What is the purpose of Britain’s Monarchy in the world today?
If the gilded chariots, bejeweled crowns, and ancient rituals of King Charles III’s modestly spectacular coronation served any purpose at all, it was a glittering reminder of how — in a secular, multiethnic, digital-age society — the British crown is fundamentally an anachronism.
Now the pomp and the pageantry is over, the newly-crowned King finds himself walking a tightrope between tradition and modernity. Preserving the Royal Family’s symbolic value is only part of his challenge. At a time when monarchies and hereditary privilege seem increasingly antiquated and irrelevant, ensuring that this ancient institution has purpose and new relevance is entirely a different matter.
The near universal refrain in the commemorations for his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, was her role as a symbol of stability in Britain as well as a constant in an increasingly inconstant world.
More than just a symbolic face of the nation, she was Britain’s source of comfort over seven decades of seemingly unending turbulence.
Beloved and revered as a unifying figure, serenely operating above politics, she was a timeless counterweight to the daily upheavals of Britain’s parliamentary democracy.
The enormous challenge now facing the country and her son, King Charles III, is how to move on without her stabilizing influence.
A reluctant monarch
The young Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was crowned Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953 when she was just 25. Her father, King George VI, was a reluctant monarch who died a year earlier at the age of 56. Born in the reign of his great-grandmother Queen Victoria, he became King in 1936 when his older brother, Edward VIII, gave up the throne to marry a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson.
It was a role for which he was unsuited and ill-prepared, but he and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, earned the devotion of the British people by staying in London throughout the dark and dangerous days of the Second World War and practically guaranteeing the survival of the monarchy.
In the bleak aftermath of the war, the coronation of the young Elizabeth brought with it a sense of renewal and optimism. Britain was predominantly white, Christian and — although severely weakened — still a global power. A map of the world on my schoolroom wall had a vast streak of imperial pink across it, depicting the reach of the British Empire which, we were told, was the largest empire that ever existed. It covered a quarter of the world’s total land area and was home to a fifth of the world’s population.
Whatever her private thoughts, Queen Elizabeth performed her role over an extraordinarily long reign in near-faultless manner, leaving scant ammunition for personal attack from the fiercest opponents of hereditary principle.
As Britain hurtled through times of profound societal change, she faced many challenges in keeping the monarchy apace — and yet she succeeded in remaining a force for national cohesion. Her reign spanned the industrial age to the internet age — 70 years of endurance and stoicism in which she met generations of global leaders and helped steer Britain through the loss of its empire and its emergence as a multicultural nation, albeit considerably diminished.
Unlike his mother, Charles will not bear the burden of shepherding the Crown for the next 70 years but neither does he have the cushion of decades of goodwill to rest on. At 74, he just needs to keep the institution intact long enough to pass it on to his son, William. In the face of shifting public opinion about the purpose and value of the Monarchy, the burning question for King Charles is what does he want to pass on: Is he a caretaker or a waymaker?
Charles has inherited the throne at a time when the monarchy as an institution is still broadly supported in Britain, but critics warn that public attitudes are changing faster than the monarchy might be able to.
In a recent poll by the market research firm YouGov, 58% of people said Britain should continue to have a king, while 26% said it should have an elected head of state. But, significantly, 40% of under-25s say they want the monarchy abolished. And anti-monarchy sentiment is attracting more attention.
At a time of economic difficulty for the UK, the sight of a hereditary billionaire as its head of state represents, for them, the very embodiment of the inequalities of wealth and power that beleaguers the country. With increasing frequency, yellow banners reading “Not My King” are being unfurled at royal engagements.
Increasing public awareness of Britain’s often harsh colonial history is also an issue King Charles must confront. A blizzard of headlines has been drawing attention to the royal family’s involvement in slavery. The King has indicated his willingness to cooperate with an independent study exploring the relationship between the British monarchy and the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries by providing access to the royal archives.
An opportunity for renewal
Charles has yet to make a strategic move to define his reign.
After Queen Elizabeth II died, at the age of 96, on September 8, 2022, he delivered a televised speech — his first public address as monarch.
“Queen Elizabeth’s was a life well lived, a promise with destiny kept,” he said, in a speech that was praised for its emotionality and steadiness. He also proclaimed, “That promise of lifelong service I renew to you all today.”
Will he really see it through to the bitter end, to the last gasp, as his mother did? Or will he take the opportunity to initiate essential radical reform to secure the Monarchy’s future?
His partner in this royal project is his 40-year-old son and heir, Prince William. The two have apparently grown close after the sad and very public rift between Charles and his younger son, Prince Harry. Together, they could form what could be the nucleus of a repositioned Monarchy, one that will make fewer demands on Britain’s public purse and reconnect on an entirely different basis with the British public.
As with any creaking institution that wants to survive, the Monarchy has to re-establish its relevance and meaning by redefining its core purpose — its reason for existing — and visibly commit to change, and that task might be a task better suited to William.
While William and his wife Catherine remain popular (and according to a recent Ipsos poll, the Prince and Princess of Wales are now the most popular members of the Royal Family) they are edging into middle age, still progressive figures but parents who also embody tradition and conservative values.
It is conceivable that Charles could work hard up to the age of 80 and hand over the reins to a 46-year-old Prince William, leaving Charles and Queen Consort Camilla time to enjoy life together in the marriage they struggled so long to achieve and which has clearly made them so happy.
In the meantime, the future king, “William the Reformer,” would be young enough to introduce successfully the changes necessary to ensure the survival of a reconstituted, modernized monarchy that could be a vital, progressive power for good in a post-Brexit Britain that still has yet to rediscover its role in the world.
In this, he would do well to heed the words of Tancredi Falconeri in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel* about a dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”