King Charles III gave us plenty to reflect on with his first speech last night. He spoke movingly about his mother, but also gave us an indication about how he sees his role and that of the monarchy – which will matter greatly as he starts to put his own mark on the royal family, its role and its limits in British public life. Six points jumped out at me.
1. He is against abdication
Is this an option? In the last few years of her life, people wondered if the Queen’s failing health would lead to her abdication. Similarly, those concerned about Charles’s political meddling over the years have wondered: might he blow it? Perhaps he’ll just do a few years, then abdicate in favour of William and Kate? Some constitutionalists said abdication is not an option: it happened once, a freak event in the Wallis Simpson affair. Those ruling out abdication normally point to a pledge the Queen gave in her famous speech on her 25th birthday, widely taken as her ruling out abdication as an option. Charles referred to this pledge twice in his first speech.
‘She pledged in a broadcast from Cape Town to the Commonwealth to devote her life, whether it be short or long, to the service of her peoples. That was more than a promise: it was a profound personal commitment which defined her whole life…. I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the Constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.’
So he’s in this for life.
2. Camilla as Queen Consort
Earlier this year, the Queen had earlier expressed her ‘sincere wish’ that Camilla should take this title but it was not confirmed until it came from the King’s mouth.
‘I count on the loving help of my darling wife, Camilla. In recognition of her own loyal public service since our marriage 17 years ago, she becomes my queen consort. I know she will bring to the demands of her new role the steadfast devotion to duty on which I have come to rely so much.’
The Queen often spoke about Prince Philip in such terms, and Charles is seeking to do so as well. But he is not quite on so firm ground given that his marital past is – shall we say – more complicated. Camilla’s position was always contested by those who believe she wrongly inserted herself as the ‘third person’ in the marriage the country celebrated in 1981. Attitudes toward marriage have changed since then: a quarter of those who married around that time were divorced ten years later (it’s slightly lower now) so his experience is hardly unique. Today, polls show about 60 per cent agree that Camilla should either be Queen or Queen Consort.
3. The olive branch to Harry and Meghan
‘I want also to express my love for Harry and Meghan as they continue to build their lives overseas.’ As everyone knows, those two have been building that life with the support of people like Oprah Winfrey and Netflix, telling stories of how they fled the cold wickedness (even racism) of members of the royal family. Charles opens his reign with an invitation to reset relations, on a basis of goodwill – and familial love.
4. Charles promises to zip it
‘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.’ Of course he’ll have to step down as patron of the charities, but by inserting ‘issues’ in here, he promises to begin a regal silence. As he knows, his history of meddling is seen as the biggest risk to his reign.
5. Charles calls for his children to ‘lead our national conversations’
‘With Catherine beside him, our new Prince and Princess of Wales will, I know, continue to inspire and lead our national conversations, helping to bring the marginal to the centre ground where vital help can be given.’ I’m a committed monarchist but I dispute that the role of royals is, in any way, to ‘inspire’ or ‘lead’ national conversations. I’n fact, the opposite is true: their role is avoid doing this. The Queen knew she was there to serve the whole country so steered away from controversies, knowing that if she took one side of a debate she’d alienate the other side. The charities she patronised were always deeply unfashionable ones, not remotely political.
6. Charles will remain ‘defender of the faith’ – but with caveats
In a 1994 interview, Charles famously said that he’d be ‘defender of faith’ rather than Defender of the Faith (a title that the monarch has held since 1554) which called into question his commitment to his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This matter. If the monarch walks away from this role, the established church is no longer established. He later rowed back, saying he’d be both a protector of faith and discharge his Anglican duty. His position was reflected in his speech.
‘The role and the duties of Monarchy also remain, as does the Sovereign’s particular relationship and responsibility toward the Church of England — the Church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted. In that faith, and the values it inspires, I have been brought up to cherish a sense of duty to others, and to hold in the greatest respect the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government.’
I’m a Catholic, but am a big believer in the need to keep the Church of England as the established faith. If you mess with that, all kinds of things then unravel. Charles has said he won’t be doing any unravelling. But he clarified his earlier point about his respect for all faiths. ‘Whatever may be your background or beliefs, I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love.’
He used ‘love’ seven times in that speech: his love for his mother, her love for her country and its people, their love for her, his love for his family (even Harry and Meghan). This is no cliche. It has a firm and specific meaning. Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was about defining and applying the power of love: this was also the theme of Charles’s first speech to the nation. With his role in the Church of England, as well as head of state, it’s a deeply appropriate theme. He presented love as the thread here uniting the reign of his mother, his duty as Defender of the Faith and his new constitutional mission. I’ve normally been sceptical about Charles, but this was reassuring, thoughtful and confident speech marking the start of a new era.