Charles, the fifteenth-century Duke of Burgundy, might have become a king were it not for his impetuousness. Indeed, his nickname le Téméraire translates as “the Reckless”, but – whether because of our perennially poor linguistic skills or our equally enduring desire to wind up the French – he’s remembered in English as “Charles the Bold”.
Our own King Charles drew ire during his long internship, for what some saw as both impetuous and impertinent interventions in affairs of state. His “black spider” memos to ministers, on a range of subjects from genetically modified foods to military requisitioning, upset both Conservative and Labour administrations. On his accession to the throne last month, many commentators expressed the view that Charles would need to quit his “meddling”, and the King himself conceded he’d no longer be able to give such issues the same support (see Simon Heffer, King and PM may lock green horns).
Charles can do more than quietly cajole his prime minister. He has the means to embody national solidarity in the face of planetary degradation and climate chaos
But it would be a shame if Charles was cowed into adopting his mother’s mode of regal insouciance and did not use his authority, as per Walter Bagehot, to “be consulted… to encourage… to warn” those who govern in his name, especially regarding issues he cares about most – planetary degradation and climate chaos. It’s worth reflecting on the role the royals – including our late Queen – played during WWII. At that time, the world faced an existential threat in the form of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. If you want to know how that parallel universe might have worked out, read Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle (or see the 2015 TV adaptation).
The Royal Family, with their public and military service, their speeches and visible presence, came to represent the core values and steadfastness of our nation under fire. It’s nonsense to say their engagement was not “political”. It was the ultimate unifying political role – one that could not be embodied by a single elected representative (although Churchill came close), but that was reflected in the wartime cross-party government. The importance of the royals’ role was underlined when the former King Edward VIII, whose Nazi sympathies stood in stark contrast to the political consensus, was shipped off to the Bahamas to avoid any hint of compromise.
Now we, along with the rest of the world, face a subtler but no less formidable threat in the form of climate chaos. Just recently, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the lack of action to phase out fossil fuels is seeing emissions return to pre-pandemic levels and accelerating global heating. And we don’t need statistics to tell us what we can see and experience for ourselves: heatwaves, fires, and floods of unprecedented scale and ferocity. Climate chaos can no longer be seen as a partisan concept. In the US president’s words, it represents “an existential threat to humanity” and requires a united stand. Cometh the hour, cometh the King. As Boris Starling points out (Green King), Charles has been on this (war)path for longer than most. What better figurehead to represent the convictions of this nation (and the 53 other nations of the Commonwealth) at a time when sacrifices might have to be made?
To those who say that publicly representing our resilience in this way would be contrary to his constitutional role – well, phooey. This is beyond political posturing. The need to act is as urgent now as it was in 1939. And Charles can do so much more than quietly cajoling his prime minister. He has tools at his disposal that allow him to embody national solidarity in the face of this threat. The honours system for one. Another namesake, Charles II, restored the monarchy after escaping his parliamentary foes by hiding in an oak. Perhaps King Charles III might outwit the Rees-Mogglodytes and other climate-change appeasers and fossil-fuel sympathisers at Westminster (who might well include the current prime minister) by instituting a new Order of the Oak, to honour and encourage those committed to the restoration of the planet.
And if that’s unconstitutional, let us celebrate the adaptability of our unwritten constitution, which allows it to evolve as needed without provoking riots (see Gavin Esler’s conversation with Sir Anthony Seldon). Charles has already exceeded the biblical three-score-years and ten, becoming sovereign aged 73, and has no hope of matching his mother’s record. But the relatively limited time the King will have on the throne is matched precisely by the deadline humanity has been given to get its house in order. Hopefully it will be long enough for him to earn his place in history as King Charles the Bold.
Peter Phelps, Editor