Monarchy helps UK avoid difficult constitutional questions

King Charles III is likely to be a careful, dedicated, and successful monarch, but the value of his role extends far beyond the performance of one individual.

Expert comment Updated 6 May 2023 Published 5 May 2023 2 minute READ

To see the five-metre flags hanging over London’s Regent Street and Piccadilly in preparation for the coronation is to look at one of the most solid parts of the UK’s constitution. It is a reminder that the existence of the monarchy spares the UK from confronting constitutional questions which it is not well-equipped to answer.

It is already evident that King Charles III intends a careful evolution of the monarchy in his own mould. His own interests are clear; his long commitment to environmental and sustainability issues is evident in the causes he champions and it would be surprising if he did not attend one of the next COP climate change summits, as he had clearly wanted to in November 2022.

Royal popularity remains strong enough

Manifestations of his known preference for a slimmed-down monarchy are followed in microdetail by a UK media keen to spot the winners and losers from any changes. His decision to make his first visit as king to France and Germany – albeit the former cancelled due to French riots – was welcomed with surprise and warmth in Europe.

The UK can send as its head of state a figure who is not a politician and therefore, by definition, one who is not there to negotiate, rebut or persuade

Many had expected him to go first to Commonwealth countries, and it is certain the Commonwealth is high on his list of priorities – not least due to the quiet hope that few will now choose to jettison the UK monarch as their own head of state – so many more trips are no doubt on the way.

So far, so careful. He enjoys, pollsters say, a solid majority of popular support, not with the surge of evident love and sadness that accompanied his mother’s death, but with widespread appreciation.

There is a strong argument that hereditary monarchy embodies the principle of inherited privilege which reinforces Britain’s old class divisions and should be indefensible in a modern democracy.

But the value of the monarchy to the UK remains considerable, extending far beyond the performance of King Charles III – or indeed any monarch.

It is easy to talk about soft power, and tourists are certainly attracted by the pageantry at which the UK still excels. But one of the unspoken virtues of the monarchy is a subtler point – that it enables a softer encounter with other countries’ politicians.

The value of the monarchy to the UK remains considerable, extending far beyond the performance of King Charles III – or indeed any monarch

The UK can send as its head of state a figure who is not a politician and therefore, by definition, one who is not there to negotiate, rebut or persuade, but can still represent the UK’s relationships and quietly reinforce them.

Solid and predictable succession

The existence of the monarchy also spares the country from having to work out what would replace it. The solidity and predictability of the royal succession contrasts with the tussle over rules for the timing of elections – fluid, then fixed-term, now at the government’s discretion again.

The UK – its politicians and its people – could usefully think more about the rules under which its elected government operates. It certainly needs more clarity on the relationship between Westminster and the devolved nations.

Monarchy helps UK avoid difficult constitutional questions 2nd part

The UK constitution is famously uncodified but, after the spectacle of just how much that can lend itself to tussles between different bases of power, there is clearly more appetite for that discussion, both in Westminster and beyond. This would be a healthy conversation for the country to have, but it is not a quick one.

The UK has the luxury of being able to evolve its constitutional arrangements with a degree of improvision and informality that would leave many countries uncomprehending precisely because at the top there is the unchanging figure of the monarch.