Having to follow the exemplary and lengthy reign of his late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is by far the greatest challenge that the newly crowned King Charles III faces.
During her 70-year reign, the queen rarely put a foot wrong and by the time of her death last year, she was sincerely and genuinely mourned not just by the nation but the wider world — a hard act to follow indeed.
And while King Charles is keen to distinguish his own reign from that of his mother, he will need to tread carefully, especially in the delicate area of observing the strict political neutrality that is a constitutional requirement of the British monarchy.
Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth took great care not to reveal her political beliefs or personal feelings. She was simultaneously the most public and most private of individuals in Britain during her reign. Her known enthusiasms – her piety, patronage of various charities, corgis and horse racing – were seldom controversial or politicised.
Her son has a different public reputation.
Before his accession to the throne, King Charles has been outspoken in controversies about architecture, farming, health and the environment – some of which connect to ongoing political and cultural debates.
In 2015, the Guardian newspaper published letters showing that the then Prince Charles had lobbied Tony Blair’s government directly over issues of personal interest to him, including his enthusiasm for alternative medicine. If King Charles tries to be more proactive than his mother in the political sphere, he will likely alienate people.
Adopting a more diplomatic approach
Since becoming king, Charles has, however, indicated that he is prepared to adopt a more diplomatic approach to his royal duties. The first example came with the announcement that he would not be attending last year’s Cop27 summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, hosting only a reception beforehand.
As climate change and the environment are two of the issues closest to the king’s heart, he had been planning to attend the summit to continue his long-standing campaign to persuade world leaders to take action against global warming.
In his first speech as king, Charles 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'September 9, 2022
While the late queen’s presence was a source of stability, the societies over which the British monarchy rules – both in the UK’s four home nations and the 14 additional countries in the Commonwealth – have changed much over the 70 years of her reign.
King Charles will have to make new choices about what it means to be a modern monarch, just as his mother adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances of the post-World War II years.
His tenure on the throne will be defined by how he responds to new tensions in the relationship between sovereign nations and their peoples.