Elizabeth II has been on the throne for 70 years, as I am sure you have heard. She is 96 years old. There’s no delicate way of putting this, so let us be blunt: she will not reign over us for much longer. She will be succeeded by a man who has proudly announced his readiness to break the conventions controlling the behaviour of the head of state. Because there is no prospect of parliament jumping a generation and passing the crown to his son, no one can stop the forward march of Charles III taking the throne.
The design flaw in all systems of hereditary power is that they eventually throw up a duffer. Monarchy “indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority” Thomas Paine wrote in 1791. The reign of Charles III will be such a neurotic experience because we will have a monarch who doesn’t accept that his authority has nothing to do with his ability and everything to do with an accident of birth.
Elizabeth II’s modesty has made many support what Helen Mirren called “queenism” rather than “monarchism”, and wish “we could have a queen without the rest of the royal family”.
She does her job and stays out of politics. In the 20th century, there were good reasons to behave with restraint. Elizabeth II only came to the throne because parliament had, in effect, deposed her uncle, Edward VIII. The House of Windsor survived, but all around it war and revolution had destroyed the Habsburgs, Romanovs and Hohenzollerns. Caution, as much as personal preference, demanded that she be careful.
Times change and aristocrats are no longer frightened. There will be no sense of caution about Charles III: only a sense of entitlement. Without self-consciousness, he denounced young people with ideas above their station in 2003. “What is wrong with everyone nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities? People seem to think they can all be pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability. This is the result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially engineered to contradict the lessons of history.”
He showed no awareness that he was the beneficiary of, if not genetic engineering, for any half-competent engineer could produce a better product, a genetic fluke. In his mind he will be a self-made monarch who will succeed to the throne on merit rather than by luck.
The first decade of the 21st century saw what we used to call the establishment begin to realise that Charles was a hard prince to house train. Mark Bolland, a former courtier, said he “routinely meddled in political issues and wrote sometimes in extreme terms to ministers, MPs and others in positions of political power”. Aides to the then Labour administration said that if he carried on opposing government policy “sooner or later there will be real constitutional trouble”.
Heirs to the throne are often in conflict with monarchs because there is little else for them to do than hang around waiting for the king or queen to die. The Queen doesn’t moan. Her son does. The Queen doesn’t politick. He can’t help himself. You could, if not forgive, then at least understand Prince Charles’s behaviour when he was decades away from getting a proper job. He had to pass the time, after all. The excuse doesn’t wash today, as there is no evidence that he has calmed down now that his coronation is in sight.
Like their counterparts in politics, the courtier journalists who surround royalty have picked a degraded way to earn a living. I read their books out of duty rather than pleasure because I know there will be nuggets of truth in the slurry. To maintain access, they must be faithful transcribers of their masters’ unintentionally revealing musings. The story they bring from Clarence House is of a presumptuous prince, whose conviction that the rules don’t apply to him leaves him closer to Boris Johnson than his mother.
Robert Jobson’s all but officially endorsed biography from 2018 describes a future king who expects to “lead as monarch, not just follow”. One “close source” said that Charles III “will want a seat at the table, not just to be briefed or rubber-stamping the decisions after they are taken”. A raucously divided country, with a border in the Irish Sea and a separatist government in Scotland, will soon have a puffed-up monarch adding his demands to the unstable mix. Will elected politicians put him in his place? Can they? As Johnson has shown, the old conventions of public life are flimsy protections. Once narcissists are in power, they blow around like bin bags in the wind.
Greenish readers who believe that interventions from an ecological King Charles would be welcome should look at where his environmentalism comes from and where it leads. Charles’s widely unread Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World is another book worth forcing yourself to plod through. It sets out an obscurantist vision that is so reactionary it opposes all aspects of modernity from the scientific revolution on. Hence his fondness for the dictatorial petro-monarchies of the Gulf. They may cause devastating environmental damage but at least they are free from the democratic constraints the Enlightenment put on European royals. Hence the belief in quack “alternative” medicines, the damage to health they bring notwithstanding.
His wide-eyed mysticism takes him far from the Anglicanism of his mother. One can only pity the archbishop of Canterbury when the next supreme governor of the Church of England explains how he has found the ”sacred geometry” of the orbit of Mercury sits “within the orbit of the Earth in such a proportion that it fits exactly over the pentagon at the heart of the five-pointed star”.
When dominant prime ministers or CEOs retire after only a decade of achievement, their successors struggle to repeat their success. How much harder will it be to follow 70 years of a reign that even republicans concede has been an accomplished performance? The more so when an accident of birth has thrown up a silly, vain, zealous and fatally unself-conscious monarch, who, to use his own anti-meritocratic notions against him, doesn’t know his place. In other words, the UK is heading for a smash-up. Après ma’am, le déluge.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist