The King will issue his first Commonwealth Day message next week amid signs of a more political monarchy, six months into the new reign. Quite what the message will say has not been decided but King Charles, who will attend his first Commonwealth Day service as monarch at Westminster Abbey on March 13, is expected to reflect on the agreed theme for the day of uniting to fight climate change, as well as supporting free and democratic societies, and promoting peace and prosperity.
The focus on climate change is familiar territory for Charles III, who as Prince of Wales spent half a century speaking out on environmental dangers facing us all. But as monarch he may well have to be more measured in what he says.
In an interview to mark his 70th birthday in November 2018, he insisted he would not be an interfering King. “I’m not that stupid. I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign,” he said.
“The idea somehow that I’m going to go on in exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two situations are completely different.
Constitutional experts believe he has more or less stayed true to his word so far, although some observers do see early signs of a more proactive, campaigning monarchy taking a stance on issues affecting us all.
“He’s perhaps more hands on,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine and a longtime royal watcher.
King Charles has used his convening powers to bring together politicians at Buckingham Palace to discuss climate change and, separately, protecting nature and biodiversity.
He, Queen Camilla and most other members of the Royal Family have made regular trips to food banks and undertaken other official engagements highlighting the cost-of-living crisis.
Not a month has passed by in this new reign without the King undertaking an engagement celebrating Brtain’s ethnic diversity and seeking to end disharmony over such issues as the treatment of the Windrush generation of immigrants who came to the UK from the Caribbean.
The King, Queen Consort and other members of the family have regularly visited asylum seekers and refugees, while Kate, the Princess of Wales, has begun a fresh campaign designed to influence public opinion and policy makers to provide better support for the nation’s children in their first five years.
Much of Kate’s agenda sounds like what Tony Blair’s first Labour government started creating in 1998 before much of it was dismantled in Conservative cuts since 2010.
Providing extra help for young families will inevitably cost taxpayers more initially, although William and Kate’s Royal Foundation argues that by intervening early to prevent children suffering trauma that eventually leads to problems such as addiction, crime, homelessness, and family breakdown the public purse will ultimately save money.
It is a world away from the old stereotype of a ribbon-cutting monarchy, of Elizabeth II opening a hospital and asking people: “Have you come far?”
But Dr Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University who is currently writing a book on Modern Monarchy, believes Charles III has stayed within the acceptable limits of what a King should be doing in the 21st century. “You can’t expect him to be a carbon copy of his mother,” he said.
“It’s beyond consensus that there is a cost-of-living crisis so it makes sense for the monarchy to reflect that,” he added, pointing out that Charles accepted the advice of Liz Truss during her brief spell as premier not to go to the Cop27 climate change conference in Egypt.
Queen Elizabeth too spoke out on the environment and other issues affecting us all including the pandemic. She also found herself embroiled in political controversies, such as when Boris Johnson persuaded her to prorogue Parliament to stop Brexit chaos and when David Cameron convinced her to urge Scots to “think very carefully about the future” before the independence referendum in 2014.
Dr Prescott said the monarchy’s constitutional role meant it was inevitably tied up with politics. “It is fundamentally a political institution,” he said. “The whole thing is based around its political and constitutional role. It’s not party political. It’s a different type of politics.”
But is there really consensus on some of those issues? Lee Anderson, the Conservative Party deputy chairman, for example, might disagree on food banks and asylum seekers.
“Food banks are abused by people who don’t need the food banks,” he said last week, while also telling an interviewer his constituents do not support allowing migrants to come across the Channel in small boats. “I went to Calais a few weeks back; these aren’t genuine asylum seekers,” he said.
In spite of that, Dr Bob Morris of the Constitution Unit at University College London believes King Charles has not put a foot wrong in his first six months. “His approach so far has been exemplary,” he said.
Last week, however, the King found himself at the centre of political controversy after agreeing to meet EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle on the day she came to Britain to agree a revised Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
Conservative arch-Brexiteers, Ulster Unionists, and Labour politicians howled in protest, complaining that the 74-year-old monarch had allowed himself to be used by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to try to bolster a deal that had not been agreed or at that stage even discussed by Parliament.
Most blamed Mr Sunak for putting him in the awkward position and said such a meeting should have only happened when Parliament had voted on the deal.
But Peter Hunt, a veteran royal watcher and former BBC royal correspondent felt the King too had made a serious mistake.
“He’s abandoned his unifying role and entered the political fray, in a foolish bid to be seen as statesmanlike,” he said. “History won’t be kind. Someone’s head will roll.”
Palace officials said the Prime Minister had asked the King to meet Mrs von der Leyen and portrayed it as a routine audience with a world leader. Insiders admitted it had been Charles’s decision to agree to the request and meet Mrs von der Leyen but insisted it would have been a bigger controversy if he had refused and it had leaked out.
During his time as Prince of Wales, Charles had a history of lobbying ministers over controversial issues. In June last year there were tensions between him and Boris Johnson’s government after it emerged he had privately written to then Home Secretary Priti Patel criticising her plans to fly asylum seekers on one-way tickets to Rwanda.
Sources close to Charles complained that Mr Johnson’s government had deliberately leaked the story to distract attention from all its problems at the time. Some at Westminster wonder if, bruised by that controversy, the King capitulated too easily to Mr Sunak this time.
Walter Bagehot, the great Victorian economist and essayist, famously wrote that a constitutional monarch has the right to be consulted, encourage and to warn his ministers.
But at the same time the King is constitutionally bound to act on their advice. Some insiders think he should have privately found a reason to decline Mr Sunak’s request last week and waited to meet Mrs von der Leyen until a Northern Ireland deal has been agreed in Parliament.
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