At the age of 74, His Royal Highness, Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor, officially takes on the role of Most Excellent Monarch, Sovereign Lord, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Quite a mouthful for a guy known to some Americans as ‘Chuck’.
For republicans, the pomp and circumstance of the coronation is a puzzling and wasteful anachronism that is hard to swallow in political terms or justify financially. The entire event is estimated to cost £100 million (or some R2,3 billion) at a time when the UK economy is saddled with its highest levels of national debt in modern times, public sector workers are striking due to a raft of pay crises and consumers are struggling to afford basic services such as gas and electricity.
This is not lost on the British general public. Support for the monarchy is at all-time lows, with just one in three Brits regarding the monarchy as “very important”. More concerning for the House of Windsor, 45% of Britons recently surveyed believe the monarchy should be abolished or is not at all important. More specifically, while Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll enjoyed approval ratings consistently above 80%, support for her eldest son and successor has dipped to 59%. Queen Camilla fares worse, with approval ratings consistently below 50%, though well above her 33% (dis?) approval rate in 2017.
The eldest of a somewhat dysfunctional family and to some degree the victim of historical circumstance, elements of Charles’s own behaviour have given rise to scepticism and doubt regarding his fitness to hold the highest office and indeed the sustainability of the monarchy. It would be futile and unfair to compare the prospects of Charles’s monarchy to the legacy of his Mother, yet the reality is that Elizabeth ll established a standard against which all others are and will be measured. In contrast to Elizabeth’s probity and dignity, Charles has evinced all too common human flaws, most damaging of which is that of infidelity. More egregious than the odd royal dalliance, as was customary with his Father and forbears, Charles broke the heart of Diana, the People’s Princess and in so doing, shattered the myth of Britain’s Royal Camelot. As the newly anointed “Defender of Faiths” and Head of the Church of England, the King will be obliged to set an exemplary standard.
A further challenge confronting the constitutional monarch is political. While his Mother remained assiduously above politics while receiving and seeing off 15 UK Prime Ministers (and dozens others in the Commonwealth) Charles has through deed and word inserted himself into the maelstrom of British politics. No doubt Charles has been ahead of his time on critical issues such as climate change and sustainability and while his utterances on issues such as slavery, diversity, inclusivity and migration are viewed as progressive, they are at heart political and open him and indeed the UK to domestic and international critique, as well as consequences.
This is not all bad for renewing the monarchy and making it ‘relevant’ for modern times. Indeed, Charles has placed the modernisation of the monarchy as his defining imprimatur. For all the sometimes-justified criticisms levelled at Charles, he has put his privilege to good use. It’s also hard not to be endeared by any monarch who talks to plants, sends a bottle of whisky to Ozzie Osborne after his quad bike accident and is a Burnley fan. A graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, a commissioned Royal Navy Officer and pilot, the King has achieved great things with his Prince of Wales Trust. He is also patron to some 400 charities and organisations and conducts much of his ‘community’ work out of sight of the public eye and media.
Yet, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Not only is the new king confronted with the challenge of recasting the throne in his own image and likeness, the union itself is divided, particularly after Brexit, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland exercising the minds of politicians and the public alike. Further afield, while Charles assumes the role of head of state to 14 countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, he is tasked with sustaining the hugely diverse 56-member Commonwealth with its 2,5 billion population. Indeed, such is the magnitude of the task facing the 74-year-old king that some contend that his best option is to stabilise the monarchy, hold a steady course and prepare the groundwork for the reign of Prince William and the immensely popular Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. I disagree.
The British monarchy is much more than a stuffy anachronistic institution, or a royal corporation. Fundamentally, it is about family, albeit a very special and public one and I would expect it to pull together to support the new monarch and in particular to nurture William and Kate to take forward this peculiar, yet remarkable, institution for decades to come.
South Africa has its fair share of British monarchists and irrespective of one’s position on the coronation, not only is the Cullinan diamond sparkling in the royal sceptre and coronation crown a regal reminder of our shared colonial history, the beautiful voice of UCT alumnus Pretty Yende singing at Westminster Abbey on Saturday May 6th, portends the continued special relationship between our two unique countries.