Monday, 12 January 2015

King Charles III: A Republican's Dream

by Alex McKirgan

A republican's dream?
"Your Royal Highness", "loyal subjects", "God Save the Queen.....long to reign over us!". 

To modern ears, such feudal language sounds strange but there is no doubting the current high level of support for the British Monarchy. This article is not a debate about the merits or otherwise of the Monarchy. There are many arguments on both sides of the question "Is constitutional monarchy the best system of government for Britain" (see an argument for and an argument against) but this is not the place.

Rather, I will try to look at some of the reasons for the current high level of public support for the monarchy and speculate how these feelings may change when the crown passes to Charles. The first thing to say is that support for the Monarchy fluctuates widely. The most recent example is the aftermath of several Royal divorces in the 1990s and the death of Princess Diana, when support for the institution fell dramatically. The Royal Family were seen as aloof and out of touch. Other examples of a loss of public support are the three year period after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria abandoned public duties and the aftermath of the Abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. So we cannot assume that the current level of support will automatically be sustained in the years ahead.

The main thesis of this article is that the current level of support for the monarchy is actually support for Queen Elizabeth II more than the institution itself. As the Times journalist Matthew
Parris put it "We are more Elizabethans than Monarchists". Not only is the Queen admired as a
person but she is admired for the way she carries out her duties. She is scrupulously careful to
maintain, as far as possible, independence on, and distance from, current political matters. I'm
sure she expresses her opinions in the weekly meetings she has with her Prime Ministers, but the closest she has come to a public position on a political matter was when she said that voters in Scotland "should think very carefully before making a decision" in the Independence referendum. Everyone knows that she had a strong opinion on the matter and must be a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist, but this was the most explicit she could be . . . which was not very much. This also explains her irritation with David Cameron when he let slip the contents of the phone call he made to inform her of the Scottish result.

The Queen's position has been strengthened not only by the successful Gold and Diamond jubilees in 2002 and 2012, but also by masterstrokes like her appearing to parachute out of a plane in the James Bond sketch that was part of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. However, the Queen is 88 years old and, even if she lives to a similar age to her mother (101) and decides not to follow the path of her  European colleagues and abdicate, we will soon be moving in to a different era. If we ignore the tabloid fantasy of the Crown passing directly to Prince William, that means we will move in to the reign of Charles III.

Charles is not like his mother. He is a 66-year-old-man on his second marriage, who has waited all of his life to start his main job. He has left a damaging trail of voicemails and tabloid stories related to the break-up of his marriage, for which he is largely held to blame. With time, these stories could fade away, particularly as he has earned back some public respect by the way he has conducted his second marriage to the Duchess of Cornwall. So, if people form a view on the Monarchy based upon what they think of the incumbent, it will not be these personal dramas that will be at the forefront of people's minds.

As Charles has been waiting to start his main job, he has developed a wide range of interests, from architecture and the environment to faith and alternative medicine. These interests are perfectly valid things for an upper class man in his late middle age to pursue, but he has not been content to follow, discuss and debate these issues within the Royal Palaces. The Guardian newspaper has filed a Freedom of Information request to seek publication of the 'Black Spider Memos' which show the extent to which Prince Charles has lobbied Government Ministers to seek changes to Government policy. A lower court approved the request on the basis that the public was entitled to know when Prince Charles had tried to influence government policy but this was vetoed by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve who said that publication would harm Charles's future role as King.

Whether or not the letters are ever published, the Attorney General's veto proves that Charles has not tried to stay above the fray of current political issues. I am less concerned by the flakiness of some of his views (Homeopathy? Really? Watch the Mitchell and Webb sketch to see what I mean) than the fact that he views direct lobbying of government ministers on matters of current political debate as compatible with his role. Has he learned nothing from his mother? Has he learned nothing from his great uncle, Edward VIII, who got into hot water with the government in the 1930s for expressing political views during the Depression?

This would be less of an issue if he could separate his role as Prince of Wales from his future role as King, but he has recently made it very clear that he intends to pursue a much more active style as monarch. His aides have announced that King Charles III will "reshape the monarch's role" and make "heartfelt interventions". Not only does he know that his style is different to the current monarch, he sees changing her approach as one of his main objectives. While he may keep the support of people who share his views, he will inevitably lose support from people who will no longer see him as "their King" representing the whole nation. The secret of the monarchy is that it has devolved the business of actually governing to elected politicians. The monarchy is seen to have a stabilising and unifying role. Charles's more activist style risks undermining all of this. There is no sign that Charles is sensitive to these risks so the future of the monarchy beyond the current Queen is very uncertain.

If you accept my thesis that much of the support for the Monarchy is actually support for the current Queen rather than the institution, then the transition to Charles represents a real risk. The first place this will be seen is in the "Colonies". In the 1999 referendum in Australia, the Monarchists won 55-45%, but largely because of divisions amongst the republicans on the best form for an Australian Republic. In both Australia and New Zealand, the bedrock of support for the Monarchy is the generation that emigrated there from the UK after the war and not only is this generation a perfect example of Elizabethans rather than perhaps Monarchists, this generation are now in their 70s and 80s and are starting to pass away. I fully expect Australia, New Zealand and Canada to use the occasion of the passing of the crown from Elizabeth to Charles as a catalyst to create a republic. New Zealand's Conservative Prime Minister has already declared that there will be a referendum next year to choose a new flag. Even Conservatives can see a problem having another country's flag in the top left corner of your own.

So, what about Britain? The best chance of maintaining the monarchy would be if Charles attempted to carry on in the manner of his mother. Even this would not be easy but, as his advisers have made clear, this is not his plan. He wants to re-make the monarchy, but I see no chance that the country will embrace an activist, opinionated but unelected Head of State. In the old world of two-party politics, the monarch's main role of inviting a party leader to form a government after each election was a pretty straightforward task. After the election in May, there may be 13 parties represented at Westminster (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, DUP, Alliance, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Respect) and the chance of any party having an overall majority is slim. The Head of State may have a very delicate task to perform in helping to form a new government. Say the Tories are the largest party but short of a majority, the Lib Dems say they won't support the Tories but will support Labour. Who gets the first call: David? Ed? If the first person called can't form a government, how many others do you try before you call another election? Would an activist Charles III have the necessary public support to lead such a process? I doubt it.

All Republicans have to do is sit back and let Charles proceed as planned. The end of over a
thousand years of history may be closer than you think.

See a review, by Dom Baker and Lara Spirit, of the acclaimed stage production, 'Charles III', here.

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