Prince William and Prince Charles (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

The case for a vocal king

Why Charles should speak his mind

Artillery Row

Very few British monarchs have ever produced a manifesto. Quite rightly, they tend to leave that to the politicians, who must entice the sceptical voter with promises not only of jam tomorrow, but jam today and jam for the rest of the year, if you will only vote for him and not the other fellow.

He has the power to dissolve a Parliament

King Charles III, however, has published something of the sort. It is not a list of spending commitments or a programme for government, but a whole book, laying out in some detail a distinctive and coherent plan for how we ought to organise our life together. The work in question is 2010’s Harmony: A New Way Of Looking At Our World, written in conjunction with Tony Juniper, best known for being head of Friends Of The Earth and the BBC presenter Ian Skelly. Good luck getting a copy: the online price, understandably, has rocketed since last Thursday. But I can give you the core argument of the work here and now: human life should be meaningful and sustainable, and that this is achievable if we align our environments, attitudes and aspirations more closely with the underlying truth of things.

The King is clearly passionate about the views offered in the book, which draw on many sources; not only his Christian beliefs and his traditionalist views on architecture, but his studies of other religious traditions — Islam in particular — and his practical experience of restoring the Highgrove estate. This leads me to wonder whether he might, in time, take a more active role in government than his mother chose to. 

Elizabeth II had such a long reign that we have tended to view her restrained approach to her role as the only one conceivable. But ours is a constitutional monarchy, rather than a ceremonial one. The task of the sovereign is not simply to give assent to Bills passed by Parliament, open new railway lines and appear in skits with James Bond. The purpose of our system of government is not to provide local colour for tourists in central London. The unelected and hereditary monarchy is there to provide a counterbalance to the more purely democratic elements of the constitution, just as the House of Lords is meant to do. The great weakness of electoral democracy is that it tends to incentivise short-termism and over-simplification of complex problems. It makes rulers reluctant to tell their people hard truths, and it encourages them to focus only on the present rather than practising careful stewardship — respecting the past with an eye on the future. By contrast, those who do not owe their position to a quinquennial popularity contest, whose authority is rooted in history, precedent, tradition and the accumulated wisdom of centuries, can bring the long view. They can represent the unfashionable opinion and take the multi-generational perspective without fear of being given the boot at the next election because those kinds of truths are hard to explain on TV in thirty second clips. 

Obviously there are limits to what the monarch can do. No-one is suggesting that Charles should publicly favour certain parties. But there are plenty of levers available if he should wish to use them. As well as privately advising the Prime Minister and other ministers — something which he began doing as Prince of Wales and for which he is well-known in Whitehall — he has the power to dismiss Prime Ministers and even to dissolve a Parliament if it is no longer capable of functioning correctly.

Many causes close to Charles’s heart are not party political

These are dramatic steps. More prosaically, the King is often in a position to make public remarks, whether through speeches on particular occasions or during his Christmas Day address. There is no reason why he should not use those opportunities, carefully, to bring to public attention the kind of matters he thinks are important. His mother did not really do this, although especially in her later years her Christmas speeches became increasingly focused on gentle promotion of her Christian faith. She did once or twice make interventions which were more explicitly political, notably in her support for the Belfast Agreement, when its implementation was still subject to referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. 

Many of the causes close to Charles’s heart — sustainability, conservation, respect for religious belief and for religious difference, the need for more good housing and for beauty in public architecture — are not strongly party political. This would give him a good deal more leeway in his public discussion of those matters, and his ability to use the throne to promote the public good and the peace and order of his realms. After all, sometime in the next year or so Charles will take a Coronation oath by which he binds himself to “govern” the people of the UK. Of course this is done through the established forms of the Crown in Parliament, and is subject to all the conditions and limitations that have been hammered out over our long dramatic history. The fundamental point remains that he is the sovereign. Political power and law in this country is based on the authority given to him. 

Britain faces a challenging few decades, as we adapt to being a new kind of country in a new world. We have a housing crisis and an energy crisis, as well as social tensions and loss of irreplaceable natural beauty. We are very fortunate to have gained a monarch who is not only concerned by those problems, but has thought long and hard about how to address them. 

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