A hard act to follow: Charles III and the future of the monarchy

One of the prevailing themes in commentary following the death of Queen Elizabeth II was the continuity and constancy which her long reign embodied. This also reflected the long and almost unbroken continuity of the institution of the monarchy in Britain. The passing of a sovereign, however, naturally raises questions about the future of the institution of the monarchy. This post reflects on the challenges facing King Charles, and his successors, as they follow Britain’s longest reigning and arguably most popular monarch.

King Charles is 73 years old. He is ascending the throne at an age when most people have already retired. In contrast his workload is likely to increase considerably. The Queen was reputed to have worked with diligence and energy throughout her reign and she has perhaps, in this area as in many others, set a high bar for her son to reach. Although the Queen had stepped back from many of her public duties in recent years she continued to work until the end. In her final days she carried out one of her most important constitutional duties, meeting with the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and asking Liz Truss to form a government.

Yet even before Covid, the Queen had begun to reduce her public engagements, allowing the Prince of Wales to take on some of her more arduous duties such as the wreath laying at the Cenotaph and overseas visits such as attendance at the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. As King, Charles may also want to share the load with his son, the new Prince of Wales. Unlike the Queen he also has several siblings who he may be able to rely on to support him in his role. Although Prince Andrew seems likely to remain out of the public eye, Princess Anne and the Earl and Countess of Wessex already carry out a significant number of public duties and can, perhaps, be relied upon to step in if age and infirmity begin to challenge the King.

Charles will also need to behave differently as king. As Prince of Wales, he had relative freedom to speak out about the issues he was passionate about. As the monarch he may need to be more circumspect in his public statements, something which he acknowledged in his address to the nation on the evening after his mother’s death:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.

Yet we should not, perhaps, expect the new king to behave quite like his mother. One of the consequences of coming to the throne late in life is that the King’s views on a range of issues are already fully formed and moreover, well known. At his stage in life, he may struggle to hide his concerns or displeasure, and we may well see a closer parallel with his outspoken father than with the cautious ingénue who ascended the throne in 1952.

The King may also be treated differently by those around him. He may not, for example, enjoy the same deference from the political class that his mother so clearly did. Reflecting on their weekly audiences with the Queen, Prime Ministers, particularly in recent years, frequently acknowledged the Queen’s wisdom drawn from long experience. Fifteen Prime Minsters served under the Queen; Charles is on his first, although he may not need to wait long for the second. To be sure there is a deference which is attached to the role rather than the individual, but it would be surprising if his advice was imbued with the same level of wisdom as that enjoyed by his mother. The first indication of a more cautious relationship between the government and the monarch may well be the Truss government’s decision not to allow the King to attend the Cop 27 summit, despite, or more likely because of, his well-known views on the environment.

King Charles also does not enjoy anywhere near the level of personal popularity of his mother. The extraordinary demonstrations of public grief which followed the Queen’s death were merely a reflection of the level of public support for the Queen in life. Polling by YouGov indicated that irrespective of people’s views on the monarchy, around three quarters of the public consistently agreed that the Queen did a good job during her time on the throne, while the proportion who felt she did a bad job was in single figures. Approval ratings for Charles, as Prince of Wales, were considerably lower. As recently as May 2022, only 32% of those polled by YouGov thought Charles would make a good king, while exactly the same proportion thought he would not. As a new King, Charles has enjoyed something of a poll bounce. In polling undertaken just days after the Queen’s death, YouGov reported that 63% now thought he would make a good king, while 53% thought that Camilla would do well in her new role as Queen Consort.

Public opinion may of course change. It is clear that the overwhelmingly personal popularity of the Queen, enhanced the popularity of the institution of the monarchy. In the case of Charles, the opposite appears to be true. His personal popularity appears to have been enhanced by becoming the monarch. He is also benefitting from the legacy of popularity for the institution bequeathed by his mother.

The death of a monarch does, however, naturally lead to questions about the future of monarchy. Britain will remain a monarchy for as long as the British public are happy to support it. Polling indicates that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the British public consistently think that Britain should remain a monarchy. At the same time around one in five consistently support the replacement of the monarch with an elected head of state. There are, however, some significant demographic differences in support for the monarchy, with young people in particular, considerably less supportive than older groups. In polling by YouGov shortly after the death of the Queen, while 75% of those aged 50-64, and 86% of over 65s, thought that Britain should remain a monarchy, only 47% of those aged 18-24 wanted to keep the monarchy, while a third of young people thought Britain should have an elected head of state. Similarly, only 31% of 18–24 year olds said the monarchy made them feel proud, compared to 73% of over 65s.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that there is some scepticism when people are asked if they think Britain will still be a monarchy a hundred years from now. There has been a steep decline in those who thought that Britain would still be a monarchy in a hundred years, from 66% a decade ago down to 39% earlier this year, when the majority (41%) thought it would no longer be a monarchy. Although as with other questions about the monarchy, there has been an increase in support in polling following the Queen’s death, with 52% now agreeing that Britain would still be a monarchy in hundred years, compared to 30% who think it would not.

Following the death of the Queen support for the monarchy remains high, and on assuming the role, the new King has also enjoyed an increase in personal support. But the future of the monarchy is not guaranteed. The Queen is a hard act to follow, and it may be some considerable time before Britain has another monarch who enjoys the long reign and personal popularity of Elizabeth II. One simple explanation for the Queen’s popularity is that she ascended the throne at a young age and remained on it for such a long time. Few people in Britain can remember a time when she was not Queen. In contrast throughout the reign of Charles III, most people will remember, in many cases with great affection, the reign of his predecessor. In coming to the throne late in life Charles cannot hope to emulate the constancy embodied in his mother’s long reign. Moreover, in this he is not alone. If Charles lives as long as his mother, Prince William will be 63 when he becomes king, and if he enjoys a similarly long life, Prince George will be 65 when he ascends the throne. Britain is at the end of an extraordinarily long reign, but the sad truth is that the UK is probably going have to get used to a succession of relatively short reigns by elderly men. The overwhelming support for the institution of the monarchy is perhaps Elizabeth II’s most significant legacy, but her heirs and successors can’t assume the same level of support, from politicians or the public, and will need to work hard to preserve that legacy.

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