A history essay I wrote in the first year of my degree considered whether monarchy in Medieval and Early Modern History constituted an effective or flawed system of government. My conclusion, and I suspect an unoriginal one, was that the system was effective as long as the monarch at the head of the government was effective. Effective leader means effective system and an incompetent leader results in system malfunction. Henry IV's weaknesses and susceptibility to manipulation at a time of rising power amongst the nobility led to the Wars of the Roses. Moving into the Early Modern era, Charles I's dogmatism and unwillingness to negotiate with Parliament led to another civil war and his eventual execution, as well as a permanently diminished monarchy. The causes behind these civil wars aren't reducible to any one reason, but the weakness of Henry IV and Charles I as leaders, and their centrality in causing the civil wars, are unequivocal. This idea, of a leading defining the health of an institution, has stuck with me ever since I wrote that essay.
The duties of our current monarch Elizabeth II are less demanding than her predecessors. They are confined primarily to the ceremonial and she commands widespread support, amongst both left and right. In her Diamond Jubilee year, 69% respondents said Britain would be worse off without the monarchy while 22% said the country would be better off. The Queen is seen as a faithful servant of the country, performing her public duties admirably and with devotion. A new book by Phillip Murphy, Monarchy and the End of Empire, gives a more comprehensive account of what the Queen does and the difficult balancing acts she plays: she has the dual role of being Constitutional Monarch and the Head of the Commonwealth. However, the Queen has managed this balancing act with masterly ability and remains a highly popular figure.
But though we hold the Queen in high regard, it is only through the prism of her public duties that we've formed an understanding of her character. The reality is that we do not know the Queen. We don't really know what she is like or her views; she doesn't provide much of an inkling, given that she has never been interviewed. Yes, she is very devoted, a fine public servant, but what does she think about Global Warming? What are views about the rise of social media? Despite reigning over the rise of the digital age and mass media, which has afforded previously unimagined access to public figures, the Queen has eschewed the scrutiny, and remains a mysterious figure. And this is fundamental in explaining why she is popular.
Ernest Jones (known for being Sigmund Freud's biographer) pointed out that George V as a monarch had become discharged from practicing politics and that government was now two persons: the "untouchable, irremovable and sacrosanct" king and the party in charge of government, which, because it is engrossed in the grimy game of politics, is "vulnerable to such a degree that sooner or later he will surely be destroyed." But the monarch remains above politics, so above criticism. This model is certainly applicable to George V's granddaughter, Elizabeth. But would it be applicable to a monarchy under Elizabeth's son, King Charles III?
Based on how Charles has acted as prince, it might not. Charles is constantly in the media eye. He has bold views on architecture, the environment, alternative medicines and Christianity, and regularly acts on these views. Indeed, he has made headlines with his lobbying of government ministers. In Charles's guest editorship of Country Life he wrote an article defending the plight of the farmer against corporate supermarket. Recently, Charles condemned it as a "tragedy" that people affected by the floods in Somerset have not received quick enough attention and last week, he appeared in a broadcast with his son Prince William in which they launched a campaign calling for an end to the illegal trade in elephant tusks and rhino horns. We know far more about Charles then we do the Queen.
Whether the causes he devotes himself to are worthy is a moot point. What matters is that he is a political figure in that he expresses political convictions and attempts to have an impact on the politics of the day. As a result this makes Charles vulnerable, since to express a political view is implicitly rejecting a view held by others. Charles might be able get away with his political activities as a prince. Indeed, on his 65th birthday last year, 52% polled favoured him becoming next king over his son, William. Yet the voice of a King holds more sway than the voice of an heir. A king pronouncing on the issues of the day, such as implying the government's response to the floods has been inadequate, will engender much more scrutiny. King Charles would be transforming the role of the monarchy from the strictly ceremonial to one which tries to impact contemporary politics. This would in turn raise questions of legitimacy and whether an unelected body has the right to try to exercise this level of influence. The lowest ebb of monarchy under the Queen's reign was its response to the death of Princess Diana, when the monarchy was dragged into the politics of the day.
The principle of a monarchy is archaic and having a monarchy within our democratic system is idiosyncratic. But the monarchy in its current form has been defined by the passive Queen Elizabeth, and it is a form which commands the support of the British people; only an inconsequential minority demand an alternative. Were Charles to act in a political way as king it would lead to a different type of monarchy and questions would be raised about the legitimacy of his office. The pursuit of an alternative to monarchy would become more credible and gain support. Perhaps Charles should consider what matters more to him when he becomes king: using his office as a means pursue his pet-political projects, or trying to uphold the sanctity of the monarchy by ensuring he becomes apolitical.
What constitutes an effective monarch may have changed since Henry IV but the fundamental fragility in the system remains. The efficacy of the system and the support it commands still depends on the person in charge. The Queen is above politics, a loyal public servant and as long as she remains in office the monarchy is assured. But her activist son means the prospects for monarchy in the future bodes ill.
Consider recent examples of how rapidly individual figures can alter the perceptions of and support for the entity they preside over. President Rouhani's reconciliatory actions and gestures have caused hope for a more moderate Iran. Pope Francis has transformed the perceptions of the Catholic Church: once blighted by sexual abuse scandals under the previous regime, it now has a far more tolerant and inclusive image. Simple gestures have made an impact, like a phone call from Rouhani to President Obama, or Pope Francis choosing to drive his old Renault instead of being driven by motorcade. It's humbling really; despite the bloated and multi-faceted institutions and state apparatuses that have been built up over time, the person in charge is still central in dictating its fortunes. It wouldn't take much for King Charles III to cause a system malfunction within the British monarchy, to cause a new civil war within in Britain. A civil war not fought with weapons, but just as dangerous to the monarchy's future, one fought with ideas.