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Home / Opinion / Views /  Will King Charles III break with tradition?

Family members of the British royalty would probably look to September 2022 as mensis horribilis after the demise of Elizabeth II, who held office for 70 years. Or, if they are indeed optimists, they might call it spe temporis, or the advent of a hopeful time, wishing that the ascension of Charles III would perhaps lead to some renewal, or a healing touch for many past bruises that his mother failed to provide.

Hopes rest on Charles over two pivotal issues: correcting some of the past blemishes (an admission of Britain’s immoral history) and preparing for the future (providing a moral authority for environment and climate change). This will call for an astute balancing act: wielding the monarchy’s power–both real and moral--without breaching constitutional red lines between the crown and Parliament. Beyond that, though, it will mean forging seismic changes in the way the monarchy’s office has functioned over the past 70 years under Elizabeth II.

Elizabeth II was coronated in 1952 when her father George VI passed away suddenly, forcing her to cut short a Kenyan holiday and rush back to London. She has welcomed 15 prime ministers, starting from Winston Churchill all the way to newly-anointed Liz Truss just a few days ago. These past 70 years have seen the United Kingdom change inexorably. The UK today has become a more multicultural society, with 14% of the current population having been born elsewhere. Unfortunately, though, the economy has slipped from being the world’s third largest when she took charge to becoming the eighth when she passed away.

But the intervening period also saw many former colonies declare independence from British rule, perhaps a chain of events set in motion by India’s independence in 1947. The only sore point in the term of Elizabeth II was her steadfast refusal to acknowledge the Crown’s brutal repression of various colonies across the world, or even apologise for some of the atrocities. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, for example, is still a painful memory for most Indians; the British royal family or even senior members of the UK government stubbornly refuse to apologise for that horrendous event even today.

Novelist Hari Kunzru has written in a guest essay for the New York Times: “Elizabeth was queen when British officers tortured Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising. She was queen when troops fired on civilians in Northern Ireland. She spent a lifetime smiling and waving at cheering native people around the world, a sort of living ghost of a system of rapacious and bloodthirsty extraction."

The irony is that Liz Truss might even air-brush these episodes out of UK history. Delivering her first statement at Downing Street, after meeting with Elizabeth II, she said: “What makes the United Kingdom great is our fundamental belief in freedom, in enterprise, and in fair play…Our country was built by people who get things done." Inspiring words these but they should be read in conjunction with her December 2021 ‘Liberty’ speech to Chatham House, where she painted her version of history: “In fashionable circles, people talked about how we should be ashamed of our history and doubtful about our future…it’s time to be proud of who we are and what we stand for. It’s time to dump the baggage holding us back. Our history–warts and all–makes us what we are today."

Once you peel away all the unabashed ahistoricism, out pops her foundational philosophy which–as Kojo Koram, lecturer at University of London’s Birkbeck College, reveals in his guest essay for New York Times–moves in straight line from racist and xenophobe Enoch Powell’s Empire-centric model (anti-immigration and neoliberalism) to a discarded, anachronistic economic model: low tax rates and a smaller state.

This may not sit easy with Charles III, who is known for his sensitivity to issues that typical hard-line right-wingers, such as Liz Truss, abhor (he has admitted, in the past, to conversing with his plants). Which is why he might have to change the modus vivendi for Buckingham Palace, without having to push the envelope on constitutional boundaries. He may maintain the inscrutable royal face so effectively wielded by his mother, but continue to influence policy subversively. In fact, his earlier impassioned advocacy for organic farming, sustainability and awareness of climate change will have to acquire a different tonality, a higher moral authority that is unimpeachable or unquestionable by government representatives.

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