagements to fulfil. But it’s also an opportunity for change. Charles might, for example, reform the honours system by ensuring that more honours go to extraordinary community work rather than to party donors or civil servants just doing their job, and also by changing the “E” from “empire” to “excellence” (Order of British Excellence, etc).
Charles may also have to deal with the fallout from Harry’s memoirs. Public opinion is firmly divided over which party is more sinned against than sinning, and traditionally the royal way of dealing with these things is to neither complain nor explain. So far, the family have adopted a “more in sorrow than in anger” attitude towards Harry, including the late Queen’s bone-dry “some recollections may vary”, but there might yet be a case for not allowing Harry’s version of events to pass uncontested.
The second immediate issue Charles faces is the Commonwealth, which at times has felt very much like his mother’s personal project. It grew during her reign from seven countries to 56, and its existence was clearly of paramount importance to her. But where the Queen never really publicly confronted the legacies of colonialism, the desires that reparations be made for slavery, or the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Windrush scandal, Charles has expressed his desire to learn and willingness to engage on these issues. It’s not a given that the Commonwealth will disintegrate now the Queen has gone, as evidenced by the fact that countries such as Gabon, Mozambique, Rwanda and Togo, which have no colonial nor historic ties to Britain, have sought membership. But it seems certain that some members with the British monarch as their head of state will seek to become republics, having held off until now out of personal respect for the Queen.
The worst thing Charles could do is to treat such moves as a slight. My maternal grandfather Laurence Lindo was a Jamaican diplomat who served for eleven years as the country’s first High Commissioner in London after independence in 1962. A great admirer of the Queen, both professionally and personally, and a staunch advocate of the Commonwealth, he was also a proud nationalist who believed in fairness (he gave substantial support to the Bristol bus boycotters a year into his tenure.) If he were alive today I have no doubt he’d feel that Jamaica should be a republic if that was the will of its people, 60 years on.
Finally, there is the question of the union itself. Charles will desperately want to avoid the break-up of the United Kingdom on his watch. Though this would clearly involve public decisions following political processes – a referendum on Scottish independence, a move to reunify the island of Ireland – it would feel like failure to a man who believes passionately in the unity of his kingdom. It was no accident he visited Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff in the days following his mother’s death.
There are two parts to the phrase “United Kingdom”, and “kingdom” can be no more taken for granted than “united”. Charles himself is currently reasonably popular – a YouGov/Times poll taken in the aftermath of the Queen’s death showed that three-quarters thought he provided good leadership at a difficult time, and three in five expected him to be a good king. But there were two caveats: his elder son and daughter-in-law are markedly more popular still, and he polls relatively badly among younger people, who might be influenced by the unsympathetic way he’s been portrayed in TV shows and films such as The Crown and Spencer.
The crown must be viable as an institution rather than just a personage, however: it cannot stand or fall purely on the quality of the incumbent. And if the ten days or so of national mourning showed anything, it was that monarchy has an irrational, paradoxical, even mystical appeal. In being profoundly unrepresentative, it somehow manages to be quintessentially representative: to embody a nation, a people, a spirit; to be a repository of values we hold dear and hold them close come what may. The Windsors are in essence an ordinary family: they are not intellectual titans, musical prodigies or sporting gods. They contain within their ranks the conscientious, the selfish, the industrious, the wayward, the generous, the egocentric, the resilient and the manipulative. They are therefore no different from a million other families, any of whom could be plucked from obscurity, plonked down in palaces and afforded an extensive support network, and who’d make a perfectly decent fist of it. That’s the point.
To be the monarch is to be an individual exemplar of communal solidarity. As Charles de Gaulle told the late Queen: “be who you are, Madam. I mean be that person around whom, thanks to your legitimacy, everything in your kingdom is organised, around whom your people see their patrie and whose presence and dignity contribute to national unity.” He was right, of course. The monarch is a symbol of balance and centrism. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale or Trumpist Republicanism becoming major political forces here, and the existence of the monarch reflects this distaste for extremism.
Lord Waldegrave tells a revealing story of the time he met Krzysztof Skubiszewski, the first foreign minister of free post-communist Poland, on the day of a State Opening of Parliament in the early 1990s. “Outside there was the noise of the preparation of the great procession when the monarch, escorted by the Household Cavalry, travels in the royal coach from Buckingham Palace to Parliament. There were bands playing, commands shouted, the clash of arms coming to the Present. It became clear to me that my Polish colleague wanted to watch the parade rather than to talk to me. So we put our papers aside and stood by the window and watched. He turned to me, this hero of anti-communist resistance who had helped free his country, and said: ‘Minister, what we are watching matters. The communists robbed us of our rituals.’”
So, with all this in mind, what kind of king will Charles be? A shorter-reigned one than his mother, of course. The Queen had four jubilees – silver, gold, diamond and platinum. Charles would be 98 by the time even the first of those came around. This could, of course, magnify his desire to make his mark: if not quite to move fast and break things in the mould of Dominic Cummings, then certainly to push the parameters of his role in effecting what he can.
He is well aware of the need to be less outspoken now he is king: “I’m not that stupid. I do realise it’s a separate exercise being sovereign. The idea that somehow I’m going to carry on exactly in the same way is complete nonsense.” But nor will he give up on causes he holds dear. As Walter Bagehot said, the sovereign has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. The monarch must be apolitical, but by definition he is not non-political, not when he enjoys a weekly audience with the prime minister. He is disinterested, but not uninterested (he could also do worse than reintroduce the death penalty for those who use the former to mean the latter.) Charles, as the oldest man ever to accede, can boast half a century of experience and institutional memory. In these respects, it doesn’t matter that he’s unelected. Ministers consult unelected officials all the time: what else are civil servants and special advisers? So long as it’s elected officials who make policy and set laws, and do so subject to proper scrutiny and oversight, then executive and legislative requirements have been fulfilled.
Charles will inevitably be compared to his mother, no matter what he does or doesn’t do. She was the Alex Ferguson of monarchy, and he does not want to be David Moyes
Charles will inevitably be compared to his mother, no matter what he does or doesn’t do. She was the Alex Ferguson of monarchy, and he does not want to be David Moyes. Most of us have only ever known one sovereign, and she reflected many of the ways we like to see ourselves: stoic, uncomplaining, solid, reserved, benevolently good-humoured. But these are not the totality of British character, if such a thing exists. Charles appeals to other aspects within us. He’s more nakedly emotional in public, more obviously curious about the world, more tactile, more impatient, more approachable, and certainly more eccentric. These are not bad things, not at all.
There is one problematic area of comparison that is not in Charles’ power to change: he’s a man. Barring tragedy, the next two monarchs will be kings too, and between them should take us to the end of the century. It is, with apologies to the Weather Girls, reigning men. But so much of the role of the constitutional monarch involves traditionally feminine qualities. Women tend to adopt a more transformational or relational approach to leadership, which means building trust, alleviating fears and calm management. Men are more likely to adopt a transactional or command-and-control style of leadership, where decisions are made quickly in consultation with relatively few people. As the royal historian Robert Lacey has said, “rightly or wrongly, men are traditionally supposed to have firm and decisive opinions and actions, and that is not really appropriate in a man who has absolutely no power.”
Maybe powerless, but not pointless. A slimmed-down monarchy should not and does not mean a less visible one. The Queen, with her “I have to be seen to be believed”, knew this better than anybody. Visibility lends legitimacy, and we in general like and are proud of the fact that our monarchy isn’t a low-key, Scandinavian-style bicycling one. It’s no accident that republicanism was perhaps at its highest not after the death of Diana in 1997 but of Prince Albert in 1861, after which a grief-stricken Queen Victoria largely disappeared from public view for more than a decade. An invisible monarch soon becomes an untenable one, and it took Benjamin Disraeli, the arch-seducer, persuader and flatterer, to bring her out of her funk and back onto stage. Striking the right balance here will be crucial to the success of Charles’ reign.
Perhaps the single best thing we can all do to help is not compare Charles to his mother. Monarchy is a story we tell ourselves, and like all stories there are parts which are true and parts which are less so. But it is also the story of an individual as much as a nation. Elizabeth really only had two acts, the young princess and the queen. Charles has already had three – the passionate but awkward young prince, the unhappily married middle-aged man, and the contented, greying second husband. Now it’s his fourth act. We must accept he will do things his own way and try to assess him on his own merits. Remember one of the most poignant pieces of succession symbolism: that when a new monarch takes the throne, the royal profile on coins is switched to face the opposite direction. Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss.
Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now