News from Nowhere: The Hollow Crown
Charles III is the oldest person to have taken the British crown, meaning the country has already come to know its new monarch very well, both his better and his worse points.
There were a few minor reports of overreactions from some members of security staff in response to a handful of impromptu, non-violent, and wholly legitimate protests, as the proclamations of the new monarch’s reign rolled out across the land. It was nonetheless a strikingly smooth and peaceful transfer of constitutional authority.
Even among the nation’s staunchest republicans – indeed, even among the new king’s perennial detractors – it was generally conceded that, in the days immediately following his accession to the throne earlier this month, the dignity, sincerity and integrity of King Charles III’s conduct did his mother proud.
The Scottish journalist Ayesha Hazarika has commented that the reason for the extraordinary public outpouring of grief at the Queen’s death and gratitude for her life was a broad respect for her enduring fidelity to her pledge to serve her people, and the contrast between her quiet constancy over seventy years and the fickle world of contemporary politics in which ‘nobody ever keeps a promise’.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury said at her funeral, while ‘people of loving service are rare in any walk of love, leaders of loving service are still rarer’. He added (rather archly, considering his audience of prime ministers and presidents) that ‘those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privilege are forgotten’.
This was why so many British people were willing to queue in the cold for up to twenty-four hours to pay their respects as her body lay in state at Westminster.
There was therefore real optimism in the general response to the new king’s pledges, revisited in appearances across the UK’s four nations in the immediate wake of his mother’s death, to follow her ‘inspiring example’ of ‘selfless duty’ and to serve his subjects with ‘loyalty, respect and love’.
It of course helped that, to begin with at least, there was relatively little of that sense of entitled peevishness and pomposity which has sometimes characterized his behaviour and for which he has often been criticized or caricatured.
At 73 years old, he is the oldest person to have taken the British crown, and that has meant that the country has already come to know its new monarch very well, both his better and his worse points, his virtues and his vices – warts and all.
There was a mildly embarrassing moment when he displayed irritation at the presence of a case of pens that had been placed on the table during the signing ceremony at the formal confirmation of his accession.
But this petty petulance was overshadowed by the generosity of spirit, humanity and humility he had demonstrated both in his first address to the nation and when he chose to step from his car and greet in person the well-wishers outside Buckingham Palace as he first arrived at his new London home in his capacity as its king.
A few days later, however, he lost his temper again, this time with a leaking pen, at a ceremony in Northern Ireland. As one BBC correspondent suggested, this second incident presented an ‘unhappy comparison with the calm cool patience which the Queen showed throughout her life’.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, and, as footage of the tetchy monarch whirrs its way around the world, his encounters with those ‘bloody’ writing implements may yet damage the nascent reputation of a brand-new king, resurrecting his former image as a churlish man-child spoiled by indulgence and neglect.
It is nevertheless very much to be hoped that his more magnanimous actions over the past weeks will come to epitomise the behaviour of the new monarch, a man once reviled for his infidelity to his late wife, a man repeatedly reported to have interfered in public and political affairs, a man rumoured to be so absurdly privileged that he had a servant whose duties included the task of depositing his toothpaste onto his toothbrush for him.
As Prince of Wales, Charles had irritated many with his old-fashioned views on architecture and his accompanying condemnation of innovative designs as carbuncles on the face of the nation’s fair cities. But he had also led the way with his environmental concerns, years before such beliefs were popular.
He has continued to champion organic methods of sustainable agriculture and to support global efforts to combat climate change. At the same time, he has for almost half a century run a charity that has given nearly a million young people opportunities to improve their lives through education, training, employment, volunteering, and entrepreneurship.
King Charles has made it clear that his new constitutional responsibilities will make it impossible for him to continue to commit his time and influence to those causes to which he is so deeply committed. The monarch must be above the world of politics, and he must be seen to be so.
His own elder son and heir Prince William clearly shares his father’s passions in these areas and seems likely to progress King Charles’s work in some form, until the time comes for him to ascend to the throne.
There are those who have for years asked why Charles couldn’t simply have stuck with his own interests and stood aside for his rather more popular son to take his place. However, that somewhat misses the point of monarchy.
If Charles had abdicated in favour of William merely because his people prefer his son, then the country would in effect have abandoned a hereditary monarchy for something closer to a presidential democracy. It would have negated the principle that the sovereign should function beyond the realm of electoral politics.
As the comedian Andy Zaltzman observed this month, although the British monarchy is fundamentally undemocratic, opinion polls have consistently shown that any referendum on its future would overwhelmingly vote to keep it.
Followers of Noam Chomsky would suppose that this popular consent may have been manufactured by the machinations of the mass media, but that would not explain why the sovereign presence, although profoundly rooted in the establishment, has so often recently served as a counterpoint to the dominant dogma of the day, and to the opportunistic hypocrisies of those in positions of power.
If monarchy offers any constitutional value – and there are many who would argue that it does not – then it is to present a public moral ideal that might check the ideological excesses and self-serving ambitions of certain politicians and their parties.
This was why it was so revealing that, in her most memorable contribution to her own platinum jubilee celebrations earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth II chose to make a short film in which she had a conversation about marmalade sandwiches with a computer-animated talking bear, an iconic character from British children’s fiction called Paddington.
As that scene’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce has recently commented, this was such a clever and a nuanced choice because Paddington Bear has come to embody the values of kindness, tolerance, and selflessness which in recent years have sometimes seemed lacking at the heart of government in the UK. To celebrate her landmark anniversary in the company of an emblem of the virtues of generosity, gentleness and multiculturalism was a surprisingly political thing for an apolitical monarch to do.
This may give King Charles the precedent for an extraordinary opportunity. Support for the nation’s disadvantaged youth should not be seen as a political act. The struggle against global warming ought to be above the cut and thrust of party politics. These are surely areas in which this new monarch could lead the nation and offer an example to the world. As the United States’ climate envoy John Kerry has suggested, the new sovereign now has the ability to ‘leverage’ action ‘on a global basis’.
Yet Britain has a new Prime Minister whose rhetoric and policies have opposed the redistribution of economic opportunities across social schisms, regional divisions and the barriers of class and age. She has also appointed as her Business Secretary (whose remit now encompasses energy strategy) a man who believes that the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves should be prioritized over renewable power production.
Under any other government, King Charles III’s progressive beliefs might be seen as politically neutral, uncontentious, and self-evident. In today’s Britain, however, they appear controversial, and even, for some, symptomatic of a countercultural radicalism.
This is the challenge facing the new King. He must walk a constitutional tightrope which will allow him to maintain the integrity of his role, a position requiring his independence and detachment from party politics, and simultaneously to play his part in supporting a nation and a planet in crisis. It is a balancing act which, as his mother knew, requires an almost superhuman degree of patience and subtlety, and which may in the end prove impossible to achieve.
But that’s the nature of the job, the lifelong responsibility he has accepted. It is a burden which the monarch must shoulder, an intractable problem she or he must endeavour to solve, or anyway eventually die trying.
It remains of course to be seen whether this curious figure can rise to his task, as we live through these days of extraordinarily historic moment, and how he may be judged when, in years to come, future historians relive a thousand times over, with the gift of hindsight, each moment of these turbulent days.
For every little triumph – such as his surprise walkabout thanking those queuing hours to see his mother’s coffin – there are so many potential pitfalls and gaffes – such as the decision to invite the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to his mother’s funeral.
But there is at least one area in which Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor may wield a small but significant measure of influence. By tradition, companies which provide goods or services to the royal household may be granted permission to advertise that they hold a warrant of appointment as a supplier to His Majesty. It seems highly likely that King Charles will raise the bar on the criteria for ethical and environmentally friendly sourcing, production and practices already required to qualify for the right to use this prestigious hallmark.
Alternatively, all sentimentality aside, he could choose to use the £15 billion property portfolio he’s just inherited to really do some good. Or at least agree to waive his legal exemption from paying inheritance tax on it.
At a time in which millions of his subjects are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes, this might constitute a fitting gesture from a man who now wears a ceremonial hat encrusted with five rubies, eleven emeralds, seventeen sapphires, 273 pearls and 2,868 diamonds.
After all, this month the billionaire owner of a Californian fashion label transferred the ownership of his company to an environmental charity, and, earlier this year, the founder of Microsoft donated $20 billion to his philanthropic fund. There is no reason why an idealistic new monarch couldn’t make a similar move.
Such an act might at the very least set a moral example that could cast shame upon an incoming government which seems eager to loosen regulations upon financial industries and whose policies to mitigate the worst impacts of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis have been projected by economists at the Resolution Foundation thinktank as offering twice as much financial support to the super-rich as to the poorest of the poor.
Under such circumstances, social justice really seems, now more than ever, like something worth fighting for. It might even be worth a crown.