21.11.2022 Author: Seth Ferris

King Charles III – A Tough Job, But He Holds All The Cards

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, and the inevitable accession of King Charles III have raised the usual debates about the future of the British monarchy As it is the job of the monarch to embody in their person the principles and values of their country, and few people living remember a time before Elizabeth II, there are obvious concerns about whether the monarchy will remain relevant with a new person in the job, even though that person is already very familiar .

However any such speculations remain what they have always been: arrant nonsense. The monarchy is not a political issue in the UK. No party has a particular position on the institution, for or against, because its role is not seriously questioned, and there is no widespread movement for abolition, however republican in sympathy, or disapproving of individual royals, some individuals are.

British people may pore over the Royal Family in the gossip columns and be outraged by their marital problems and other indiscretion, which in most cases nobody would even notice or care about if they, happened in any other family. But they don’t blame the royals for their problems – either their politicians, or those of the EU of foreign countries are held responsible, whilst the royals are their friends, protecting them from politicians, however out of touch the monarchy may be perceived to be.

So no matter how much outcry is raised over the expense of state funerals and coronations, Brits will put up with the monarchy. They are also very likely to put up with Charles, having been brought up with him as much as with his mother.

Charles has previously expressed dislike of the public duties he has been performing since a young age, even though there has not been any issue over how he has performed them. Nevertheless, he has finally got the chance to do the job he has been trained for all his life, at the age of 73, and has not run away from it even though he knows that he will have to step away, to some extent, from much of his previous work as Price of Wales.

This is the salient fact about King Charles III. He has done his duty because it is his duty, not because he particularly wants to. However he has also spent his life hoarding up excuses to get out, whether by accident or design.

Charles knows that if he wanted to leave, no one could actually stop him. He has crafted all his own exit doors. As he has accepted the job, this will not affect him doing his duty. But what it will affect is what his duty will ultimately be seen as, however he fulfils it or wishes to present it.

Just Doin’ My Job

Elizabeth II did her job very well, whether or not people agreed it should exist. The outcome of that has been that people have lost sight of what that job actually is.

As a constitutional monarch, the incumbent does not make policies or actively lead a government. If they tried, the government has the levers to abolish them. But they represent what their country is about – the “British way of doing things”.

Therefore the monarch is able to exert all kinds of subtle influence. The UK doesn’t do revolutions or civil conflict, so if government policy is likely to cause it, the monarch advises on alternative ways to pursue that policy. The country also thinks of itself as democratic, fair and decent, based on Christian teaching, so the monarch attempts to promote these virtues by how they conduct themselves, hence the public outrage every time they go wrong.

A well-known example of this was when Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, later King, Abdullah was on an official visit to the UK in 2003. Queen Elizabeth offered him a tour of the grounds of Balmoral Castle, ordered a car for her guests and jumped in and drove them round herself.

The Queen was well over 70 by this time, and women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. So obviously Abdullah was rather nervous. However Elizabeth had been a military mechanic in World War Two and was also an advanced level driver, so she led them round this wild estate expertly, without commenting on this situation.

In the UK women are allowed to drive, are more equal in law than Saudi women are, and elders should be treated with respect, whatever the reality. Without fanfare, she demonstrated what her country was about, and challenged the Crown Prince to complain, and justify his own position.

The monarchy is the prime example of a principle everyone recognises and utilises in everyday life. If a kid gets into trouble, he sends his parents to deal with it because the parents generate more respect, and are thus more likely to be listened to. People write to their MP over issues which concern them, even though that MP has less power to change things than their local councillor, in the hope that the MP’s name and job title will influence things in the way they want – because they represent something higher, which the person causing their problem should aspire to.

King Charles knows this better than anyone. Unlike a president, who is often just getting the hang of the job by the time they are turfed out of it, he has been learning it all his life. He knows what to do and how to do it, and will have identified areas where he can move in different directions to improve the institution without devaluing its positive features.

But first the new king has to reinvent himself, after a lifetime in the pubic eye as Prince Charles, the often unfortunate but hard working and opinionated prince. In that role he developed a personal brand which can be set against what William will now do in the job – people will decide whether William’s performance is better or worse in distinct areas Charles has made his own.

The problem is that much of that brand was bound up with being the prince, not the king. He could act as he did, expressing personal opinions on subjects like architecture and conservation and trying to put them into practice through his patronage, because other aspects of the job were being dealt with by mummy. Now he has to do those parts himself, become more generalist and less partial.

Does King Charles have the scope to put a personal stamp on the monarchy, when it involves giving up the stamp he put on his previous job? If not, this is where his get outs come in.

The How Not The Why   

Most long standing countries no longer have monarchies. The reasons are many and varied, but in many cases it is because the monarch represented something which was no longer relevant to the lives of the population.

Sometimes monarchies are associated with a lost war, and the institution itself must pay the price to restore the pride of a defeated nation. In others they lead a ruling class which has let the people down, and a change of system is seen as the way of redressing grievances.

The last king of Portugal, known as Manuel the Unfortunate, was told on his unexpected accession in 1908, following the assassination of his father the king and his elder brother the heir-apparent, that “Your Highness arrives too young into a very old world”. Admittedly he was told this by one of the small Republican Party, but it was a time in which Portugal had declined from a superpower to a rump state, had been declared bankrupt and had continued in the same way it had in its medieval glory days, with aristocrats vying for power and the population leaving if they could for better lives.

Manuel was always personally popular, the Republican Revolution of 1910 was never embraced with enthusiasm and removing the monarchy did not resolve any of Portugal’s problems. But when that revolution was overthrown by another in 1926, the new and more popular rulers, with all their emphasis on the nation’s traditional values which the republicans had tried to destroy, did not attempt to restore the exiled king.

Poor Manuel, though he might have gained more public favour than any political leader of his time, represented a world which no longer existed. The public wanted the good parts of that world but not its personnel, as the had let the country down before by just going through the motions of the job without promoting what Portugal was, merely what the ruling class were.

King Charles III will be not be what his mother was, but what will he be? The British monarchy has been represented by Elizabeth II for so long that anyone doing the things she used to do will be seen as an actor, pretending to do the job his mother did throughout most living memories.

King Charles won’t create something new and substantial by being what Price Charles was. Unless we rapidly get used to the idea that “the king” means him, he is in danger of losing his way, not through any lack of competence or popularity but because the job will no longer seem relevant if it is all about the formalities, with no apparent higher purpose.

Will Charles have the authority to advise his Prime Ministers, let alone stand up to them when the public rejects their policies? Will he be able to rise above the issues he has long championed, while the public still knows him for his opinions?

If King Charles doesn’t find a way to be both himself and king, he has a son in his forties waiting to take over, who is more of a clean slate. King Charles will not walk away from his duty, or he would have done so by now, but he may eventually feel that, having done the right thing, he may do more for the monarchy by handing those duties to another.

The ways out he has given himself do not need to be there; je could have resolved these issues long ago, had he wanted. The King’s personal hedge fund is there to threaten the nation with if things don’t go his own way, because he knows he would win any such battle, without compromising the monarchy or the integrity of himself or those who would support him.

Any Strikes and I’m Out

King Charles is head of the Church of England, another institution British people of all faiths and none put up with because it is there, without generally feeling it is relevant. It may seem blasphemous to outsiders that the Church of England is run by a secular monarch instead of a religious leader, but it is the way it is done, and that’s what both the monarchy and a state church are about.

Charles is also famously divorced and remarried. According to some Anglicans, but by no means all, this should disqualify him from church membership. It’s his church because he is the king, but if he wants out of being king, the incompatibility of these two roles, and desire to preserve both, can give him the leverage he needs.

The other big question is Orthodoxy. It is known that his father Prince Philip of Greece was obliged to be Anglican in public, but remained Orthodox in private, as his funeral and many donations to Orthodox causes demonstrated.

Charles is also said to be “sincerely interested” in Orthodoxy. So much so that various authors have to point out that it is impossible for him to convert whilst in the Royal Family, as if this is something he has considered, or can be presumed to have done.

As with the marriage issue, Charles could have resolved this by cutting any public ties with Orthodoxy, such as his announced visits to monasteries, and treating it as a personal thing. He has not done so to give him a way out, if it can be said to get in the way of him doing his duty.

The late King Baodouin of Belgium gained a lot of international and domestic respect when he abdicated his throne for a day in 1990 so he would not have to sign a bill about abortion into law. His conscience did not allow him, as an observant Roman Catholic, to assent to that act, even though his parliament, elected by his people, has stated that this law should exist.

King Charles knows that if he handed over the throne for reasons of personal conscience, after a lifetime of expressing opinions on different subjects, he would gain enough public support to make this work. It would gain both him and the monarchy itself further respect, and leave others looking like the bad guys.

Then there is his government. Being king, he will remind his ministers that there are standards of decency and probity in public life, and that the conduct of government, and the policies it adopts, must reflect this.

The government King Charles has inherited wilfully breaks laws and acts against the public interest,  and wears this as a badge of pride. You can’t do that and be a British government. If Charles doesn’t have the guts to sack them, he can try and preserve the monarchy without stain by refusing to work with them, as soon as he feels the public will support him on this.

Maybe they won’t today, but if he can make his mark swiftly he will again win any such argument. Don’t bet against him trying it, and leaving the throne to William if he doesn’t get that disgusting and incompetent heap of moral turpitude to behave.

 Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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