This week saw a new UK prime minister, Liz Truss, and a new monarch, King Charles III. Neither are unfamiliar figures but they arrive in profoundly unsettling times. The death of Queen Elizabeth II removes a rock upon which many private lives were tethered. This source of stability was not down to her as an individual but to what she has represented in different moments in British history. She had been there to say and do the right thing at the right time. The Queen was part of the living memory of several generations. Her meaning came from what she embodied to people.
Her inscrutability and dedication to duty will see her remembered as one of Britain’s greatest monarchs. Her Majesty kept her own counsel. King Charles III is a very different proposition. The public knows a lot about his views, his interests and what he thinks is important. He has both reactionary and reforming opinions. His infamous “black spider” letters revealed the then heir apparent to be lobbying MPs, ministers and even the prime minister. His speech, just a day after his mother’s death, is a departure in itself. When George VI died suddenly in 1952, the young Elizabeth was in Kenya and returned saying nothing – starting her reign as she meant to continue.
But the Prince of Wales was a largely unregulated position with few constitutional duties. King Charles no doubt understands that the survival of the monarchy depends on reinforcing democracy rather than appearing to threaten it. However, the crown has far more constitutional power than is commonly recognised. The royal family can significantly influence the government behind closed doors before final decisions in parliament are made. The device used to do this, as the Guardian revealed last year, was Queen’s – now King’s – consent. Ministers will normally acquiesce to the sovereign’s will rather than cause a political crisis.
Charles III will have to be both head of the nation, and speak for and to the country as a whole. Whatever his personal views, he cannot take polarising positions. To do so risks becoming a divisive rather than unifying figure. No king can be beholden to private interests. The new monarch must dispel concerns that lingered after the police investigation into allegations that honours were offered in exchange for charitable donations. His view that a slimmed-down monarchy better fits the temper of the times is to be welcomed.
Parliament alone has the power to legislate about the monarchy. The Guardian maintains, as Ms Truss once did, that the hereditary principle is no way to choose a head of state. But parliamentary action in relation to the monarchy has been limited. During the Queen’s reign there were only two major pieces of legislation; the last, in 2013, allowed both the sovereign’s sons and daughters to have equal right to the throne. There have been remarkably lengthy periods of parliamentary silence. That must change.
Charles III’s coronation, set for next year, cannot be a copy of his mother’s, a ceremony whose authority was derived from the Anglican church where the aristocracy paid homage to the crown. The past is another country. Should not parliament take advantage of this period to consider the constitutional and legal framework of the monarchy in a formal and measured manner? If done by a joint committee, no government would be beholden to its outcome. A chance to rethink rarely arises in a constitutional monarchy. A new king, and a new prime minister, ought to seize the opportunity.