Why Prince Charles Will Make an Excellent King
by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Prince Charles will make an excellent King. I doubt this is a view which one tenth of the British population currently subscribe to, but I suspect it is true.
As the other spokes in the great wheel of state become shriller, more myopic and more elitist, it will fall to Prince Charles to maintain the dignity of the Crown, which he will inherit intact from his mother, and restore its constitutional importance from the low state to which it was relegated by successive governments from those of Harold Wilson onwards.
Sometimes a man appears in public life who belongs very clearly to a generation which has now left the stage and then survives there well beyond the time at which the ideas and the notions he embodies have largely disappeared. The English monarchy has a fine tradition of producing such figures, from Henry VII in whose passionate austerity, feats of arms and administrative vigour we find a Norman monarch founding the Tudor dynasty, or George IV who preceded Victoria but whose enthusiasm for vice and personal charm belonged in the traditions of the Stuarts of the Restoration. Prince Charles is such a man – he belongs to the Victorian / Edwardian era. In that I mean that while he has thrives in a democratic age, and he maintains an unfashionable attachment to duty, much as his mother does, he is likely to differ and associate more with earlier monarchs in the degree to which he uses his position actively to influence the course of public life rather than interpreting his role as purely ceremonial.
Doing so would represent a radical change from the path pursued by Queen Elizabeth II. There is no doubt that the Queen has immense personal popularity in Britain – at least one million lined the streets both for her Golden and Diamond jubilees to thank her for her service to the nation. It is telling that even New Labour in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, at the apex of its foolish constitutional meddling and at the height of Tony Blair’s messianic impulses and presidential style, did not feel strong enough to move against her. If she offered nothing other than a public example of dignity in office, concern for public as opposed to personal utility, and quiet reflection in an age where everyone from the Prime Minister (who “revealed that his family were backing Stacey Solomon to win The X-Factor”) downwards seems to have a fatuous opinion on a trivial topic to profess and does so loudly and boringly, then she would have admiration. As it is she offers all those things and, as Trevor MacDonald wrote there is an impression that “when she uttered those famous words on her 21st birthday radio address, ‘my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,’ it looks as though – quite extraordinarily – she actually meant it,” because of this she is loved as well.
Despite her unblemished personal example, the Queen can, however, be said to have presided over a constitutional landscape in which every other actor has failed. The Church of England, of which she is the head, has for at least two decades refused to perform its function which is to preach the Gospel and protect the Christian interest in public life and has seen itself instead as spiritual social workers with guitars; politicians of every stripe have relentlessly pursued huge changes to the form of our democracy without any electoral mandate (an example: at the time the voting age was lowered to 18 under Harold Wilson, this was despite such an action appearing only in the election manifesto of Screaming Lord Sutch); the police and judiciary have been reduced by these same politicians to wardens of social progressiveness as opposed to prosecutors of crime. The whole architecture of governance, in other words, has moved away from the service of the people and towards the aspiration of moulding the people into a very different shape than the one they are naturally inclined to take.
It is well known that the last time a monarch failed to give Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament was in 1705 under Queen Anne, and for this reason the Queen is often supposed to be powerless against the whims of the civilian government. Indeed, one of the Queen’s most often cited qualities is her political inscrutability. However, this ignores the deeply paradoxical role of the Crown within the British system – it is the only check (now that the House of Lords has had its teeth pulled) against the tyranny of the democratic majority. That may seem an odd thing to say, but consider the Blair Government of 1997 – it was elected with a majority of 179 MPs, a record number of whom had no prior experience of Parliament and were thus not equipped to scrutinise seriously the government’s own whirlwind of policies in its first years. This near omnipotent power for the new executive was gained on 43.2% of the vote on a turnout of 71.3%; in other words, less than 30.8% or less than one third of qualified adult voters. In such a system, the only check on the power of the new government to abuse the privileges of its office in the British system is the power of the Crown: the power to influence and ultimately the power to veto. If such powers had been made use of sometime around the Iraq war, for instance, then it would be difficult to imagine that the monarch would not have had significant public backing.
How Prince Charles will be different
We know already that Prince Charles takes a different approach to public affairs than his mother. His ‘Black Spider’ letters to ministers on a wide array of subjects are famous in Whitehall and point to a political personality that is complicated, incorporating elements of left and right, and therefore more in keeping with that of his average subject than that of a professional politician whose instincts are those of the textbook and not the high street. We know that the Prince of Wales is a conservationist, an advocate of rural life, against modern architecture, against bureaucracy generally and the ever greater encroachment of the legal profession on British life in particular. In all these views he is with the public and against the political class as a whole. These instincts are important and they are not held with any degree of sincerity by any powerful actor elsewhere in the constitutional system.
The level of correspondence which the Prince enters into with his ministers is unique – something attested to by constitutional scholars during the battle between the Guardian and the Government to have the letters released under a Freedom of Information Act request. While this can be seen as part of the process a ruler-in-waiting goes through to understand the boundaries of their power, it is also fair to ask how many new tricks a man at retirement age may be expected to learn. It is unlikely that his style of personal involvement in affairs of state is likely to change greatly when he becomes King, but the impact of these interventions will be intensified owing to the greater influence which will be accorded to his new position, as well as the powers he will gain in the role.
Only under the British constitution could it be argued that the incidence of a monarch actively involved in the disruption of the activities of democratic government would be a good thing. However, the peculiar insulation of the British political class, their obsession with ideas which speak not to the good of the majority but to a deeply entrenched need to counteract some internal hierarchy of victimhood which each politician appears to believe is the ultimate aim of good governance. A voice not just for rural Britain, which currently has none, but moreover for the commonly held beliefs of the British public treated with scorn by politicians for being unsophisticated (for instance, the belief that the function of newly designed buildings is not in some way to punish all those unfortunate enough to look at them) would be a necessary corrective to a system that has since Margaret Thatcher been driven by political ideologues rather than people who take as their starting point what the electorate might conceivably need or want them to do.
This approach is not without risk – it is liable to produce animosity towards the monarchy from the political class and an additional degree of scrutiny from the media. Balanced against this is the need to have someone, anyone in public life willing to act as a check against the intellectual isolation of our political life, the incredible group-think that prevails across the House of Commons and the news media.
Of more concern is Charles’ famous statement that he intends on being “Defender of Faith” rather than “Defender of the Faith” in his role as the head of the Church of England. This is, of course, an attitude that fits the times, but that is why it is dangerous. It is an inherently atheist position that all faiths are of the same merit. As each faith makes truth claims about its doctrines and as these doctrines fundamentally differ, all faiths can only be of the same merit if all faiths are false. This is a very important point and always missed whenever the subject is raised in public. The Monarch is the most important link between the Christian faith still professed by a vast majority of the British and the organisation of the state. Politicians are weary of professing their faith in public because they would rather lie than upset someone. It would be scandalous for a British King to sink to such a thing, particularly when he is a faithful adherent to Anglicanism.
There is also the matter of the clamour which comes and goes and, notwithstanding the sombre nature of the occasion, will come again with force on the death of the Queen, that Prince Charles should stand aside and let Prince William take the throne. This is put forward on the grounds that it would be good for the monarchy and in some way make it more relevant to young people. In the long-run, I do not see the validity of this argument – Prince William is likely to be around long enough to take his turn and anybody who has had the opportunity to read the Daily Mail website will see swiftly that the people whom the British public are interested in are not necessarily pre-qualified for the virtues required in a leader. Prince Charles has had a long apprenticeship; it is right and fair – to us and to him – that it is not put to waste.
It is notoriously difficult to see how power will affect a person; the only thing we can say with certainty looking back at the last century is that unlimited power makes a man mad. The creeping presidentialism of the British system has a tendency towards this absolute power – and the use of this power to pursue agendas that have no mandate and no significant benefit for the British people (from mass immigration to the Iraq war to the dismantling of all the other constitutional checks and balances in the system) has come to blight our national life, particularly since the messianic nonsense of the Blair governments. A strong monarch capable of speaking for the Britain which exists beyond the N postcodes is not only the most desirable balance against this movement, it is now the only possible counter-weight given the damage done to the House of Lords and the absence of the Church of England from all but the debates that do not concern it. Prince Charles is a man out of place in many respects, but he is also a personality equipped with all of the strengths required to be a man for his time.