His Kingdom has finally come, but how will Charles III manage it? An arch monarchist from the English shires, an Irish nationalist steeped in Fenian history, or an Australian frustrated by lack of progress towards a republic were all agreed this week on one thing – Queen Elizabeth II will be a hard act to follow.
Rupert Murdoch’s The Times headlined Monday’s funeral in London as the grandest the world has seen. Certainly, there will never have been more world leaders gathered in one place of worship before. The millions who viewed this extraordinary event on the BBC witnessed a television masterpiece. It was perhaps the best live television I have ever seen. The secret of success with live broadcasts is the essential mixture of careful planning, technical skill, experienced journalism, and a brilliant director. Cameras and microphones must be in the right place and set at the right angle. The director must instinctively select the right shot – one of many – for the video stream. The reporter must choose their words carefully, and sparingly. Commentators Huw Edwards and David Dimbleby were superb, providing well-chosen short sentences just when they were needed.
The lessons were read with dignified feeling by Lady Scotland, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and Liz Truss, UK prime minister. Prayers designed to suit all faiths were led by clerics from every denomination. The Archbishop of Canterbury said in his sermon that the grief felt by the Queen’s family, in Britain and worldwide, arose from her “abundance of life and loving service” following the pledge she made on her 21st birthday. Justin Welby said, “Rarely has a promise been so well kept. Few leaders receive the outpouring of love that we have seen.”
King Charles III made the same pledge not once but four times in the capitals of the four nations of the United Kingdom in the frenetic days between the Queen’s death on 8 September and her burial on the 19th. With his wife Camilla, Queen Consort, the King attended church services, made speeches, and greeted cheering crowds in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff, following his formal accession in London.
Charles, now 73, has spent more than half a century in preparation for his role as head of state of the United Kingdom and a number of Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. He is head of the Commonwealth and Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith.
The King knows what’s involved in his new role. In a moving first public address as monarch he made a promise: “As the Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.” The King went on to say that wherever people lived in the world or whatever their background or faith, “I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love.”
So where does this leave the British monarchy for this and future generations? On talk radio from Melbourne to Manhattan and from Sydney to Southend, there is no shortage of opinions. The ABC suggested that younger Australians would prefer William and Catherine rather than Charles and Camilla, though a prominent opinion poll thought otherwise.
The King’s first speech provided some clues on the future. Just as his mother did, Charles sees himself on the throne for life. He is not looking to abdicate and hand over to William. Though country walks and gardening may have replaced polo as his recreation of choice, those concerned about his fitness for the role would do well to remember that King Charles is almost a decade younger than Joe Biden.
We are unlikely to see another female British monarch for at least half a century. Charles is unlikely to chalk up half the years of service that Queen Elizabeth served. Prince William’s firstborn, Prince George, now aged 9, may be waiting in the wings until the 2070s before he is crowned king. The irony is that before he was born the British Parliament passed a law providing that the first born of a monarch – not the first male child – should succeed regardless of sex.
Charles said in his first speech to the nation, “It will no longer be possible to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.” Much has been made of this in the media. Queen Elizabeth II established a reputation for listening but not expressing opinions or speaking out on contentious issues. A rare exception, reported in The Sunday Times and featured in an episode of the TV series The Crown, was her criticism of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to back a Commonwealth leaders’ otherwise unanimous vote condemning South Africa’s apartheid policies. The golden rule for a constitutional monarch is to leave politics to the politicians, keeping on top of the many briefs in the daily red boxes and by holding a weekly audience with the prime minister. King Charles has promised to do the same – in short, to keep his trap shut.
This will be no easy task. He has strong views on a wide variety of subjects, including climate change and the environment, the preservation of the countryside, foxhunting, the state of Britain’s National Health Service, and modern architecture. He even had built a whole town, Poundbury in Dorset, with buildings, streets, and squares modelled on period British architecture.
I think Charles will rein in his often controversial opinions out of respect for his mother and in a sense of duty, but from time to time he will find it hard to hide his irritation or his point of view. Undoubtedly, he will continue to remind people that he sees himself as the defender of all faiths, not just the Church of England. In a 1994 television documentary, he questioned the impulse to prioritise one interpretation of the divine over another.
It’s probable that King Charles will prioritise this multi-faith focus as well as the so-called three C’s – the need for action on climate change, the Commonwealth of Nations, and conservation of the countryside – over other issues. With each one, he may find himself more in tune with Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese of Australia and Justin Trudeau of Canada than with Liz Truss, the new incumbent of 10 Downing Street. Expect him also to gradually slim down the monarchy and its estates in Britain. By the time Prince William ascends to the throne, the monarchy will likely have a very different look.
Colin Chapman FAIIA is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was president of AIIA New South Wales. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He has held executive positions at the BBC and Financial Times.
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