Monday 22 May 2017

King Charles III and the Importance of Writing Things Down by Catherine Hokin

“But now I’ll rise to how things have to be.
The Queen is dead; Long live the King — that’s me.”

 Tim Piggot-Smith as King Charles, BBC 
"Mike Bartlett's play is a reminder that, even for Republicans, the Queen's death will loom large." This was the Guardian's comment on Bartlett's 'foreboding' play King Charles III, screened just a few days after a twitter melt-down over a Buckingham Palace press-statement so shrouded in anticipation that the Sun 'newspaper's' website pre-empted the news of Prince Philip's retirement with the announcement of his death. Sometimes you can't help but long for the days when even discussing a royal demise was treason and punished as such.

If you haven't had a chance to see the play (airing on the BBC in the UK and Masterpiece in the US), it is a remarkable thing. Written in blank verse to deliberately underline its Shakespearean-style machinations and betrayals, the play concerns the accession of Prince Charles and the consequent constitutional crisis which develops as he tries to find more meaning than mummery in his role. It is plausibly-played and, since it was written in 2014, seems to have found new layers of meaning as revelations have broken over the 'black-spider memos' and the two princes have spoken publicly about the toll their mother's death has taken. 

 The House comes tumbling down, BBC
Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the United Kingdom's lack of a constitution and the ramifications of that 
if a monarch decides not to play ball. The moment when the Commons realises how powerless they really are against the heavy knock on the chamber door is chilling and was not helped for me by my American husband's response to my horrified outrage: 'that's what you get if you base your country on a gentlemen's agreement.' Given the amount of stick he's taken over Trump and the idiocy of our failure to actually enshrine the "set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed [which] make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is” in writing, I had to suck it up. 

 Sophia of Hanover
Constitutional monarchy (where the monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a democratically-derived constitution) has its roots in the Magna Carta and was enshrined following the 1688 'Glorious Revolution' and the 1701 Act of Settlement which passed the crown to the family of Sophia, Electress of Hanover. In Europe, 
Napoleon Bonaparte is considered as the first constitutional monarch as he proclaimed himself as an embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler in contrast to the Divine Right following French Kings before him. The role of the British monarch is understood as a ceremonial and politically neutral one: the current Queen holds weekly (closed and undocumented) meetings with the Prime Minister and can suggest/advise on policy matters and she gives the royal assent to bills and to the appointing of prime ministers but, since the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011, she can no longer use the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament.

Ah, the royal prerogative - a strange and wonderful beast sometimes exercised by ministers (it was used by Margaret Thatcher to go war over the Falklands) and still available to the monarch (although, obviously, we can trust them not to do anything silly with it). The royal prerogative has been described as a notoriously difficult concept to define adequately (Select Committee on Public Administration, 16 March 2004) and originates in the time of King Alfred as the personal power of the monarch as gifted by God. Curbing the extent of this prerogative in favour of a democratic voice has been a central theme throughout British history and tracing the efforts to stop the monarch dissolving the parliaments trying to stop the monarch is like watching a wonderful game of historical cat and mouse.

 Political Cartoon 1832
The last monarch to physically march into parliament and dissolve it was William IV in 1831. William IV succeeded his brother George IV to the throne on 26th June 1830 at the age of 64. At that time the death of a monarch required a general election: Lord Grey was elected, began trying to push electoral reform through, was defeated and went to the King to ask him to dissolve parliament so it could be better built with his supporters. The descriptions of the King marching into parliament, putting on his crown as he went are astonishing: The Times said it was "utterly impossible to describe the scene ... The violent tones and gestures of noble Lords ... astonished the spectators, and affected the ladies who were present with visible alarm." Lord Londonderry was seen brandishing a whip, threatening to thrash government supporters and had to be forcibly restrained, violent riots erupted and the King's carriage was pelted with rubbish. Bartlett uses this episode as the precedent to Charles's actions in the play and and the spreading shock is palpable.

Could this happen again and art play itself out as history? It would be a risky move and the Windsors are nothing if not brilliant at survival. However, the extent of royal prerogative remains unclear and suspension and summoning seems still to be within the monarch's power even if dissolving is not. The current Queen is very adapt at keeping her feelings hidden despite the media looking for constant hints - the speculation over her attitude to Scottish independence stirred up a hornet's nest - but Charles is certainly a lesser-known, or perhaps too well-known, quantity. For outsiders and republicans like me whose interest in a royal family is purely historic, the relationship between Britain and its its royal family is a curious one. A lot of its 'loyalty' (as Bartlett uses in his play) seems to be tied up with the Queen herself - perhaps, given that 83% of us have spent our whole lives with her as Queen and she has kept well away from controversy, there is an inbred sense of trust. However, when the news blackout and the twitter-storm really does herald the big sea-change, I wonder how many of us will come to regret that those rather ambiguous powers were recorded as starkly as the black-edged announcement. We can't say we weren't warned...


  1. Catherine, thank you. This explanation of what's behind the Charles III play - rather than yet another glossy scandal - makes me want to watch it.

  2. Very perceptive and rightly uncomfortable! Charles does remind me of George the 3rd, who wanted to increase royal power. I do so agree about the 'gentleman's agreement.' It is absolutely telling and true. If we had a written constitution, we'd have proper rules for referenda, for a start. And it's a million pities that the extension of the franchise, post-war, wasn't accompanied by a reform of our primitive voting system, which was devised to send propertied men to Parliament. It has never been fit for purpose in a true democracy. Alas, first past the post will never be attractive to those who it brought to power, who, when we had a referendum on a creaking form of proportional representation, told lies to the electorate in order to keep the status quo, while Labour shot themselves in the foot by failing to support it.


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