The tone was sombre, emotional even. Prince Charles could not, he said, describe the “depths of his personal sorrow”.
But he wasn’t speaking of his recent bereavement. This was a speech back in June to Commonwealth heads of government in Rwanda, expressing regret for the suffering wrought by slavery. The Commonwealth could not move forward without acknowledging the “wrongs of the past”, he said.
Coming months after a disastrously clumsy Caribbean tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, it sounded like a belated recognition that for younger generations the monarchy has increasingly become identified with colonial suffering, and republicanism with a means of laying those ghosts to rest. Before flying to Rwanda, the prince was reported to have privately called Boris Johnson’s plan to export asylum seekers to Rwanda “appalling”.
Those words will sound to some like platitudes, changing nothing much in practice. But in a world where the National Trust gets death threats for acknowledging its grand estates’ links to slavery, they were striking nonetheless. Here was a future King seeking to move the dial of public debate, while simultaneously shoring up the monarchy’s interests. Neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative, it was a brief but revealing insight into how he may operate as King.
His good friend (and former Conservative MP) Sir Nicholas Soames swears that this most political of princes, author of untold lobbying letters to ministers on everything from homeopathy to organic farming, won’t meddle now he is King; that he “knows very well what the constitutional obligations are” and will model himself on his inscrutable mother. But that isn’t as incompatible as it sounds with previous reports that he wanted to carry on making “heartfelt interventions” in national life as King.
Soames will know well enough that the Queen was perfectly capable of pushing the boundaries in a pinch, cautioning Scots to think carefully before voting for independence and siding with African leaders against Margaret Thatcher when a row over apartheid sanctions threatened to split the Commonwealth. (Then, as now, nothing galvanises a monarch like a threat to break up the realm.)
The new King isn’t about to start shouting from the rooftops any differences he might have with Liz Truss over fracking or farming, and he acknowledged as much in his first address to the nation by promising to leave his cherished causes in “other trusted hands”. But he has had enough time over the last half a century to develop a network of allies throughout civil society who can be relied on to make his points for him. Prince William has become notably more outspoken lately on environmental issues, too. What the old Prince of Wales can no longer say, the new Prince of Wales still might.
If the strategy is clear, however, sticking to it may not be wholly straightforward. This King’s emotions are much closer to the surface than his mother’s, and even after a lifetime of training that may make it harder for him to conceal what he really thinks. Grief stretches everyone to snapping point, and a newly bereaved man can be forgiven the odd tetchy moment. But this week’s glimpses of him gesturing irritably for aides to remove an inkwell, or complaining that his pen leaked “every stinking time”, hint at a prickly quality familiar to those who know him well. He hates to be inconvenienced, can be demanding to the point of petulance, and isn’t used to being argued with. The King’s constitutional role is to advise and warn. There is the potential for trouble with any prime minister who doesn’t treat that advice with respect.
There is clearly warmth between him and Liz Truss, evident when she defied protocol at their first audience by putting a consoling hand on his arm. As a former environment secretary, responsible for his two passions of climate policy and farming, it would be unusual if she hadn’t got to know him reasonably well. But they are still chalk and cheese. Charles has a small-c conservative’s distrust of change, love of beauty, and patrician instincts towards those who are vulnerable; he appears to see his role much like that of a benevolent vicar ministering to his flock. Truss is an unsentimental insurgent, itching to rip everything up and start again.
While he is drawn to ideas of sustainability and progress that doesn’t cost the earth either socially or environmentally, her government’s mission is economic growth at all costs – even if that means slowing progress towards net zero (a review is under way) or risking social unrest by letting the rich get much richer. The new King is romantically attached to the countryside and to traditional farming methods. His prime minister needs new trade deals to show Brexit has been a success, and will be offered terms that could devastate small family farms. Perhaps the biggest difference between them, however, won’t be one of policy but of timing.
Politicians think in election cycles, which for Liz Truss means barely two years. But unelected monarchies survive only by ensuring the smooth succession of their children, and that means thinking in terms of generations. When Truss dismisses Nicola Sturgeon as an “attention seeker”, or threatens to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, it plays well with her base today at the expense of potentially destabilising the union in the longer term.
But Charles won’t want to go down in history as the monarch who lost the union. When Truss faces demands to apologise or make reparations for slavery, she will consider the backlash from older Tory voters still nostalgic for empire. The King must think of the risk of the Commonwealth imploding, but also of alienating younger Britons who already suspect the royal family of racist behaviour towards the Duchess of Sussex. Her government won’t be around to be held accountable in 2050 if the planet is frying by then, but the monarchy – if not this monarch – plans to be.
It may be tempting for liberals to see King Charles as some kind of benevolent father figure, ready to step up if the government goes truly rogue. But reassuring as it is to think that at least someone still cares about the climate or the treatment of asylum seekers, there’s something deeply queasy about pinning your hopes on a hereditary monarchy focused ultimately on its own survival.
Let’s hope his advice is sound, and his warnings prescient and taken seriously. But it is on the power of an opposition and the checks and balances of parliament, not the luck of the royal draw, that democracies should rely. Forget that, and God save us all.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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