15 September 2022
Fit for a King
by Paul Branch
Maybe the pressing need to be a central part of the “Goodbye Boris, Hello Liz” show was a bit too much. Our 96 year-old Queen had been visibly slowing down since Prince Philip’s demise last year, maybe from the time of that very poignant and moving spectacle of the elderly lady completely on her own at her husband’s funeral in an atmosphere of pathos and Covid. Should we really have expected her to carry on so diligently in her old age? Although she still certainly deserves the epithet Elizabeth the Great, why on earth didn’t she chuck it all in years ago and pass on the mantle to Charles?
Maybe she wasn’t overly confident in her son’s ability to assume the role of Head of State. Charles didn’t come across as the most confident-looking heir to the throne, even from a young lad with an awkward upbringing at Gordonstoun school and then at Cambridge, particularly in his Footlights Review days and his comedic interplay with The Goons. Family misfortune seemed to accompany him at various stages of his adult development, through his marriage to Diana, his marriage to Camilla, now his Queen Consort but alleged to be the third person in his previous relationship, the ridiculous histrionics displayed openly by his son Harry and daughter-in-law Meghan, and finally the public humiliation of his brother Andrew. Maybe it was episodes like these that fuelled the Queen’s reluctance to step aside – if he couldn’t deal with his own nearest and supposedly dearest, the probability of doing a passable job on matters of State looked quite slim.
As it turns out, and with Papa now long gone and Mama no longer available to him, the first few days of his new life and career have been greeted very favourably. King Charles III has undoubtedly started encouragingly, no doubt benefiting from those long years of waiting, watching, learning, and absorbing the thinking and mannerisms he would eventually need to adopt as Monarch of all he surveys, as well as acquiring confidence in himself that he can do the job when the vacancy arises. It’s said that Charles is the best prepared heir apparent, but the flip side of that is his age and the fact that he doesn’t have a lot of time to make the best use of all he has learned. If he emulates the longevity of his parents, then around 25 years is all he gets before William steps in at the ripe old age of 65. He in turn will be succeeded by young George at a possibly similar mature age …. so barring unfortunate catastrophes we will never get to see a monarch assume the throne at around the same age as did Queen Elizabeth II.
Whilst youth is not necessarily everything, neither is maturity. Charles will need to deal with his politicians on a regular basis, all of whom will be considerably his junior. Liz Truss is 47, no spring chicken but still a generation or two younger; the rest of the cabinet are similar in age. It seems a waste that Charles has his best years behind him when he could have contributed so much more. Is there a case then for setting an age limit on our Sovereigns to ensure they do not unduly exceed their best-by date, and give an opportunity for the heir to step up and provide a different and perhaps better level of service to the nation? Alternatively a modified Regency system might give us the best of both worlds, with Monarch and heir working together until the time comes for one to retire and the other to carry on with a plethora of monarchical experience under their belt.
The situation we now find ourselves in was contemplated in 2014 in the play “King Charles III” written by Mike Bartlett. The Queen dies just before she is to sign off a controversial parliamentary Bill limiting freedom of the press, which the then Prince Charles had strongly opposed. Following his ascension to the throne, King Charles declines to sign the Bill, has a series of profound disagreements with his Prime Minister and cabinet, and ultimately dissolves Parliament. Uproar ensues, even to the extent of his own family trying desperately to turn things around against the King. At the forefront of negotiations with the government are William and Kate, with some background inconsequential inputs from Prince Harry who has established a relationship with an outspoken leftie East ender and decides to relinquish his royal heritage and become a commoner for her sake. Ring any bells? At its conclusion the play sees Parliament do away with the need for Royal Assent, the swift abdication of a discredited Charles, and the enthronement of King William and Queen Catherine. Harry incidentally decides remaining a Royal is the best for him after all, and renounces his girlfriend.
Much of the play centres on the discussions between the King and his government, where opinions were greatly at odds, so it’s interesting to move from fiction back to reality and contemplate how the relationship between Charles and Liz Truss might develop, and the value of the King’s role. On the positive side it’s good to see in Charles considerable sympathy for those caught up in the cost of living crisis. He has already given a taster of his willingness to help by offering to present Balmoral as a gift to the nation, specifically to Scotland. Trying not to imagine his mother spinning in her coffin, this looks a generous but above all it is a very canny idea. Not only does it provide a useful money-earning asset, but it would aim the money directly in the direction of those most likely to leave the Union, in an act of gratuitous English benevolence. So no doubt Liz would warmly welcome such an offering.
On the other hand there are two areas where the weekly discussions at Buckingham Palace may tend to become fractious, the Northern Ireland protocol and climate change, where there is a common link in fellow septuagenarian President Joe Biden. Liz needs Joe on her side to achieve the long-promised trade agreement with the US. But Joe has been quite clear that this won’t happen unless the UK changes its belligerent attitude on the NI Protocol (which could endanger the Good Friday agreement, an important issue for the late Queen) and instead comes to a negotiated settlement with the EU. Regarding climate change, Charles made an impassioned appeal at COP26 in Glasgow last year for all nations to come together to avert global catastrophe, after which he and Joe had a friendly little chat where the President thanked Charles for convincing him that strong concerted action was essential, adding that any success coming out of the conference would be down to his speech. This may well set Joe and Charles on a collision course with Liz, through her new Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg who is now seemingly rowing back on government commitments on net zero. But maybe this is where Liz can make good use of Charles, in trying to find some common ground with his pal Joe on both issues where the US and UK can get just a little bit closer. And if he can help out there, King Charles III will have got off to a really cracking start, with no doubt a smile of approval (and relief) from his mother.