Farewell, Monarchy

A tarnished crown

I’m an amateur historian; I find monarchy fascinating.  It is an entirely irrational institution: we grant someone political power and privilege on the sole basis of birthright.  Yes, ultimately we can remove them (James II) or pressure them to resign (Edward VIII): however this is rare.  More often than not, we accept the transfer of authority from one generation to the next without so much as a murmur.  If you think about it, that’s really weird; at the very least, there is no compelling logic behind it.

Monarchy has become more prominent lately as the United Kingdom will celebrate the coronation of King Charles III in May.  Most people are looking forward to having an additional day off work.  I have to admit that I feel the same way.  It’s likely I won’t tune in but I will enjoy having the surplus holiday. I may sleep through it.

Soon, our stamps and money will reflect the change in monarch.  The Bank of England has already published pictures of what our new banknotes will look like.   They will be in our wallets in 2024.   It will be odd to carry banknotes and see Elizabeth and Charles alternate between them, as they likely will for a time. The thought crossed my mind if a five pound note with Elizabeth on it will be somehow seen as more intrinsically valuable than one with Charles.

Charles III may be the last King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  He begins with considerable handicaps. The historian Alan Ereira once stated that the “rule of elderly matriarchs seems perfectly proper to the English”.  It’s difficult to disagree: the odd reverence bestowed on the word “Victorian” suggests as much.  Films featuring Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson, and Cate Blanchett have celebrated Queen Elizabeth I. Queen Elizabeth II’s death punched a hole in the national psyche. The only male English monarch with a similarly elevated profile is Henry VIII, and the reasons for this are dubious at best. It’s clear: Charles simply doesn’t have discernible star quality.

Additionally, there is an inherent absurdity at work.  Charles is not only King of the United Kingdom, he is also King of many other countries including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  Say “Charles III, King of Australia” or Canada aloud and there is a momentary shudder, a wince and a recognition that suggests there is something very wrong.   The Queen did not engender this reaction because she provided a link to an era in which that was not an absurd thing to say.

Caribbean countries see it.  Barbados became a republic even before the Queen passed (November 2021). It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Jamaica will vote to make itself a republic in the near future.  Belize and other nations may take similar steps: the respect the Queen engendered has vanished.   They are now left with this absurd colonial relic, which acts as a guarantor of nothing in particular except a connection to the past.

There are other reasons for the decay. The journalist Walter Bagehot once differentiated the parts of the British government by suggesting the democratic element was the “efficient” portion and the monarchy was the “dignified” part.  The “efficiency” of our current Parliament is debatable.  “Dignified” has gone completely out the window.

Monarchy thrives best under conditions of ignorance and superstition; dignity is easier to maintain at a distance.  Kings used to say that God appointed them and they were only answerable to the Almighty. This sounds eccentric to modern ears. It wasn’t that long ago that not only did monarchs believed it, but were willing to die for the principle. For example, King Charles I believed that God gave him his authority. He then proceeded to act like he wasn’t accountable to anyone else. The result was the English Civil War and his eventual beheading.

If Charles III believes in the “Divine Right of Kings”, he wouldn’t dare make such a view public. Indeed, if God selected Charles, it might be said the Almighty clearly has a sense of humour.  Prior to becoming King, Charles did good work with his Prince’s Trust charity, but apart from that it is difficult to see how such a privileged, sheltered man is in any way reflective of modern Britain. Nor should we be comfortable with how he makes money via ancestral sinecures including the Duchy of Cornwall.

Furthermore, we simply know too much about him and his private life.  Harry and Meghan didn’t begin the flow of revelations about his foibles and faults; they merely added to the torrent.  Camilla is unpopular, yet will be crowned Queen Consort.  The monarchy is now seen as downright strange. Even its exiles, like Harry, seem more like members of the entertainment industry than part of our system of government. The sad truth is the “dignified” element doesn’t remotely make itself without the Queen’s stoic silence and connection to history.  It’s worth remembering that her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill.   Britain’s trajectory can be measured by looking at her last, Liz Truss. 

During moments when the world makes no sense, like the premiership of Liz Truss, the Queen was a figure of comfort, a living reminder that we aren’t a complete basket case.  Charles’s all-too-public faults means he cannot perform a similar service. At best, he can pass subtle comment as he did once by uttering “oh dear” when Liz Truss approached.

It’s probably unlikely that there will be a “Eureka” moment when the Great British Public realises that we’ve outgrown the monarchy.   Perhaps if the UK splits apart, a reassessment will occur  An independent Scotland may not wish to embrace a modern, European future tethered to an English monarch.  Northern Ireland may join the Republic and thus abjure monarchy that way.  England and Wales may hold on; though Wales seems less settled on the matter than it was. As time goes on and generations pass, eventually the question may arise, “What are they there for?”  The answer will come, and it will likely be wanting.  If so Charles and his reign, may very well prove to be the bookend to the monarchy. If so, farewell.

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