I wonder if Brexit and Boris Johnson, PM, would be possible without monarchy, for they seem connected. Boris acolytes are fuelled by loss, as is he: loss of the kind of power that let fools rule empire, if British. Why, they moan, can they not still? It feels suspiciously like a tantrum.
Elizabeth II, who grumpily planted a tree this week, insisting she could still wield a spade, is the reluctant link to this imperial past. She makes us, unconsciously and inaccurately, feel safe in what is soon to be Boris’s Brexit Blunderland. What we must horribly call her brand is Duty: how can we not feel safe, when she is dedicated to us? But nothing lasts forever. She is 93.
Fear prevents us thinking about what will happen when she dies; better to live in a dream in which jam, and perhaps butter, will maintain us as the fifth largest economy on earth. We were fine in the world wars, an imbecile told the BBC recently in a vox pop, forgetting that we lost close to 1.5 million souls and took $3 billion from America after 1945.
Meanwhile, we have self-indulgent political chaos and, for distraction, gossip without end. The Duchess of Sussex goes to Wimbledon in jeans. She and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who apparently likes gardening, are portrayed as avarice and benevolence. Meghan asks not to be photographed in a place that contains multiple television cameras. She spends blah pounds on a kitchen in Berkshire. She will not release the names of her son Archie Harrison’s godparents – is one of them a Teletubbie, or George Clooney?
Amid this babble, what we are not gossiping about is Charles III, probably because we have known him longer and he is not as photogenic as his sons’ wives. Even so, he is creeping up on the throne like one of his plants; he is stealthy, and he should be. Some people still think he had his first wife killed; and he has never clarified whether he will – and I think he will, because he is a nostalgist of the worst kind – crown his second wife Queen Camilla.
Charles has been Prince of Wales for 61 years. That is a long overture, even for monarchy, which copes in centuries. And he has been Prince of Wales for longer than any other; the runner-up in this competition which no one wants to win – a metaphor for futility – was Edward VII with a mere 60 years.
I have my own theory why Elizabeth II is sane, and has projected reluctance, and, slightly less successfully, thrift, to great acclaim. She did not know she would be queen until she was nine, with the Abdication Crisis in 1936; and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (two queens in one title is very telling about a character) prevented her daughter being spoilt, for she would rather be spoilt herself.
That is why the Queen is practical, and doughty with her spade. The only job she has had besides head of state was as a truck mechanic in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, and I hope obituarists remember it. It is important. It is possible that, to her, the United Kingdom is just another truck.
Charles is something else, though: neglected by his mother, spoilt by his grandmother, and the heir since birth, he projects an unease and depression that would be touching in almost anyone else. That is his primary misfortune.
He dresses as exquisitely as his great-uncle Edward VIII – the last, unlucky Prince of Wales – but he seems to take no joy in it. His homes at Highgrove and Clarence House – I have seen both, for republicans are as obsessed with monarchy as monarchists, although I was confined to a gazebo containing his watercolours at Highgrove (they are much better than Hitler’s watercolours) – are likewise tasteful.
But a monarch is not a still life. It is an insane system dependent on a shared – and fragile – national myth, and, to prevent this being stated too often in public, Charles must have a brand. If the Queen’s is duty plus reluctance plus thrift (“that is not really my crown”) what is his?
Hagiography is no help here, for it grows from what the object is presumed to be, and with Charles the material is thin. He wasn’t even a particularly functional adulterer: because he is a romantic. There was a fantasy about what kind of king he will be in a play – and then a TV film – called Charles III.
Monarchy is insidious, like all dreams – even I believe the Queen is kind, after her portrayal by Penelope Wilton in The BFG, which promised that she would save us from flesh-eating giants and give orphans shelter in her palace, if only she knew of their suffering. (“If only Comrade Stalin knew of our suffering.”) But Charles III was ridiculous as hagiography. It suggested that Charles would imperil his throne for – of all things – freedom of the press.
It is essential that Charles develops a brand of his own, beyond laughing at vegetables while wearing good suits. I saw that with my own eyes, but I live in Cornwall, where it is hard to escape him. You might pass a farmers’ market in Penzance, as I did, and have a Union Jack thrust into your hands which you will then wave limply, having nothing better to do.
It is tempting to define him as what he is not. He is not as stupid as Prince Andrew. He is not as angry as Prince William. I suspect William is principally angry with him, but that is not abnormal. Almost all the Hanoverians hated their fathers; George I locked his wife Sophia Dorothea up in a castle for 30 years and her son, George II, was understandably unhappy about it.
But not being something is not a brand, and I have often thought that Andrew, if happy – if the heir – would be a good king. Stupidity can make you convincing; we have had fat, jolly kings with big teeth before. Anne too; she would be like her mother with slightly worse manners. Charles’ obvious sensitivity – why praise homeopathy if you don’t want to be healed? – is his problem. Easily bullied princes – he was bullied into marrying Diana – are not effective for myth-building; Hamlet, for instance: great lines but would you want him on the throne?
He won’t have long; and so I think of his style and suggest a last, crabby burst of Hanoverian grandeur to bear Charles III towards his ancestors in the crypt. Let his children talk about mental health to national surprise; few things are worse for mental health than being a member of the royal family and, in their hearts, people know it; hence the widespread “pity” for the Queen, as if she had an embarrassing hereditary condition. Monarchy is supposed to make the monarchist feel happy – what else is it for? – and I doubt the flag-wavers will be made happy by listening to Prince William tell them it’s OK to have the mental health problems they are, in any case, trying to avoid by waving flags at him. But empathy in poverty is no good – it exposes royal hypocrisy. Empathy in glory is better.
Brexit is a response, however cracked, to the loss of British glory; or rather the idea of it, for I doubt the profits were distributed as fairly as we like to pretend. Since monarchy is likewise dishonest – it is not apolitical but predicated on its own survival – I suggest that Charles fuse his myth to that of Brexit, and become, at least outwardly, a glorious king of England.
He has the golden tools and he should use them; it would be better if he didn’t say too much. He could build an ideal palace – a vast Poundbury – and crown his scatty wife under a mountain of diamonds. That is a solution to Charles III, who is temperamentally unsuited to his future: let the crown wear him.