A right royal time of transition
Some would say the accession of the new King has gone without a hitch
At the end of a seventy-year reign, few people have anything but praise for the late Queen. It wasn’t always so. But now is not the time to remember the occasional lapses in concentration that brought criticism. Overall, she played a blinder.
Attention turns to her successor. It already has, of course, starting with the Accession Council, a ceremony that took place on the Saturday morning, two days after the Queen’s death. Those who are monarchists and traditionalists saw, I hope, a fine ceremony reflecting the way things were done – and had to be done – in days before there was mass electronic communication and an undisputed line of succession.
Those who are neither monarchist nor traditionalist saw, I fear, something rather different. They saw our democratically-elected ministers suspend all discussion of a cost-of-living crisis (“heating or eating”, it hasn’t gone away) in order to kowtow to someone whose first royal act was seemingly to flap his hands at flunkies because his pen and pencil set wasn’t in the right place on the table. I don’t know who was the first to call the new king “His Nibs”, but it looks like the nickname may stick around.
Those who accept such ritual as the natural order of things will also accept that many royal activities, not least those to do with the Privy Council, had always been conducted in private. But, for those who see flummery not ceremony, the TV images were something of a gift. It was the first piece of evidence to be placed into a file that they probably expect to grow quite rapidly for use when the time is right.
The death of a parent is an emotional time. It may not be the weight of the world that is on King Charles’ shoulders, but the crown on his head will undoubtedly be heavy. Tempers may easily fray. My point is not to criticise the new monarch for his behaviour. But I do question the wisdom of broadcasting to the world such an arcane ceremony at a time when the whole principle of an inherited monarchy is bound to come under intense scrutiny. I know the scrutiny wasn’t especially visible last week. And certainly not yesterday (I write this on the day after the Queen’s funeral), but soon I suspect it will be. Very soon.
Did the accession ceremony need to take place? If it did, did it need to take place on our screens? To those who think the answer to both questions has to be “yes”, I ask whether the ceremony might not, at the very least, have been updated. We have been told repeatedly that the Queen’s funeral has been planned and re-planned for years, if not decades. How much thought was given to the Accession Council?
The monarch plays a key part in our “unwritten”1 constitution. But the constitution has been facing considerable challenge in recent years because of the two B-words: Brexit and Boris. First, there was a question over who had the right to fire the starting gun on the UK’s exit from the European Union: was it the Government or Parliament? Then there was a question over Boris’s attempt to prorogue Parliament at a time and in a manner which was, to say the least, unusual.
Both questions were resolved by the Supreme Court. And in a manner which left the decision looking self-evident. And yet, prior to the court’s judgment in each case, the outcome had been seen as far from predictable. These cases have already created a call in certain circles for a re-think of the constitution.
It is inevitable that a re-writing of the constitution would lead to a re-thinking of the role of the monarch. It may even lead to re-thinking the need for a monarch.
The country “came together”, as we now say, over its mourning of Queen Elizabeth II. Hundreds of thousands queued for hours to walk past her coffin. Much of the normal TV was suspended (or relegated to BBC 2) so that millions could watch live feeds of both the queue and the coffin.
The usual political debate was suspended entirely. But only for 12 days. Politics is back. And series 5 of The Crown will be coming to Netflix very soon. Those who think the accession of the new King couldn’t be going more smoothly may be called upon to think again.
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The constitution is not, in fact, unwritten. It’s just not codified into a single document.