King Charles III inherits throne in uncertain time

Britain’s new monarch expected to tone down activism and reduce royal family team

King Charles III inherits throne in uncertain time

During his many decades as Prince of Wales, Britain’s new king earned a reputation for his strongly held views on subjects ranging from climate change to his commitment to interfaith dialogue. 

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September at Balmoral Castle at the age of 96, the world will be watching to see whether Britain’s newly-proclaimed monarch, King Charles III, will maintain his high-profile interventions on the wide range of issues for which he has a passion.

In the 64 years that he spent as Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor went further than showing an interest in these subjects — he was not shy about promoting them.

Over the decades, the world became familiar with his passion for architecture, the arts, the environment, organic farming, homeopathy, as well as his rather idiosyncratic habit of talking to his plants.

These wide-ranging interests meant that senior ministers in the British government were regular recipients of letters written by the then Prince Charles — known in political circles as the “black spider memos” because of his impenetrable handwriting — in which he lobbied strongly for them to consider his opinions on a wide range of views. 

Now that he is on the throne, however, there is a general expectation that, as king, Charles will rein in his controversial interventions in British politics. 

Eiko Ojala

Instead, he is likely to adopt an approach more akin to that of his late mother, whose ability to conceal her views on issues about which she felt strongly — including Scotland claiming independence from the United Kingdom — made her the model of discretion.

More diplomatic approach
The first indication that the king was adopting a more diplomatic approach to his royal duties came with the announcement that he would not be attending last year’s Cop27 summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheik, hosting only a reception beforehand.

As climate change and the environment are two of the issues closest to the new king’s heart, he had planned to attend the summit to continue his long-standing campaign to persuade world leaders to take action against global warming.

His commitment to environmental causes and climate change was evident at the previous Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow, where he made what was widely seen as a controversial speech in which he called for the world to go on “war-like footing” to act on climate change, warning that “time has quite literally run out.”

But following the intervention of Britain’s then prime minister, Liz Truss, the king withdrew from the forthcoming event. According to British press reports, Truss made it clear during her weekly audience with the king that she was opposed to his plans to address world leaders at the summit. 

A statement issued by Buckingham Palace said the decision for King Charles not to attend had been made on the government’s advice. 

It certainly provides a clear indication that he will now adopt a more nuanced, and less activist, approach to his royal duties, which is deemed essential if he is to fully fulfil his duties as both the head of the United Kingdom and the leader of the Commonwealth.

An elite activist
This change of direction by the king will not come easily for a man who has spent the past four decades carving out a unique position for himself as an elite activist, tirelessly lobbying and campaigning to promote his concerns.

He has spread his ideas through his writings and speeches, his charities and allies and, behind the scenes, in private meetings and correspondence with government ministers. 

He, himself, has used the phrase “mobilising” to describe his activities; his critics call it “meddling” and interventionism. They view his involvement in political matters as an abuse of the unspoken understanding that the royal family should merely symbolise power, not wield it. 

It is hardly surprising that Charles — a mature man of 73 — has had plenty of time to develop interests and commitments and a privileged position from which to vocalise his views.

He has waited longer to succeed than any previous heir to the throne. 

His reign will necessarily be different to that of Queen Elizabeth, who secured acceptance of the constitutional monarchy, in part, through her strict silence on political affairs. 

“A quiet constitutional revolution is afoot,” his friend and biographer Jonathan Dimbleby said last year: “I predict that he will go well beyond what any previous constitutional monarch has ever essayed.”

The king has already said, however, that he will step away from his interests. 

In his first speech as King Charles III, he said: “My life will, of course, change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energy to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.” 

My life will, of course, change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energy to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.

King Charles

His many causes will not be abandoned, but at least initially he will be too busy with routine matters, with weekly meetings with the prime minister and going through the red boxes of government documents that he must read daily.

He will also be well aware that he has become king in an uncertain time. 

Some former British colonies are looking to separate themselves from the crown and feel that Britain hasn’t confronted the legacy of racism. Some younger Britons question the need for a monarchy at all, and Brexit may have left countries questioning their need to stay connected.

He has also inherited the throne after a particularly difficult few years for the royal family, which has been affected by a number of controversies including sexual assault claims against Prince Andrew and allegations of a cash-for-honours-style affair involving the king’s own charity empire, although there was no suggestion of wrongdoing by him.

Legally, Charles became king from the moment of the queen’s death, meaning that as well as being head of state for the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand as well as other countries, he is also the titular head of the Church of England, head of the military and the judiciary, and a host of other royal titles and duties.

In his first speech as king, Charles spoke of his “deeply rooted” Christian faith, but he also acknowledged that, “in the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths”. 

The new king understands that recognising the changing UK and Commonwealth is vital to reigning over a modern monarchy.

Maintaining the unity of the Commonwealth will certainly be a major undertaking.

An opinion poll carried out in Canada just a few days after the Queen’s death showed that 58 per cent of Canadians believed the time has come for Canada to hold a referendum on ending its formal ties to the British throne.

There has also long been a republican movement in Australia, although, in the first significant poll since the queen’s death, the percentage opposed to becoming a republic has risen from 46 in January to 54 in September.

Evolving Commonwealth
The queen’s death inevitably raises questions about the future of the Commonwealth — an association of 56 countries which includes 14 nations in which the British monarch remains their head of state. 

Along with the above-mentioned nations, and as it currently stands, the other countries which retain ties to the British monarchy are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Lucia, the Solomon Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Tuvalu.

But last November, Barbados officially ended nearly 400 years of British rule when it removed Queen Elizabeth as its head of state and swore in its own president in a ceremony in which the then Prince Charles was the guest of honour.


Every Commonwealth country has the right to determine their own head of state. Even those who do decide not to owe allegiance to the British monarch choose to remain as members of an organisation that champions democratic values.

Enduring tensions over the future status of some Commonwealth member states was laid last spring when Prince William and his wife were met with protests and calls for slavery reparations when they embarked upon a tour of Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, informed the couple that his country would be moving ahead to become a republic. Belize also signaled its intentions to break from the crown. Just days after the queen’s death, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, told ITV News that within three years he plans to hold a referendum on his country becoming a republic.

Yet, despite these political controversies, the underlying loyalty of these countries to the Commonwealth was demonstrated when leaders from all its member states travelled to London for Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral.

And so, the Commonwealth is hardly in danger of collapse.

As Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, has said “the processes of change are accelerating”, but the Commonwealth will ultimately prevail.

King Charles himself has not been in denial about the pressures it does face.

Speaking to Commonwealth leaders in Rwanda in June last year, he said: “Each country’s constitutional arrangement…is purely a matter for each member country to decide. The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can be changed calmly and without rancour.”

Each country’s constitutional arrangement…is purely a matter for each member country to decide. The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can be changed calmly and without rancour.

King Charles

There are also countries actively seeking to join the Commonwealth. The latest four members, Rwanda, Mozambique, Gabon and Togo, have no historical ties to the British Empire. The last two are former French colonies. 

The statistics are staggeringly impressive
About 2.5 billion people — out of 7.9 billion globally — live in the Commonwealth’s 56 countries. More than 60 per cent of the Commonwealth's population is aged 29 or under. Globally, a third of all young people aged between 15 and 29 live in Commonwealth countries. 

The biggest country by population is India, which accounts for about half of the total. Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh are the next biggest by population, with the UK fifth — proof, if any was needed, that the organisation has massive global appeal. 

Expected agenda
In a sign that he is doing things differently, instead of visiting one of the Commonwealth realms in his first foreign trip as monarch, King Charles will instead head to Paris on a state visit in March this year. 

According to French media, the visit has been planned in an attempt to help restore ties which have sometimes been tense since Brexit. There have been no state visits to countries for seven years because of the late queen’s restricted ability to travel, so he has much ground to make up. 

The king will also be determined to maintain the unity of the UK, especially the union with Scotland, and it is thought he will travel throughout the country to strengthen ties. 

He has made no secret of his desire to “slim down” the monarchy and reduce the number of working senior royals supported by taxpayers and reduce the overall multimillion-pound annual cost of the royal show. 

Reduced royal team
The line of succession on the royal family's website shows the 22 highest-ranking members of the Royal Family. 

The king plans to reduce the monarchy to a team of just seven key members, all senior working royals, the king himself, his wife the Queen Consort, the new Prince and Princess of Wales, the Princess Royal, and the Earl and Countess of Wessex.


Reducing the number of royals who undertake official duties would also mean reducing who is funded by the sovereign grant — the public funds used to support them. 

This, along with plans for a smaller coronation ceremony (half the length of his mother’s) on 6 May of this year, shows that King Charles understands the current cost-of-living crisis in the UK. 

Both inside and especially outside Westminster Abbey, this event will break new ground. Historically, coronations have restricted audience participation largely to the aristocracy. Indeed, it was not until the last coronation that the congregation (chiefly hereditary peers) were even permitted to sing. 

In May there will be a clear emphasis on thinning down the VIP quota to include a large cross section from the voluntary sector. Much has been made of the fact that the congregation will be around 2,000 people, a quarter of the 8,000-plus in 1953.

Events will be coordinated across a long weekend, concluding with The Big Help Out, a celebration of the entire voluntary sector. On the day after the coronation, communities everywhere will be encouraged to hold a Coronation Big Lunch, echoing the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. That evening, Windsor Castle will stage a spectacular Coronation Concert, broadcast live on the BBC, followed by a drone-based light show. 

His own man
As he said in his first speech as king: “As the Queen, herself, did with such unswerving devotion, I, too, now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.”

At the dawn of Britain’s new Carolean era, King Charles III will want to demonstrate that he is both his own man with his own specific range of interests, while at the same time upholding his commitment to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

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