God Save Us From the King

God Save Us From the King

The British monarchy is nothing if not adaptable—but for how long?


King Charles III has had an unusually protracted apprenticeship. He is only now, at the venerable age of 73, ascending to the throne—an elevation made possible under melancholy circumstances thanks to the death of his 96-year-old mother, Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a strange fate to prepare all your life for a role you don’t get to perform until the eighth decade of that life. Yet, despite his undeniable maturity, Charles is unable or unwilling to perform many simple tasks that almost all his subjects who are above the age of 5 manage for themselves: Squeezing toothpaste on his toothbrush is one example. Charles has his valets take care of this arduous task, using a crested silver dispenser made especially for the job. He is similarly servant-dependent for almost all of the most menial daily activities.

As a Guardian article from 2002 documented, Charles has lived an extraordinarily pampered life:

The prince often changes his clothes five times a day. The discarded outfits, including £2,000 bespoke suits and handmade Turnbull and Asser shirts, are left strewn across the floor for one of the valets to pick up. It is then their job to make sure the clothes are washed and returned to the correct place in his mahogany wardrobes.

You can get a sense of just how spoiled Charles III is by watching a video of the newly minted monarch signing an oath at the Ascension Council and then haughtily gesturing to a servant to clear the desk.

It’s part of the perversity of the monarchy that Charles is both very old and very young at the same time. In his body, he’s a senior citizen king, but in his attitude, he remains a willful child. To be sure, this sort of narcissistic arrogance is not confined to blue-blooded aristocrats. There are plenty of people who have Charles’s wealth without his pedigree or title. They are as likely as Charles III to be as fussed over by servants at their beck and call.

But Charles isn’t a run-of-the-mill plutocrat—though that would be bad enough. He’s a public servant of a sort, a constitutional officer in what is supposed to be a democracy. When I visited the United Kingdom over the summer, I was struck by the fact that it was a nation in great social distress. Almost everyone I met was suffering under strain from runaway inflation. The country’s infrastructure was unable to deal with a heat wave, causing an estimated 1,200-plus excess deaths. The public transit system was a disgrace—especially compared with those of European counterparts like France or Finland. A wave of wildcat strikes won applause from a public sick of the status quo. It seems strange that such a society will now have as its head of state a coddled, eccentric popinjay like Charles III.

The United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy, a strange by-product of the two revolutions of the 17th century that left the nation with a Parliament that was legislatively supreme but also kings who embodied the state. The paradox of a constitutional monarchy is that the sovereign is supposed to be both a servant and a ruler. “Service” is the great byword for those who defend the monarchy. Elizabeth II has been much eulogized for devoting her nearly century-long life to serving her country. But no less than Charles III, Elizabeth II was in her daily life used to being served hand and foot. The question then is: Who is the servant?

The case against monarchy is ancient and was made with great clarity and force by someone who was both a great Englishman and a great American: Thomas Paine. In the Rights of Man (1792), Paine wrote:

It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of non-age over wisdom and experience. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession, in all its cases, presents.

Paine’s argument seems particularly relevant to the current case, since no one designing a rational system would want a man to prepare for 73 years for a job that hinged on the death of his mother. Hereditary monarchy is, as Paine rightly observed, an absurdly arbitrary system of government that leaves everything to chance.

Yet, if Paine’s logic is difficult to refute, many have found it easy to ignore. The citizens of the United States were convinced by Paine’s anti-monarchism, in the form of his great pamphlet Common Sense (1775–76). But the United Kingdom has persisted in in pretending that Paine never existed.

Post-Paine, the pertinent question isn’t: Is the monarchy justified? The real question is: Why does such an absurd part of the British Constitution persist?

Given that the lottery of hereditary will regularly lead, as Paine noted, to bad results, it’s not surprising that the British ruling class has repeatedly had to intervene to make sure the right king or queen was in power. The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the first such instance: a palace coup to replace the unacceptably Catholic James II with the Protestant Mary II and her husband, William of Orange. This was repeated, as Scottish historian Tom Nairn noted in the New Left Review in 1981: “On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the British ruling class invited the monarch of an obscure German princely state to step into her shoes. They did this to ensure the preservation of the social order established by the limited bourgeois revolutions of the previous century—1640 and 1688.”

In his book The Enchanted Glass (1989), Nairn persuasively argues that the British monarchy has persisted because it is adaptable and has repeatedly remade itself in the service of the ruling class. England had only an incomplete political revolution in the 18th century, leading to a long compromise between the gentry and the emergent bourgeoisie (with later and partial accommodations to the working class). The monarchy has justified itself as an embodiment of the state that stands apart from these groups, representing an allegedly more primordial sense of national identity. As such, the monarchy has constantly reinvented itself, playing up different aspects of national character to fit the times (family decorum under Victoria, proto-fascism under Edward VII, patriotism under George V and George VI, media-friendly celebrity under Elizabeth II).

But in the media age, the monarchy is almost too rich a symbol. For much of her reign, Elizabeth II was the face of dowdy common sense and dutifulness, everyone’s favorite mom and grandmom. Then, for a period in the 1980s and ’90s, the queen was upstaged by an even more talented performer, her daughter-in-law Princess Diana. This interloper led the queen to be recast in some narratives, with the once-charming monarch transformed into a manipulative and coldhearted codger.

The journalist Henry Fairlie once described the monarchy as “the cherished symbol by which most of us live.” The death of Elizabeth II makes clear that she was a polyphonic symbol—many things to many people. To some of her admirers, she represented duty, civility, and service to country. Perhaps also she was a symbol of national continuity and tradition (although historians will follow the lead of Eric Hobsbawm in noticing that most of those traditions were recent inventions). But to many in the former British Empire, she was a symbol of historical oppression and wrongs that have yet to be even acknowledged, let alone mended through reparation. It’s not an accident that in Dublin football fans reacted to her death with a spontaneous chant celebrating that “Lizzie is in a box.”

There’s been an attempt by the media to use the funeral to create a comfortable consensus, perhaps in the hopes of drowning out those Irish voices as well as critics from Africa and Asia. All three American TV networks carried Charles III’s first speech as king, a courtesy they denied President Joe Biden when he delivered a speech in Philadelphia warning of the authoritarian danger of Trumpism. Biden was supposedly too political, but isn’t there some politics in airing the speech of a foreign monarch?

It’s unclear whether this manufactured consensus will take hold. The announcement of a moment of silence for Elizabeth II at an Ultimate Fighting Championship match in Las Vegas was greeted with boos and a chant of “USA! USA!”

The consensus supporting the House of Windsor doesn’t extend very far outside of the UK—and it might be weak even there. It is very likely that Charles III will find it considerably harder than his mother to remain in favor with the public.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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