Queen Elizabeth II left this mortal coil without the British people having the faintest idea what she thought about any of the most relevant political and social issues to unfold during her reign. Conversely, Charles III was warning against climate change before most of us had even taken it on board. He was also flagging up the U.K.’s economic and social inequalities just as the neoliberal Thatcher era was busy sweeping them under the carpet.
The 74-year-old, who this Saturday will be crowned in Westminster Abbey at an age when most of us expect to be enjoying retirement, knows that his period on the throne, to be known as the Carolean age, will be far shorter than his mother’s. Perhaps on account of this, he comes armed with a no-time-to-lose agenda shaped by convictions that have been maturing over decades while at the same time understanding, in his own peculiar way, the institutional neutrality expected of the Crown, as we have seen over the past seven months.
“His mother came to the throne as a popular, pretty young princess, in an age of deference, when no one questioned the status quo,” wrote Penny Junor in the Daily Mail — Junor being the first biographer to defend Charles when Lady Di’s death made him the villain of the story. “Seventy years on, he is a grizzled grandfather and times and attitudes have changed. He needs to make monarchy be seen to work in today’s utilitarian, egalitarian and transparent world, and to safeguard for the future the institution to which his beloved mother devoted her life.”
Eight days after the death of Elizabeth II, Charles III received 30 religious leaders at Buckingham Palace from various faiths that coexist in the United Kingdom today. “I have always thought Britain as a community of communities,” he told them. “That has led me to understand that the Sovereign has an additional duty… It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.”
The coronation ceremony will be the consecration of Charles III as supreme leader of the Anglican Protestant Church of England and Wales. But a monarch who has spent hours reading religious and spiritual texts aspires to turn that church into an umbrella organization that welcomes followers of all faiths in the U.K. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of Britons who identified themselves as Christians in 2021 was less than half the population, at 46.2% for the first time in history. This Saturday’s liturgy at Westminster Abbey is part of a thousand-year-old tradition, but the new monarch faces the challenge of being the religious leader of the country in broader terms.
A minimalized monarchy
During Elizabeth II’s reign, when her son took over more and more royal duties, there was speculation that his purpose was to reduce the size of the British monarchy, to make it function like the Nordic model with a similar number of active members. It has never been an officially declared purpose, but events have indicated this to be the case.
In recent years, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle have declared war on the institution and severed ties by going into exile in the U.S. The King’s brother, Prince Andrew, has been ostracized for his ill-advised relationship with American pedophile tycoon Jeffrey Epstein. Neither his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, nor his daughters Beatrice and Eugenie now participate in official events on behalf of the crown. Charles III has even gone so far as to move his brother out of the Royal Lodge at Windsor and into the more modest Frogmore Cottage, Harry and Meghan’s former residence.
It’s a case of needs must, and the new king and his entourage know that keeping the spectacle of the British monarchy alive requires all hands on deck. “Well, I think the ‘slimmed down’ [version] was said in a day when there were a few more people around,” said Princess Anne, who holds the record for attendance at public events with 400, and in 2022 attended 214 against Charles’ 181. “It doesn’t sound like a good idea from where I’m standing, I would say. I’m not quite sure what else we can do.”
Ties to the European continent
Had it not been for the fact that President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform had inflamed the streets of Paris, Charles III’s first task would have been to start repairing bridges with the French damaged by Brexit. Still, he traveled to Berlin, and the Germans could appreciate his command of their language during his speech in the Bundestag German Parliament: “In the long and exceptional history of our two countries, many chapters remain to be written,” the monarch said, in a clear signal that he aspired to write his own.
In a sense, he began to do so when he agreed to meet with European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, last February, just after London and Brussels signed an agreement ending hostilities over Northern Ireland’s situation in the post-Brexit era. To the irritation of Euroskeptics, Charles III accepted the request of U.K. Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and pitched in with the reconciliation effort.
“Charles has devoted much of his life to engaging with controversial positions,” said historian Piers Brendon, an expert on the Windsors. “His views, particularly in the field of architecture and environmental advocacy, have been considered by many people to be controversial to say the least.”
But while the King is busy rolling his sleeves up, he fully understands his constitutional role: “I’m not that stupid,” he told the BBC four years ago when it was suggested he might be an “activist” or “meddling” king. Just as he helped Sunak with Brussels, he bowed to the wishes of the previous prime minister, Liz Truss, and did not attend the Climate Summit in Egypt last November, even though it is a matter he is clearly passionate about.
Colonialism and slavery
Now, adding to the republican tensions in Australia or Canada, where Charles III is head of state, he is faced with similar pressure in Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Solomon Islands, where a majority of citizens, according to the latest survey funded by billionaire politician and sociologist Michael Ashcroft, would prefer to renounce the monarchy, as Barbados did in 2021.
“For republicans, the objection to the Crown is not that it stops them doing what they want but that it feels irrelevant to their country and their allegiance to it seems an anachronism,” explained Lord Ashcroft in the Daily Mail. But much of that sentiment also derives from current perceptions of The Firm’s colonial past and links to the slave trade. For the first time in history, Charles III has allowed access to the institution’s archives so that the murkier elements of its history can be allowed to come to light.
As in many other matters, the new tenant of Buckingham Palace conveys the feeling that there is much to put right, and not much time to do so.
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