Prince Charles, heir apparent to the English monarchy and by extension the monarchies of 16 countries (including New Zealand) has never been shy about sharing his opinions whether those be on Genetic Modification (against), alternative medicine (for), or architecture (modern = bad). In fact, it looks like a bunch of his letters lobbying the UK government (referred to as the Spider Memos due to the quality of his handwriting) are about to be released. As time passes, and Queen Elizabeth has transferred more of her official duties over to Charles, it is becoming increasingly apparent he has no intention of stopping even when he eventually becomes King. It would seem King Charles will have a much more proactive stance toward government that his mother’s policy of benign neglect.
You may be inclined to two responses to this observation (especially if you are American):
- Who cares?
- He’s entitled to his opinion.
Taking the second point first – no he isn’t. The function of the monarchy in the 21st Century (to the extent it has a function) is to provide a ceremonial unifying role for the country. That only works if the monarchy stands for everyone, and that’s difficult if the monarch goes around having opinions, at least where other people can hear. I have no idea what Queen Elizabeth’s opinions are about anything (except that she likes corgis) and that’s how it should be. She stays apart from politics which allows her to represent the country as a whole. This also allows her to perform the tricky role of being a theoretically powerful political figure in an environment where she has no moral mandate to actually do anything – after all strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. If Prince Charles wants to have an opinion he is free to abdicate. Yes, I know the last abdication was a dramatic affair (which is why I’m certain he’ll never actually abdicate), but the circumstances are quite different. Prince William is comfortably into his majority (with an heir of his own), and he already has an expectation he’ll be King someday.
As for the first point, as noted above King Charles would be the Head of State of over a dozen countries, as well as probably being the head of the Commonwealth (although that last one isn’t automatic). And he already has access to the UK government that few others can match – and once he’s King he will have a regular meeting with the UK’s Prime Minister. And that assumes he sticks to lobbying, and doesn’t try to use some of the long-dormant powers held by the monarchy.
I used to be a lukewarm monarchist, of the form “the monarchy is too irrelevant to be worth reforming”, but that attitude was born of Queen Elizabeth’s approach to reigning – the modern monarchy is largely her invention. The monarchy is a successful institution because the Queen has firewalled it away from politics, but Prince Charles doesn’t seem to realise that. If he continues in his current vein, it seems inevitable that frictions between him and the UK government will eventually escalate into some manner of Constitutional Crisis, and any such crisis would result in the powers of the Monarchy being curtailed or even abolished. That’s the other half of the social contract between the monarchy and the people, they get to keep all kinds of powers precisely because they don’t use them. A modern democratic nation won’t accept being dictated to by a hereditary monarch, and any battle between Parliament and King will end badly for the King, not as badly as it did for Charles I, but badly nonetheless.
But winning a war is not as good as not having the fight the war in the first place. Constitutional crises are pretty much the opposite of fun; even if it worked out OK in the end the conflict between The Crown and Parliament would be hugely disruptive to the UK, and possibly to the other countries that still recognise the House of Windsor. For this reason, I think all the countries that still recognise the English Monarchy should make some contingency plans. In the case of the dominions, each of them should involve setting up some mechanism to separate themselves from the monarchy, should the public desire to do that at some point in the future. In the case of the UK, it might be time to start trimming the powers of the monarchy, and emphasizing that the job of the reigning monarch is to have an impressive wave and have the good sense to face the right way on coins, not to actually try governing.
Image: “Coat of Arms of Charles, Prince of Wales” by Sodacan This vector image was created with Inkscape. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coat_of_Arms_of_Charles,_Prince_of_Wales.svg#/media/File:Coat_of_Arms_of_Charles,_Prince_of_Wales.svg