An old era ends. A new one begins.
Following a reign of 70 years and a period of official mourning which seemed to last just as long, the United Kingdom buried its last unifying figure on Monday.
You don’t have to be a royalist – or, as some of the more sneering Irish commentariat put it, a West Brit – to admire the quiet dignity of the late Queen Elizabeth.
She embodied stoicism and the best qualities of that most derided of traits, a stiff upper lip. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, it seems churlish to look on her with anything other than a sense of admiration.
But will her successor, King Charles, have the same impact?
It’s unlikely, to be honest, because while the vast majority of British people looked on her with immense fondness – a feeling which was obviously shared around the world, given the fact that Monday’s funeral is now reckoned to be the most watched TV event of all time – that sentiment doesn’t seem to extend to her eldest son.
Since the queen’s death on Thursday, September 8, the attention has firmly switched to Charles.
Can he cut it? Will the infamously opinionated Charles be able to keep his mouth shut, now that he has the top job and must follow the old dictum to never explain and never complain? To be honest, it seems like a rather hellish, thankless task.
Most of us have the totally understandable notion that being a royal is a piece of cake and leads to a life of luxury. That may be true to a certain extent. After all, to any member of the royal family, the idea of a cost-of-living crisis is more a theory than a reality they have to face.
But it’s not a job that any sane person would want.
I was part of the press pack that covered Charles’s first official state visit to the Republic back in the 1990s – and it was torture.
The poor chap was dragged from pillar to post as every group and community organisation he visited insisted on giving him a lengthy history of their work. Of course, these were all terribly earnest and decent people who were doing their best to improve the lot of those around them. But how he managed to stay awake during the endless presentations remains a mystery.
He seemed like a decent enough guy, polite and engaged. He was even happy to stop and chat to us hacks who were following him, which is more than can be said for many other visiting dignitaries. But he certainly didn’t have a kingly air about him.
Through no fault of her own, the queen has left her successor with a thoroughly uphill battle. He now reigns over a country which seems intent on tearing itself apart – and, while the vast majority of ordinary Brits felt an almost personal sense of loss at the queen’s demise, that affection was directed specifically towards her as a person, not necessarily her title. And that affection certainly doesn’t extend to her son, who is seen as a figure of ridicule by many British people.
Charles has, to quote Johnny Cash, inherited an empire of dirt. He faces a new political landscape which would have been completely unrecognisable when his mother took the crown seven decades ago. There will be no honeymoon period for the newly installed king.
That’s because, almost as soon as her death was announced, various republican and anti-monarchy groups began to launch their attacks on the institution. It was almost as if an unspoken ceasefire had been held until she died, and as soon as the news emerged the shots started firing again.
It’s interesting that some of Charles’s first official duties as king have involved meeting the leaders of various Caribbean countries – who have all declared their intention to rid themselves of the crown and declare themselves as republics.
That’s going to provide for some interesting conversations.
But if those wannabe breakaway countries are going to be a headache, he faces even more strife on the home front.
Harry and his wife seem determined to cause as much trouble as possible for the Firm, and with Harry’s tell-all autobiography due out within the next year, the new king will be understandably nervous about its contents. After all, that gruesome twosome haven’t earned the millions they have banked by playing nice. They know that their only currency is dropping bombshells and sharing private conversations – in a complete breach not just of royal protocol, but of basic decency.
He also inherits a country whose government is increasingly unpopular and openly despised by many.
The Tories have coasted for the last few years on the basis that they aren’t as bad as Labour, but that’s not a very comprehensive political strategy.
Post-Brexit Britain is a Britain divided, rightly or wrongly.
Supporters of Brexit can claim numerous victories – they were the first to roll out a Covid vaccine, for instance. It’s also true that due to his early intervention in the war in Ukraine while the EU sat on its hands, Boris Johnson is revered in Kyiv, yet loathed in London. But the economy is in free fall; there are more food banks than actual banks, and during a recent trip to England I was genuinely struck by the mood of despondency and depression.
In scenes similar to what we are currently witnessing in the Divided States of America, the UK now looks like a place ripping itself apart. The recent outburst of violence between rival Muslim and Hindu gangs in cities such as Leicester is a reminder that Charles, as the self-proclaimed “defender of the faiths” (as opposed to the traditional “defender of the faith”), has a lot of work on his hands. Now in his 70s, he should be enjoying his retirement and talking to his favourite plants. Instead, after a lifetime of waiting, he has finally been crowned king. If ever there was a case of being careful what you wish you for, then this is it. It’s unlikely that he will be the last king, as some republicans have gleefully predicted. But the monarchy as we know it, and have grown up with, is a busted flush.
One thing is certain, however: he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride…