An amusing meme did the rounds last year when Charles the Third ascended to the throne. Pointing out that the King’s two regal namesakes had dissolved Parliament, the image leaves little doubt as to what is on His Majesty’s mind.
Personally, I’d be all for our philosopher King to send MPs packing and embark on his Personal Rule. Obviously, I’d angle for a role as the Lord Clarendon of the Tik Tok generation (or perhaps the Earl of Rochester, oi oi). But a Perennialist government devoted to weaving hedgerows and promoting Poundbury would be lovely – and might get more houses built than relying on our NIMBY politicians.
Until that hallowed day, one supposes we will have to make do with our current balance of Commons, Lords, and Crown: the muddled consequences of a good millennium of half of wars, revolutions, constitutional tinkering, and dynastic misfortune that would have a political ‘scientist’ tearing their hair out.
Yet is a balance that seemed a tad out of whack during the Coronation, as magnificent as it was. I would never seek to tell His Majesty when he was doing something wrong. Grade inflation means that his 2:2 does not look too shabby compared to my First, and I wish I could match the elegance of Harmony. Even so, I’d like to brush him on a couple of vital details (he did go to Cambridge, after all).
Amidst the pomp, circumstance, and extended cameo by the Goddess Athena, one could not help but notice a slight nervousness about Saturday’s shenanigans. Concerns about the weather or remembering lines are only natural. But the wording and guest list showed a Palace concerned not to seem too ostentatious, or alien.
The fact that MPs were not automatically invited to the event to make room for charity workers and celebrities is a sign of a monarchy scared to be associated with power. Foregrounding the King’s pledge to serve his subjects shows a King not keen on being thought of as elitist. This is, of course, a ludicrous proposition from the heir of the God Woden, and the patron saint of Young Fogeys.
From the late Duke of Edinburgh at the barbie to the Sussexes on Oprah (via It’s a Royal Knockout, a plethora of divorces, and a grating preoccupation with Paddington Bear), the Royals have become a soap opera. Light has been let in upon magic; the deference the institution relies upon becomes harder to engage in when you know the King once compared himself to a tampon.
Consequently, the Palace feels it must pander to popular sentiment at the expense of constitutional niceties. MPs didn’t receive an automatic invite, peers didn’t play their traditional roles, but God’s anointed representative on Earth had to pretend he could find some sort of joy in being Tom Cruise’s wingman.
Unless they plan on going the full Meiji, a monarch finds themself accepting the limits imposed by the period in which they live. As much as we may wish Elizabeth II had ruled like her Tudor namesake rather than be complicit in her nation’s decline, she lacked the support or the willingness to do so.
Yet this pandering can go too far. It strikes me that there were times when this Coronation was decided too much with the 20 per cent or so of the population silly enough to be republicans in mind – an enterprise that is always going to end badly. You may not be interested in a referendum on the monarchy, but…
Keeping MPs at arm’s length is to neglect that the King himself is part of Parliament. The idea of him refusing royal assent may be a fantasy peddled by playwrights looking for an easy hit. But his granting it is still a constitutional necessity, even if his primary political role is as a therapist for Prime Ministers.
In this case, it is the King’s interest that he builds Parliament up, rather than seek to sideline it further. What that meme forgets is that no good has come from a King named Charles undermining the Commons. The King might not be courting a beheading or the triumph of a Dutch usurper, but he must be mindful not to leave politicians nursing a grudge.
When our Editor left Parliament, he enumerated its deficiencies: too much power handed over to Europe and devolved assemblies, the proliferation of professional politicians, reduced time for scrutinising legislation, and the growing rule of the lobby and quangocracies. “The key problem with today’s House of Commons,” as he put it, “is that it’s slowly but inexorably travelling towards the wrong destination.”
Since then, asides from the welcome (if incomplete) reclamation of our sovereignty from Brussels, the direction of travel has remained the same. If anything, it has sped up. Iraq, the 2008 crash, the expenses scandal, Brexit, the rise of ‘populism’, Covid, Partygate, the Truss farrago: all have left the reputation of our politicians at rock bottom.
The King is a man not unfamiliar with the vagaries of public opinion and the need for long and careful work to win it over. It would be wise for His Majesty to remember that our politicians need hugging close every now and then. He never knows when he might need their help.
Pandering to MPs’ egos should not be incompatible with his continuing to lend his considerable ears to those issues about which he is most passionate. The King is not his mother and should not be expected to imitate her silence – which was, by the way, always exaggerated – and neither does the public expect him to. He might not be able to direct his ministers to cover the nation in Poundburys, but he can jolly well suggest they do.
His Majesty playing a role in politics should not raise the spectre of ship money. General elections are not soon going to be fought over wrangling over inheritances or indulgences, and His Majesty has done a pretty good job of limiting the role of his wayward brother already. Yet the Palace should be aware that when a King Charles neglects Parliament, sooner or later it takes its revenge.