On the Queen and her replacement

William Saunderson-Meyer questions whether Charles III will prove up to the job


In the fairy tales, a kiss may transform a frog into a prince. In the real world, the cold kiss of fate may turn a prince into a king.

Admittedly, being the new monarch is not the role Charles once confessed during an illicitly recorded telephone conversation to desire above all else — that of being his paramour Camilla’s tampon. Nevertheless, it’s a title that the petulant, stoop-shouldered septuagenarian has coveted for a lifetime. 

For the past week, social media has been bursting with the wider world expressing bemusement at the apparent love that those in the United Kingdom retain for their monarchy. Or, at least, for Queen Elizabeth II, whose death last Thursday has unleashed an unprecedentedly protracted and elaborate national mourning. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The saturation media coverage that her death has received within the UK was, of course, to be expected. She was their longest reigning monarch, exceeding the formidable Queen Victoria by seven years, and the third longest in the world, after Sobhuza II (82 years) and Louis XIV (72 years).

For 70 years, Elizabeth was the single constant and reassuring presence during the decline of British power and influence internationally, and social and cultural decay at home. Remarkably, through the Commonwealth structure that she championed passionately, she salvaged considerable goodwill for the imperial power that at its height had subjected, often brutally, a quarter of the globe and a fifth of its people.

But the degree of attention her passing has elicited internationally has been remarkable in a world that mostly dismisses monarchy as an anachronism. For a moment, events of global import were reduced to mere punctuation marks in the royal narrative. 

Everywhere, not only on BBC World, there’s been wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen and her life. It’s been impossible to switch on television without encountering the queen: from the announcement of death, the last journey to her lying-in-state first in Edinburgh and then Westminster, to what will be her immaculately choreographed eventual internment at Windsor almost a fortnight later.

This time, at least, the response has been measured and merited. It’s been the visually grand but emotionally restrained behaviour of stiff-upper-lip British legend. None of the public paroxysms of breast-flagellating grief and keening that marked the death of Princess Diana, almost exactly 25 years earlier.

Part of the difference between the two occasions, of course, lies in the nature of the protagonists. 

On the one hand, a beautiful, socialite princess wronged by her callous, philandering husband and dead before her time in a ghastly car accident. On the other hand, a 96-year-old woman drawing to the serene end of a full life — albeit it of unremitting duty, which from the outside often looked less like service than servitude — and who had for more than a year been in faltering health following the death of her beloved husband.

Another part of it is perhaps that the passage of time has exposed the metaphoric rending of garments that accompanied Diana’s death for what it was. In retrospect, we can admit that at least in part, it was a somewhat embarrassing episode of mass hysteria, rooted in the modern age’s pathological obsession with beauty, wealth and celebrity. 

Many predicted at the time that the flinty-hearted queen’s initial failure to dip the Royal Standard at Diana’s death, along with public anger at Charles’s surely perverse and unmanly obsession with the physical antithesis of Diana — Camilla’s jut-jawed resemblance to one of the queen’s elderly fell ponies is the stuff of blissful Freudian speculation — signalled the beginning of the end of the monarchy. 

Instead, the opposite happened. 

The more dysfunctional, feckless and unattractive some of her offspring were revealed to be — auctioning political influence; preying on pubescent girls; consorting with criminals; and on American chat shows self-indulgently equating petty family squabbles to scarring emotional abuse  — the more clearly have shone the steadfast values and unswerving work ethic of Elizabeth Regina. 

Also, unlike Prince Harry’s temperamental show pony, the Charles’s fell pony has put not a fetlock wrong. Following marriage to the prince, Camilla slipped uncomplainingly into the traces that will pull The Firm into a new era. She has earned grudging admiration from even the harshest critics of “that woman”, moving with aplomb from hated Jezebel to being the respected, if not loved, Queen Consort. 

The new king may be a different kettle of fish. He’s always been a little emotionally incontinent and his juvenile hissy fits on two occasions this week show that the toughening up and “character education” that Gordonstoun boarding school, in the wilds of Scotland, was supposed to impart, may not have taken. 

On the first occasion, he was caught on camera gesticulating dismissively to a flunky to tidy the spot where he is about to sign the accession to the throne document. His screwed-up face is the epitome of privilege and patrician disdain.

In the second, he exclaims, “Oh, God, I hate this”, when he’s told that he’s written the wrong date during another signing ceremony. When he realises that the fountain pen has also leaked onto his hand, he explodes: “This bloody thing … [it’s] what they do, every stinking time,” before stalking off in a huff.

Even allowing for his grief and stress at this time, Her Majesty would not have been amused by his brattish behaviour. On the other hand, maybe it’s her fault for naming him Charles. It’s not been a particularly auspicious name in English history. The first Charles was executed by his subjects and the second became a hated tyrant.

For the moment, the suitability of the irascible and eccentric 73-year-old for the job that he’s theoretically trained for his entire life, has not come under scrutiny. That will change once the mourning period is over. The new king will find himself relentlessly assessed and, one can predict, unfavourably compared with his revered mother.

This week, a senior BBC journalist controversially speculated that the new king was taking over at a moment when the Scottish desire for independence was unabated. Charles III’s reign could be defined, he warned, by the “eventual dissolution of the United Kingdom”. 

Judging from the television footage of the vast, respectful crowds that lined the 240km route to Edinburgh to pay homage to the passing cortege, the opposite may be as likely. Her death may well stitch up the frayed fabric of the union.

And in a Western anglophone world that feels itself to be under existential threat of climate change, new diseases, opportunistic warmongers, and desperately unimpressive leaders, the queen’s lifelong emphasis on faith, service and humility may — one can dream — have another unexpected effect. Traditional values, hitherto widely derided in the post-Second World War period, may reassert themselves. 

Liz Too would be chuffed. 

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