When, in the early years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II first met Europe’s last true monarch, Charles de Gaulle, and asked for his advice on leadership, the great statesman advised her: “In the place where God has placed you, be who you are, Madam. I mean be that person around whom, thanks to your legitimacy, everything in your kingdom is organised, around whom your people see their patrie and whose presence and dignity contribute to national unity.”
It was her fate to preside over perhaps the fastest and most dramatic decline of any nation’s wealth and power in recorded history, a bitter function she fulfilled with compassion, quiet dignity, and a sincere Christian devotion to her duty. She oversaw the creation of 21st-century Britain, and if she felt the same ambivalence over the results that we all do, she kept it to herself. Through it all, she kept a fractious nation united in turbulent times, the one calm and steady certainty we have all known through lives of constant, and unsettling change.
Listening to the BBC radio news reporting her last great task of state, the appointment at Balmoral of Liz Truss as Prime Minister, I noticed that our state broadcaster made a point of explicitly recording that the nation had undergone yet one more smooth transition of power. Not every nation is blessed with such orderly transitions: no wonder the reaction from quarters of less happy realms, where such peaceful continuity can only be dreamed of, has at times been as bitter and jealous as we have seen. A nation is a family writ large. As Orwell wrote, Britain is “a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks.” And as at any time of loss and change, it is in moments like this we are shown who mourns with us, and who does not, who our family and friends are, and who they are not.
For these are solemn mysteries, not readily understood by other tribes. Anyone who meets a member of the Royal Family remembers the occasion for the rest of their lives. The encounter is shared, brought out in conversation over decades. And in the same way, anyone who has lost a parent will feel a part of themselves sharing this moment of our King’s loss: witnessing the Royal Family’s grief we remember our own loss, an entire nation joined in a collective act of remembrance and contemplation. For as the Austrian political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote: “a monarchy involves all the troubles, problems and joys of family life, on a large and public scale.”
My mother was born in London, two years into our late Queen’s reign, to a family of strong Irish republican sympathies with little love for the Royal Family. Yet even so, the collective rituals of our state, embodied in the Royal Family, would come to envelop her, as she lived and died under one Queen’s long reign. Just as we all remember that strange, disordered time, I remember, as a callow and cynical teenager, my late mother respectfully attending the crowds that watched Diana’s cortege pass down the M1 motorway through Hertfordshire towards London and her funeral. The collective act of sympathy and commemoration that reinforces the nation as a unit had brought her too, with no inherited links of blood or sentiment, within the British family fold.
And in the same way, this liminal moment of transition from one way of life to another will live on in my own family story, just as it will in yours or in any other British family’s. On Thursday evening, I went to pick up my eldest son from Scouts just after the news broke; we strolled along the harbourside to get fish and chips from a chippy where the radio played national anthem and we heard the Prime Minister paying her respects. At six years old, he will remember this moment for the rest of his life: what he was doing, what we said, what we ate together sitting, as we never do, in front of the television, watching the state broadcaster like every other British household. In such a way are nations strengthened and maintained as a collective body by the family unit around whom our state’s rituals revolve.
But all things must change, and the nation our new King has inherited is not a happy one. There is much for him to do to keep our collective family together, and we must hope that he will play a more active role in governance than his mother felt her due. Our constitution grants our monarch greater political power than the Queen chose to exercise, and we are fortunate that our new King possesses a willingness to intercede in public life that has at times tested the patience of Prime Ministers. He must be encouraged to continue: whatever his personal foibles, his instincts are good and just, and his decades-long critiques of globalisation, of our despoliation of our natural and built environments and our pell-mell rush towards the mythical horizon of progress have been tragically borne out by events.
What do we know of how our new King intends to rule? He is, after all, a man, like the nation he now rules, of strange and esoteric depths, both progressive and conservative in ways our party system does not adequately reflect. In his little-discussed 2010 book, Harmony, Charles remarks in a “call for revolution” that “it is very strange that we carry on behaving as we do. If we were on a walk in a forest and found ourselves on the wrong path, then the last thing we would do is carry on walking in the wrong direction. We would instead retrace our steps, go back to where we took the wrong turn, and follow the right path.” For, as he writes: “I cannot stress the point enough: we are travelling along a very wrong road.”
A follower of the Perennialist philosophy of René Guénon, and an admirer of the great American writer and farmer Wendell Berry, King Charles III has observed that: “Just as natural species, once lost, cannot be re-created in test tubes, so traditional, so-called ‘perennial’ wisdom, once lost, cannot be reinvented. This is the real damage being done by our disconnection, which is fast becoming all but complete in the modern world, all the while proving that the great experiment to stand apart from the rest of creation has failed.” A Christian mystic, a layer of hedgerows and protector of the soil, there is a mythic quality of identification between our King and his land which we have not experienced for some time.
For Charles III, inspired by the Orthodox Christianity of his fathers, believes sincerely that “we need to escape the straitjacket of the Modernist world view” and has for decades shared his “concern from the very start… that Western culture was accelerating away from values and a perspective that had, up until then, been embedded in its traditional roots.” As he writes: “What I could see then was that without those traditional ‘anchors’ our civilisation would find itself in an increasingly difficult and exposed position. And, regrettably, that is what has happened. This is why, ever since those disturbing days, I have expended vast amounts of energy to help save what remains of those traditional approaches. I knew they would be needed for a ‘rainy day’ which I fear is now close by.”
What is our King’s vision of a just and rightly-ordered realm? As he writes, “in the 21st century we desperately need an alternative vision… a future where food production and its distribution will have to all happen more locally to each other and be less dependent, certainly, on aircraft; where the car will become much more subordinated to the needs of the pedestrian; where our economy will have to operate on a far less generous supply of raw materials and natural resources.” It is of a land “where the character of our built environments once more reflects the harmonious, universal principles of which we are an integral part”. A King moved to write a book in which he condemns the poisoning of our seas and rivers will have much to advise a Tory government that has overseen our disastrous, squalid water system: our one-time anti-monarchist leader Liz Truss will be fortunate in such an example of what true British Conservatism, of every field and hedgerow, actually means.
In practice, King Charles has done more than anyone living in this country to promote humane and people-centred farming and architecture, and to preserve as a living tradition the historic arts and handicrafts of not just our own culture but of man’s patrimony as a whole. And as King, there is more that he can do, and must be encouraged to do. It is right and just that both the Communication Workers Union and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers have called off their planned strikes for next week in honour of our late Queen, but the bonds of respect that bind state and sovereign, ruler and ruled must go both ways. It is, for example, beneath the dignity of our state that the Royal Mail, founded by Henry VIII in 1516, be parcelled off and sold to foreign investors at the behest of EU directives, a course of action that 96% of CWU members opposed. A state must guard and protect its assets and its workers just as it does its great rituals and ceremonies: the Royal Mail is no less a part of our history than Windsor Castle and the Palace, and the accession of Charles III must bring into being the revival of the British state, or else the British state, our shared home, will be lost entirely.
For there is still much for us all to win, just as there is still much for us to lose if we continue further down our wrong path. Consider the one last great infrastructure project of our late Queen’s reign, the Elizabeth Line, and imagine what we would gain from a revival of the British state’s power and glory under her son and successor. Imagine His Majesty’s Railways, linking the beautiful and humanely-planned new towns our King could oversee on the Crown Estate, just as he has expressed his own philosophy in warm brick and stone in Poundbury and Nansledan on his Duchy of Cornwall lands. A benign and thoughtful King can do much to guide an inexperienced Prime Minister at a time of crisis. As he wrote: “I wonder if we might see wisdom in the Chinese word for ‘crisis’, which also means ‘opportunity’? It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to try to put things back as they were when we hit such a crisis, but we could be more positive and forward-looking and consider another approach that could create something different — a framework that is more sustainable; an approach to economics that is more proportionate, balanced and connected; an economics that recognises the need for harmony.”
Queen Elizabeth was fated to reign over a British state in sharp and calamitous decline, and it may yet be our new King’s unhappy fate to preside over the dissolution of our United Kingdom. But we must be thankful that our King understands there are great opportunities to be found and utilised in our current time of crisis. An unpopular Prime Minister taking office at such a dangerous and turbulent period will be naturally inclined to lean on the continuity and legitimacy only our monarchy affords, and a King equally inclined towards politics and a guiding role in our nation’s development must surely make use of the rare destiny he has been granted, for which he has prepared for his entire life. There is time still to save our struggling family unit, and rebuild our shared home towards the humane vision both our King’s faith and instinct guide him — a great Carolean restoration that will mark his place in our national history.