|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.