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Artillery Row

The building king

King Charles can be a late bloomer

King Charles is not the first person in his position. His great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII (1901–1910) did not become king until he was fifty-nine years old. And he was dead less than a decade later. He followed his mother, Queen Victoria, who was, after a slightly up and down reign, one of the most successful monarchs of all time. She inherited a throne in jeopardy, brought into disrepute by her profligate, dissolute, troublesome uncles. She left an institution that was an international symbol of power and stability. And she thought her son was a terribly poor successor. Oh, and as if those parallels weren’t enough, in his youth and middle age, Edward was sexually scandalous. 

But Edward was like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal: a playboy prince who became a hero king. He wasn’t the same sort of hero as Henry V, but like him, he rather surprisingly imitated the sun after a dissolute youth. Edward spent his life as if all his years were playing holiday, dallying with shooting parties and other men’s wives. His mother thought he was such a wastrel she refused to let him see a state paper or prepare for his role. Yet, Edward — or tum tum, as he was known — became a startlingly effective monarch. 

Charles must imitate not his mother, but his great-great-grandfather

Queen Elizabeth took her grandfather George V as her model: the stately combination of public spectacle and private probity. Since we all know everything about Charles as if he had been dead for a century and biographers had already picked over his archives — we even know he once declared that he wished he could be a tampon — then this strategy might be best described for him as necessary but not sufficient. Charles must play a straight bat to succeed, but he must also exceed expectations. Like his great-great-grandfather, and Prince Hal before them, he must throw off the loose behaviour of his past, pay the debt he never promised and make his reformation like bright metal on sullen ground. Charles does not have long and he must redeem his time. He must imitate not his mother, but his great-great-grandfather.

Edward’s first achievement was reform. Victoria left a rigid system; Edward streamlined finances and let in the light of transparency. Elizabeth II was a reforming monarch with a stripped back attitude to titles and honours. Expect more simplification from Charles. William is already Prince of Wales. Does this mean the made-up investiture process can be foregone? Let’s hope so. Wherever Charles can make the monarchy minimal without compromising on the essential nature of its glamour, let him do so. We do not lack glitter, and the transition from imperial to domestic monarchy has a little more room to run. 

Edward VII introduced the Order of Merit as a way of giving out honours to people of the arts, sciences, literature and armed forces — and modernising the stuffy old system. Charles should create a new order for entrepreneurs, innovators and people of great charitable energy. He could do this through letters patent and decide on the awardees himself, with consultation: this is a low-key way of keeping the prerogative alive, maintaining the best aspects of his busy charitable impulses, and making the monarchy fresh again. He might start discussion about renaming the Orders of the Empire. Make it a package deal. Who will object to the Order of the Commonwealth? Or the Order of Britain? Why not have one for each constituent nation?

Edward’s next act was to be seen. He lived in London, unlike his gloomy mother, and started opening Parliament himself, which she hardly ever did. When Charles shook hands at the gates, he did more good than any speech could have done. It was a little touch of Harry in the night that endeared the reformed Prince Hal to his men before battle. Let us see a little more of the ordinary side of this man who we all know as a presumptuous crown Prince. It was cutting cake and ribbons that made Elizabeth II great.

Give up a parcel of Royal land for building new houses

Finally, Edward was politically active. Relations with France were poor. We failed to celebrate the centenary of the revolution. As Prince of Wales, Edward was hissed in the streets of Paris. It was thought that if there were war in Europe, it would be between Britain and France. Suddenly, being a well-networked, well-travelled cosmopolitan wasn’t such a bad thing. Edward’s personal involvement in diplomacy secured the Entente Cordiale. A Foreign Office memo later noted the “initiative and tactful perseverance of the King, warmly recognised and applauded on both sides of the Channel”. In the political mess of 1910 he kept the conniving politicians guessing, before his sudden death. He was also the first sovereign to visit the Pope.

Charles has no such option. His biggest risk is to be seen to be political. The trail of his involvements is already too long not to be unsettling. In terms of improvements, Charles should look not to politics but to architecture. His new town of Poundbury has been remarkably successful. You might not admire everything about it, but this experimental town in Dorset, due to be finished in 2025, has four thousand residents and two thousand jobs. It is a thriving community many thought impossible. 

In honour of the memory of the late Queen, Charles should announce more such projects. Why not, using some of the vast landholdings enjoyed by the crown and other members of the Royal family, create new towns and villages? There is a housing crisis. We have no political solution. Charles has done it before. To give up land for housing would be nothing but a popular move. He doesn’t have to direct it all himself: he simply has to make the country an offer it cannot refuse. Give up a parcel of Royal land for the foundation of new places to build. Make it a joint effort with Prince William.

Rather than the usual British manner of jubilee where we let bunting wave in the rain, as John Heath-Stubbs put it, let us create a great new British city — an ambitious, beautiful place, where new architecture, new ideas, new ideals can be put to practice. George IV was a terrible monarch in many ways, but he commissioned John Nash to lay out the West End. Charles has the opportunity to do the same, not for London’s grand avenues, but for the ordinary people of his realm. In this he should follow George, not Edward, and be the inspiration for a new wave of British building. 

Now is the time. Liz Truss is the prime minister who will agree to this if any prime minister will. Charles has an opportunity to become a late bloomer. Let him meet his critics head on and be an activist monarch. Let him be remembered as the builder king.

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