As the country’s official period of mourning ends, James Bartholomeusz looks ahead to the future of the monarchy now that King Charles III has ascended to the throne.
First, a necessary disclaimer: I too felt a sense of personal loss at the death of the Queen earlier this month. Even as a republican, I had come to admire her unusual sense of public duty and the discernment with which she navigated decades of immense social and political change. Nevertheless, now that the official period of mourning is over, we can return to the norms of open debate in a liberal democracy. And with Charles III on the throne, the future of the monarchy has risen to the top of the agenda.
One effect of Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign was to normalise a set of arrangements which are, in their wider historical and political context, quite exceptional. The British monarchy has become such a fixture on the world stage that we forget it is, in fact, a rather strange amalgam of different components. If the late Queen’s great achievement was allowing the sheer weirdness of the monarchy to hide in plain sight, the new King’s great challenge will be dealing with the loss of its chameleon qualities.
At the heart of the modern monarchy is, of course, the blood inheritance of the crown through the legitimate line of succession. With a few conspicuous hiccups (such as the abdication crisis of the 1930s, which shifted George VI and his descendants onto the main track), the Windsor dynasty can claim continuous rule since George I acceded to the throne in 1714. Step back further than that, however, and the picture becomes rather murky. At the death of Anne, George I’s immediate predecessor, the British establishment colluded in a rather unseemly way to borrow and install the House of Hanover from overseas, rather than see the crown revert to a Roman Catholic branch of the Stuart family. The 17th Century had been peppered with such examples (including the beheading of a previous King Charles), much like the earlier periods of struggle within the incestuous web of European aristocracy. This all serves as a reminder that there is nothing natural or predetermined about the royal succession; it can rupture just at the moments when it appears most stable.
The installation of the Hanoverians points to another component of today’s royal amalgam. A century ago, the Church of England was hardly unique. The Lutheran branch of the Protestant Reformation had created a chain of states across northern Europe whose hereditary head of state was also guardian of the state church. (By contrast, the states dominated by both Catholics and non-Lutheran Protestants had generally retained a sharper distinction between civil and ecclesiatical power.) Today, almost all of those countries are republics or constitutional monarchies which confine religion to the private sphere. By contrast, Charles now finds himself not only Supreme Governor of the English state church but also at the apex of the worldwide Anglican Communion. If a hereditary head of state seems anachronistic, a hereditary faith leader is potentially even more so. Even the pope is elected by a conclave of cardinals.
Of course, we also cannot ignore the immense transfer of wealth that has taken place in recent weeks. If it seems invisible it is only because it appears so natural and has benefitted so few people, but it has happened nonetheless. Charles is now the titular beneficiary of both the Crown Estate and the Duchy of Lancaster, along with a whole portfolio of other semi-public, semi-private property to which the reigning monarch is entitled. In addition to his new status as Prince of Wales, William is now the Duke of Cornwall (and, for one thing, will never again want for Waitrose organic produce). And while Charles has indicated his intention to continue paying income tax voluntarily, like his mother, he will not be opting in to pay any inheritance tax. Quite apart from their ceremonial privileges, the class status of the Windsors has been protected for another generation.
And then there is the most uncomfortable issue of all. Elizabeth came to the throne with the British Empire diminished but largely intact, and with the sweeping decolonisation process of the 1960s and 70s still in the future. She leaves behind a world in many ways transformed, with Britain retaining a small overseas presence and most of its former colonies independent but residually linked together by the Commonwealth. Given the length and comparative stability of her reign, in spite of this great change, it was perhaps inevitable that the country could not reach a full reckoning with its imperial legacy until after her death. Now, that moment cannot be forestalled for much longer.
The transition to a republic with a democratically elected head of state; the ultimate separation of church and state; a concerted redistribution of wealth that would make equal citizens even of the Windsors - all of these things will take a long time yet, if we even see them occur in our lifetimes. What will not and cannot wait is Britain excavating, comprehending and starting to repair the damage done by centuries of imperial exploitation. From the Windrush scandal to the immense quantity of capital still extant from the slave trade, the shadow of the British Empire looms everywhere. And the monarchy remains deeply entangled in this system of oppression, if not through personal choice then via institutional inheritance.
As with his mother, I truly believe we could have done a lot worse than Charles in the roulette of hereditary rulers. In many ways, this feels like the right moment for a committed environmentalist and religious pluralist to become head of state. Nevertheless, how Charles deals with the imperial skeletons in the closet - and, in particular, how he chooses to exercise his parallel role as Head of the Commonwealth - will determine very quickly whether the monarchy has a future in a ‘woke’ world. Apart from anything else, this is likely to put him on a collision course with the hard-right nationalists now in control of His Majesty’s Government. That will make for a very interesting constitutional moment indeed.
James Bartholomeusz is a Young Fabian and works in campaigns and policy at a global union federation. He writes here in a personal capacity.