Friday, 9 September 2022, 11:25
He has waited longer than any other heir to the British throne before becoming king: in 2011 he beat the record of 59 years, two months and 13 days previously held by Edward VII. And at the age of 73 he is also the oldest monarch to accede to the throne for the first time. While his mother became queen almost by surprise when she was in her twenties, the man who became King Charles III on Thursday afternoon has had all his life to prepare for it, although it will still not be an easy task. The early days of his reign are planned almost minute by minute, but the road ahead is full of challenges, including modernising the monarchy and the future of the Union and the Commonwealth.
Charles Philip Arthur George became King the moment his mother died. “The continuity is assured and nothing changes in the Constitution,” explained Catherine Haddon, a historian with the Institute for Government, who believes his first great challenge will be to transmit this sense of continuity to the majority of British people who have only ever known Elizabeth II as their monarch and, at the same time, “give an impression of change, of what type of king he wants to be and the direction in which he will be taking the royal family".
It won’t be easy. The British only know one form of monarchy, that of his mother for 70 years. Charles III will have to convince them that other forms are possible. The institution bases its legitimacy on public trust and the new king, much less popular than his mother, will have to gain that.
In recent years the British have been able to glimpse what Charles’ reign will be like, especially since he began to take on more official engagements after the death of his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, in April 2021. The twilight of an era was beginning. The royal family and the whole country were aware of the vulnerability of the queen, who was nearly 95, and accelerated the process of transition which had begun a few years earlier.
Charles began to be increasingly present and, especially, more visible on the most important occasions. One of his first official duties was to accompany the queen as official consort to the ceremonial opening of parliament in May, something he had done since 2016 when his father withdrew from official engagements, but this time with a more active role.
He began representing HM on trips abroad, helped by William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and, until they renounced their titles, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, because Queen Elizabeth gave up travelling outside the country in 2015.
The queen’s progressive withdrawal from public events due to her age meant the transition was gradual. In recent years, investitures and awards ceremonies, which Elizabeth II considered one of her most important obligations, were mostly performed by Charles, his son William or his sister Anne.
This transition has also reflected his character. While his mother never expressed her opinions in public and we barely knew what she liked or what her interest were – apart from horses and dogs – the new king felt the need from his youth to state his opinions in public about issues he was passionate about, such as organic agriculture, climate change and architecture. The letters he has sent to different governments to express his point of view and try to influence certain issues are famous and some were controversial, such as when he wanted the NHS to finance alternative and scientifically discredited therapies such as homeopathy.
One of his mother’s great virtues was that many British people could identify with her: due to her privacy, everyone could believe deep down that she thought the same way they did. With Charles, it is different. His enthusiasm for Islam and protecting the environment are off-putting to conservatives, while his defence of fox hunting makes him unpopular with progressives.
“In the last 20 years he has tried to change this public image,” says Catherine Haddon, “and we suppose that he will want to continue his mother’s tradition but we don’t know how that is going to play out so, with time, it will be an important test for our Constitution, which depends on the idea that the monarch remains outside politics in order to exercise a neutral role in times of crisis”.
Charles himself admitted in an interview with the BBC in 2018 that the roles of the heir to the throne and the monarch are very different and that it was nonsense to think he would continue doing exactly the same when he acceded to the throne.
He also plans to reduce the number of royal family members who carry out official duties, something we have already seen in recent years. While Elizabeth II had three of her cousins, her children – until Prince Andrew ended up in disgrace because of his links with American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein – and the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex on her ‘staff’, Charles plans to reduce it to his immediate family: his children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
With the distancing of Harry and Meghan, however, all the responsibility will fall on the new Prince of Wales, his wife Kate and their children, who are still young. There will be more work but, and perhaps this is the reason, less expense and less possiblity of scandal.
Challenges for King Charles III, there will be many. The most important has already begun: to live in the long – and long-lived – shadow of Elizabeth II.
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