King Charles III has views and passions, but his first job is to reform the monarchy’s image – The Guardian

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He will be a very different monarch to his mother. He should use that to his and the nation’s advantage
King Charles intends to reign – he would say serve – precisely as did his mother. His entire life has been spent in the shadow of her performance, and he has been tutored at every turn in the role of the occupant of the throne. He knows that the nation has regarded the Queen as the apotheosis of constitutional monarchy. His is unlikely to be a long reign, and he will not want to betray his mother’s legacy.
At that point, any similarity between King Charles and Queen Elizabeth may well end. The reason is simple. The job of monarch today may be formulaic, indeed near-robotic, but it is nonetheless conducted by human beings. Charles may execute the ceremonies required of him impeccably. He is practised in the tedium of public duties, and shares his mother’s capacity to moderate ritual with humour. Maturity has also diluted the risks of misbehaviour and gossip that attended his youth and unhappy first marriage. But mother and son are very different personalities.
This may matter only in the margins of the constitution, in the dealings that a king has of constitutional necessity with his prime minister and with the machinery of parliament. He is bound to respect the nonpartisan obligations of monarchy, enshrined in custom and practice at least since the Hanoverians. The days are gone when the monarch might exercise discretion in “choosing” or “inviting” a prime minister most likely to enjoy parliamentary support.
This terminology can still deliver crises. The last occurred in 1963, when the Conservative party lacked a formal procedure for selecting a leader and a number of candidates put themselves forward to succeed the sick Harold Macmillan. In the event, he was well enough to recommend Lord Home as his successor, but this did not save the Queen from seeming to approve a secretive and oligarchic transfer of power.
Subsequent tensions have usually involved hung parliaments, as in 1974 under Edward Heath and in 2010 under Gordon Brown. Both were resolved through negotiations with palace officials under conventions of custom and practice. A different crisis arose when Boris Johnson in 2019 tried to involve the monarch in an illegal proroguing of parliament, to be overturned not by the monarch but by the supreme court. In all these cases protocol kept the monarch aloof from controversy. But Charles may well feel entitled to play a more active role.
Different problems may well lie elsewhere, in the obvious fact that Charles is a public figure of strong opinions, on almost every subject under the sun. He makes no secret of his views on topics as diverse as climate change, agriculture, alternative medicine, conservation and modern architecture. As always, he insisted that his opinions were personal and not “monarchical”. But they were still opinions.
In 2014 Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III portrayed Charles as refusing, on a point of conscience, to give royal assent to a bill passed by parliament ending press freedom. He claimed royal prerogative, a power customarily delegated to the prime minister. This presented the prime minister with a crisis: either pass an “illegal” bill or demand Charles’s abdication in favour of a more compliant William. In the play, the latter occurred. A similar crisis hit Belgium in 1990 when King Baudouin refused to sign a pro-choice bill and was allowed to abdicate for a day. Bartlett’s plot must at least have caused Charles a shiver of recognition.
The monarch holds a weekly audience with the prime minister in conditions of absolute confidentiality. Charles might reasonably regard this as an open opportunity to bombard a hapless premier with his reaction to events. He may be no more than conversing with the most powerful person in the land, but that in itself is a position of influence. Charles is a man of intellectual passion, a regal David Attenborough. Both men regard not just the British nation but Planet Earth as facing catastrophe and Charles may see that as overriding constitutional niceties.
The danger is the near certainty of leakage. It is of the palace being constantly besieged by accusations of political lobbying and interference. There will always be a body of opinion that feels the Queen was over-fastidious in “reigning until death” and should at some point have retired with dignity. Charles is not young and is not the Queen. He will be ever vulnerable to the appealing presence of his son William, high in profile and hovering in the wings.
Where the new monarch could unquestionably make a mark is in reforming the image of monarchy. Where Elizabeth was a stickler for tradition, Charles is known to want to relax and “informalise” the throne. He is rumoured to want to move out of Buckingham Palace, turning it into a royal office block and museum and keeping Clarence House as his London home. A popular gesture would be to merge the palace’s extensive private gardens with Green Park and form a verdant corridor from Whitehall to Kensington Palace.
Charles would also be well advised to dismantle much of the flummery that grew up round the concept of a royal family under his mother. There may need to be an heir to the throne, but an extended family need not enjoy – or more often endure – a publicity and lifestyle unknown to most royal families elsewhere in Europe. Turning her offspring and relations into a stage army of celebrities was a mistake, and one Charles could usefully discontinue.
The British monarchy is a curiosity of history. It has supplied the state and its imperial legacy, the Commonwealth, with a figurehead of remarkable stability. Its hereditary basis is defensible only in being elemental and in remaining scrupulously impotent. The monarchy is simply the expression in human form of national cohesion and supposed reverence. But it retains that stability and reverence through avoiding controversy. Britain’s new king is an ostentatious controversialist. At very least, his reign is unlikely to be dull.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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