It's passed down by bloodline, and Charles has publicly vowed to a life of service. But is a rather un-beloved old white man with a complicated past the right royal for this moment? Even if a monarchy is undemocratic by design, popular opinion matters today more than ever. Just look at the Spanish monarchy.
Grappling with the loss of its Queen, Britain is simultaneously embarking on a rapid process of transition — and that begins with a face and few key words. Postage stamps, speeches, national anthems: all of it will change visage and verbiage from Queen to King, Her Majesty to His Majesty, as Elizabeth’s son Charles III takes power.
But these differences are just scratching the surface of potentially far deeper changes afoot, and a looming sense of trepidation only being whispered about, as the nation joins together to try to assure a smooth transition of royal power.
Yet there are questions that will only grow louder: Will the aging son pale in comparison to his mother’s lifelong standard? How far has society evolved since Elizabeth took the crown in 1952? Will Charles' past as prince come back to haunt him?
Put a tad more bluntly: How long will his reign last?
Witty, poised and perennial, Queen Elizabeth II was a beloved figurehead for the nation, guiding her people from a comfortable distance through seven decades of turmoil and jubilation. Even as arguably the best-known public figure on the planet, the Queen had a remarkable knack for keeping to herself — just enough. Her interactions with the public were limited, camera appearances carefully orchestrated; and when she did speak up, it tended to be just enough to keep her subjects and the world paying attention, without drawing negative attention.
Shaky popularity in the past
Through it all, Elizabeth boasted record approval ratings through nearly every year of her reign, more well-liked by the public than virtually any other royal family member, past or present.
King Charles had his ups and downs in popularity as a prince. Having been in the public eye his whole life, the King is in no way new to the whims of publicity, good or bad. His marriage to his first wife, Princess Diana, was a high moment. His infidelity and subsequent divorce — and Lady Di’s subsequent tragic death — was the lowest of the low. The nation and the world seemed to put up a wall against the then Prince Charles and his old flame and new wife, Camilla, one that has never really come down.
Will he do and say the right things?
Now that he has the top job, the question of Charles’ popularity, and the public’s perception of the royal family as a whole, is no longer personal. It’s political.
In light of the Palace’s cruel treatment of Meghan Markle, reports of racially insensitive comments by a senior royal seem to suggest that the UK's culture of passive-aggressive racism may run rampant through the royal family. This is inevitably linked in the public consciousness to Britain’s history of colonialism that led to a string of nations fighting for independence from the crown.
Crowd of mourners in London on Sept. 14
Identity politics, internet traps
While Elizabeth’s death is serving as an opportunity to reexamine the colonial past, as some nations of the Commonwealth may begin to consider an end to the historic ties, Charles will be forced to handle the challenges in a more direct way than his mother.
Will he do and say the right things? Will anything from his past emerge that could trigger a backlash? Is the internet era a trap for an old school monarch? Either way, it now falls on a privileged 73-year-old white man to navigate the terrain of so-called “identity politics” that continues to take root in Britain and beyond.
By definition, a constitutional monarchy is a paradox. It is understood that the monarchs are removed from direct political influence or legislative power. Even so, in her 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth accumulated some less tangible power through the reigns of 15 different British prime ministers, and more than 150 prime ministers of the other Commonwealth realms. Any uttered opinion she did have on political matters would have impact, which was part of why they were so rare.
King Charles’ views are far more public than his mother’s: As Prince of Wales, he was active in promoting causes and sharing opinions on a range of topics including climate change, London architecture and even a more slimmed-down monarchy. But he was aware that this would have to change after becoming King. “Clearly I won’t be able to do the same things I’ve done as heir,” he said in a 2018 BBC interview, adding he would not involve himself in political issues as sovereign as he was “not that stupid.”
Still, it is not clear if he can suddenly turn neutral. The greatest risk in fact could come from the camps (notably ecologists) he has supported in the past and who may not accept him staying silent as king.
The passage of the crown is a reminder how important the monarchy is to the British people — feeding everything from national unity to the tourism economy. But it is also a reminder that it all has been held together over the past 70 years by the Queen.
Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee stamp
Archives New Zealand
For the media, both inside the UK and internationally, King Charles is a new story, and a new opportunity to reopen old questions. Amid the general public’s distaste for extreme privilege, The New York Times published an exposé four days after Charles took the throne outlining tax breaks and exorbitant personal wealth, at a time when Britain faced major budget cuts, soaring levels of poverty and the use of food banks almost doubling, painting the picture of a King grossly out of touch with his people.
Could the King be persuaded, or even forced to abdicate?
Yet perhaps even more to the point is another aspect of Charles’ privilege: his sense of privilege. Just in his first week as King, new videos have emerged of him chastising staff and letting loose an outburst about the pen he was given to sign documents. Likability may be the most important quality of any modern monarch hoping to maintain the good will of his subjects.
Any one of these factors — from his past to his politics to his manners — (or some combination of them all) could cause the storyline to quickly turn against Charles. Should the public deem the new King unfit to rule, could he be persuaded, or even forced to abdicate? The sense of duty, if we are to believe royal rhetoric, would require it for the good of the monarchy.
Spain offers a relatively recent example of a King forced from his throne, as Juan Carlos' slow fall from grace in the public's eye led him to step down eight years ago, passing his title to his son, the crowned prince. The current Spanish King Felipe VI has a glamorous wife and beloved children whom the nation enjoys watching grow up. He also doesn’t have his father’s baggage to carry.
Sound familiar...? King William V has a rather pleasant ring to it.
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