|Worst Case Scenario? Mike Bartlett’s teleplay, King Charles III, teases out the consequences of a constitutional monarch who makes the mistake of attempting to defend the rights of his subjects.|
WHILE MANY OF US pretended that Queen Elizabeth II would, somehow, live forever, others among us knew better. One of those who knew these days of mourning – and celebration – would come, and gave thought to what they might portend, was the British playwright, Mike Bartlett. His thoughts turned to the man who would succeed the Queen, and the times into which the reign of Charles III would be launched, and he wrote a play. Like all wordsmiths, Mr Bartlett understood that if one truly wishes to tell the truth, then one had best write fiction.
Bartlett’s play – later turned into a BBC 2 television drama starring the late Tim Pigott-Smith – was called, simply, King Charles III. Described by The Daily Telegraph critic, Jasper Rees, as “pure televisual gelignite”, the BBC 2 adaptation places before royalists and republicans the two most dangerous questions that have always lain, unasked and unanswered, at the heart of constitutional monarchy.
The First: Is there any act of Parliament so injurious to the common good that no monarch, in good conscience, could be expected to give it the royal assent?
The Second: What is likely to unfold if the royal assent is withheld from such an act?
The legislation Bartlett invents for the purposes of his dramatic thought experiment seeks to restrict the freedom of the press. For centuries, this tradition has protected the people from those who would oppress them. Bartlett’s fictitious Charles, aware that the bill has passed through both Houses of Parliament, knows that he now constitutes the sole remaining barrier to the destruction of a fundamental freedom.
According to the Nineteenth Century constitutional writer, Walter Bagehot, there are three crucial rights available to a British constitutional monarch. These are: The right to be consulted. The right to encourage. The right to warn. Having swiftly exhausted all three, the fictional Charles must decide upon his next move.
The real King Charles III will soon face a series of equally portentous choices.
The government of the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is committed to passing legislation inimical to the survival of British civil liberties. She has filled the upper echelons of her Cabinet with individuals who are well to the right of most Tory MPs. The 80-seat majority bequeathed to her by Boris Johnson is almost certainly large enough to withstand any last-minute pangs of Conservative Party conscience. Only if the King withholds his royal assent, will the ancient rights of “freeborn Englishmen” be preserved.
Having pledged to both houses of the British Parliament that he will follow the example of his mother on matters constitutional, the smart money would have to be on the real King Charles III behaving very differently from the fictional King Charles III.
In the months ahead, the British Isles look set to be rocked by civil discord and state-sanctioned violence. In the looming contest, the British people may win, or, the British state may win. Either way, the British Crown will certainly lose.
If the British people are trampled beneath the boots of the Police. If their most inspiring leaders, like the trade union leader Mick Lynch, are imprisoned. And if, throughout it all, their king maintains a constitutionally-sanctioned silence. Then, whatever system of government emerges from the crisis, its head-of-state won’t wear a crown.
A bloody, bold and resolute monarch, however, might fare better than even the fertile imagination of Mike Bartlett has compassed.
A recent survey of British voters aged 18-34-years-old indicated that around 60 percent of them believe their country should be ruled by a strong leader with the power to make decisions for the good of the country – without being constrained by Parliament.
Is it stretching too long a bow to suggest that Bartlett has perceived in the personality of the real Charles precisely the character traits that make his fictional King Charles so compelling? Having waited 70 years to exercise sovereignty, will he really be content to follow dutifully in his mother’s outsized footsteps?
The multiple crises which loom ahead of the United Kingdom are of sufficient severity to cause it to come apart at its historic seams. The corrupt system that threw up Liz Truss may no longer be capable of saving it.
If a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, then, surely, so should a king’s. Or what’s a kingdom for?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 September 2022.
It's going to be interesting, but civil liberties such as freedom of speech are already disappearing under a Tory government. People are being arrested for holding up a sheet of blank paper. Someone was arrested and taken away in handcuffs for heckling Prince Edward. Believe me, soon if it isn't happening already, the right will be taking away freedom of speech all over the developed world.
An interesting thought experiment though and even more interesting one would be – would Charles be in favour or against laws restricting freedom of speech. I've noticed that here, and various other places on the Internet, free speech advocates seem to have less adherence to it in practice than in theory.
The second of the trilogy in the masterful BBC series, based on the books of Michael Dobbs, the House of Cards was To Play the King. Broadcasted in 1993, it could not have foreseen three decades before the premise is tested. However, despite the initials "F.U." being frequently directed towards her, Liz Truss is no Francis Urquhart and Charles is considerably older than the character Dodds speculated on.
My objection to our ties with the monarchy are institutional, structural and constitutional, I have a reluctance to reduce the debate to the personalities that are born into roles. That said, Chris has put forward a scenario, and I will give a brief response.
The first thing to note is that prior to assuming the monarchy, the Prince of Wales had commented on humanitarian concerns related to the British Government sending refugees and other migrants to Rwanda. Since then, both he and Liz Truss have been anointed into their respective roles. Truss has stated clearly her support of the policy, and there is every expectation that legislation will eventually be presented for Royal assent.
The Monarch may give advice to his Prime Minister. That may happen, but there is no requirement for the PM to heed the advice, or report on that advice. It would be improper for the Palace to publicly comment. That is likely where things will go, and end. There could be potential for the King to request that the legislation is show to be nationally and internationally legally compliant. I would guess he could consult his Privy Council on this, but it is unlikely he would do anything not on the advice of his Prime Minister.
To complicate things further, Rwanda is a member of the Commonwealth, despite never having been under British authority. It is also part of the group in discussion of the establishment of the East African Federation. As most of those nations are Commonwealth, it is probably the hope of the Head of the Commonwealth that what would be a considerable nation by size and population, would consider Commonwealth membership. The Rwanda government is in support of the British Government proposal, and would be very off put by the inheriting Head of the Commonwealth interfering with bilateral relations.
Similar examples can probably be played out on the scenario Chris provides, and any others. The idea of the Sovereign protecting the people from the Tory establishment..."you may think that, but..."
Chris: "Liz Truss, is committed to passing legislation inimical to the survival of British civil liberties"
Really? What is she planning on doing that fits that description?
I think the Monarch still has the power to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections though I'm not sure what circumstances would warrant that.
Under no circumstances can the monarch withhold assent. End of story.
And that is the way it should be. If you had a monarch refusing assent to Liz Truss, you would see a monarch refusing assent to Jeremy Corbyn. Britain would cease to be a democracy - whereas currently the voters can remove Liz Truss (or anyone else) at the next election.
What you literally describe with that reference to "a strong figure not beholden to Parliament" is a "Dictator."
Great post Chris. I was concerned about Liz Truss - just another of the Conservatives with no political insight or actual human values. Same coloured hair as Boris, different shape, sex but same old historical superciliousness. They don't know about real life and humanity having had their lives air-brushed to take away any frown lines of coping with it.
But Charles in his living has been in the thick of humanity, that of the Royals and their advisors, and found his mission - 'the answer lies in the soil' and backed by Camilla who seems attuned to the task. Will the good sense of Arthur Fallowfield arise to take on the various aspects of British life pictured by cartoonist Giles? He covered much of the British character with wit and wisdom.
Charles111 60th Birthday image in his red uniform overhung with gold braid etc topped by a slight, and seemingly sardonic smile, looks enigmatic. His experience and wisdom gained from attacks from press barons amongst others, may have given him some cause to study and use Sun Tzu tactics. Just as there have been doubts about the existence of Sun Tzu himself, the tactics written have been of value, so though there is uncertainty about Charleslll, his experience and intelligence will, we hope, lead to proof of his mastery over conflict and disorder in the polity.
In New Zealand there has been plenty of debate that a significant block of the media has been bought off by the Government. Laws to curb free press aren't necessary when the price is right.
A more interesting comparison would be from "To Play the King" the sequel the UK house of cards. Where Charles doesn't block legislation however he does address the public about his displeasure of how the country is being run.
Great post Chris. I was concerned about Liz Truss - just another of the Conservatives with no political insight or actual human values.
There has been a lot of complaint from conservatives about Boris's "conservatives". They are seen as "National" under John key
The Brexiteers had one job -'Taking back control' turned out to mean runaway levels of immigration.
Charles's saving grace is his concern for the environment. Truss is in favour of all sorts of things which are inimical to the environment. That's a possible area of conflict – but let's face it, whatever power the crown has all the Queen had was simply used for their own benefit like any other politician. It might be a little cruel to separate ourselves from the monarchy now given how long Charles has had to wait for the job, but I think a clean cut would be preferable. At the moment unfortunately not possible, as monarchists are a rather loud minority.
DS in the unlikely event of something seriously bad enough to initiate royal suspension of parliament, presumably, it would go back to the people. Perhaps it's not that "Britain would cease to be a democracy" but has a system that ultimately strengthens democracy? Perhaps having a non political, symbolic sovereign that could, in extremis, withhold consent has real value.
As I understand it, British legislation not only needs the assent of the king but also has to be passed by the House of Lords. In the past I think the Lords have largely contented themselves with rubber stamping legislation passed to them from the House of Commons, but if the king made known his displeasure at a particular piece of legislation, could that legislation come to grief in the House of Lords without setting a precedent inimical to constitutional niceties.
Another great essay from Paul Kingsnorth up on UnHerd.
"For all these reasons, a monarchy in the Machine age will always be in the crosshairs. What, after all, is the point of a monarch in the modern world? There is really only one: to represent a country and its history; to be a living embodiment of the spirit of a people. As such, the throne represents to its critics more than some putative offence against “democracy”: it stands for something whose very existence is increasingly contentious in its meaning, form and direction: the nation itself."
"Frédéric Bastiat: “When misguided public opinion honours what is despicable and despises what is honourable, punishes virtue and rewards vice, encourages what is harmful and discourages what is useful, applauds falsehood and smothers truth under indifference or insult, a nation turns its back on progress and can be restored only by the terrible lessons of catastrophe.”
Or, if we prefer, we can take our guidance from Leonard Cohen, a more contemporary prophet — guidance which, I think, comes complete with the only hope worth having:
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall,
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all,
But love’s the only engine of survival.”
GS: "civil liberties such as freedom of speech are already disappearing "
So now you care about free speech.
Tom Slater: "The chutzpah is almost impressive. Here they are accusing free-speechers of hypocrisy, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, they only ever defend speech they agree with. They act as if they have been vindicated, even though the arrest of those republicans actually vindicates what us ‘free-speech warriors’ have been saying to intolerant leftists for years. Namely, that if you carry on demanding censorship it will eventually catch up with you.
Even now, they’re too pigheaded to see it. Or perhaps, deep down, they know that when it comes to the state clamping down on dissenters today, toytown leftists like them are rarely the targets."
" "The chutzpah is almost impressive. Here they are accusing free-speechers of hypocrisy, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, they only ever defend speech they agree with. "
I've always cared about free speech at least as much as you. It's just that I draw the line in different places. That quote above fits the hard right to a T. It's not the left it's arresting people for holding up blank pieces of paper. In case you missed it it's a Tory government in the UK. It's not the left that's closing down newspapers in Eastern Europe. It is not the left that's making journalists disappear into prisons in Russia.
And you on the other hand WOULD probably censor things you don't like, because I do remember you right wingers getting upset at Muslim preachers for instance. And you personally of course are in favour of forced speech, which is mildly amusing given opposing that is how your hero Jordan Peterson got his reputation. Except of course he lied about it but that's typical.
And you people are remarkably shy about how you would handle censorship, because let's face it every government does this, and of course there are civil penalties for speech as well.
I would say for instance that Alex Jones should have been told that his lies were causing actual physical and mental harm to the people he was lying about, and he should prove them to be true, shut up, all be fined/jailed. And it shouldn't have to be the parents who were suffering the harm that should have to do this.
I'd love to know how you would handle that sort of thing.
Also love to know how you would react to me being censored on your favourite right wing website, simply for saying that I thought someone was a bit of a coward because he hit his wife.
Incidentally, if I'm going to be clicking on pictures that contain cars it might be nice to have pictures that weren't so bloody blurry and tiny that I couldn't see if they had cars in them or not. :)
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