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Charles will be the People’s King He represents us better than Liz Truss

Back again? (Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)


October 14, 2022   6 mins

Melancholic Autumnal splendour was soon overtaken by the instant decay of a new administration. But lest we should have forgotten the Queen’s funeral and the new royal accession, King Charles has now twice reminded us that the Spring of his new beginning is still intact.

First, an appropriate Spring date for his early coronation has been announced. And then, on Wednesday, he perhaps deliberately broadcast to the world his irritation and dismay at Truss: “Back again? Dear, oh dear. Anyway
” This incident has already exploded any notion that Charles as King will be completely apolitical. But a more political monarchy should be welcomed, both in principle and also on account of the immediate and complex danger in which our realm now stands.

In the face of this peril, King and Prime Minister represent two completely opposite possible future responses: one concerned with restoring a more natural, rooted, cooperative order under the authority of a mystical deity; the other determined to install a yet more nakedly liberal and secular regime in which order is to be distilled out of the uprooted strivings of human individuals who seek only their own further advantage.

Thanks to both new global circumstances and to Truss’s overkill, we can no longer be so sure of the inevitable triumph of the second, more obviously modern perspective as we once might have been. We can now recall that the Queen’s funeral was the sudden and gently confident rising to the surface of an older and deeper reality. What drew people to this event was a phenomenon of incarnation, in an ultimately Christian sense, which nonetheless resonated for people of many different faiths and none at all. The Queen, in her increasingly frail body, had been the ultimate locus of power and authority. She stood for the notion that legitimate power, in contrast to the Trusketeer vision, is, indeed, inherently symbolic as well as personal, because it derives from above and from our answerability to the eternally and objective Good, True and Beautiful, not from a balancing of brutally material forces.

England was once devoted to the notion of the “king’s two bodies” — the idea that when the mortal body of a monarch dies, her immortal body of authority survives. (Charles became king not through a ceremony, but at the very instant of his mother’s passing away.) This idea was ultimately inseparable from a theological one: the doctrine that Christ was, in a still more radical sense, at once both human and divine.

Yet in the case of kingship, this never meant that the monarch was a pagan semi-deity. Rather, kingship is anointed: the king is only king under God, and bound to the divinely-given law of the land and to the people who themselves belong to God. The scriptures recognise both the dangers of monarchic tyranny and the likelihood, in a republic, of aristocratic corruption. It is for this reason that they advocate what is in effect a mode of constitutional monarchy.

We speak of ourselves too often as a mere “democracy”, as if we believe in the dominance of the sheerly aggregated will of the British people. But in reality, we live in a representative democracy, under the ultimate sway of the Crown. Political representatives are in effect a kind of “aristocracy”, since they at once guide, influence and interpret the will of the people.

It can seem as if the way forward should be further to liberalise and democratise that mixture. But do we wish to unleash the isolated wills of narcissistic individuals — or their aggregated compound, often in populist reaction against the former? In reality, a less hollow, more participatory and continuous democracy can only prevail if we cultivate a more honourable and rooted leadership at every level, rather than a self-seeking oligarchy that seeks to manipulate and control the populace as though it were a machine.

Monarchy might stand at the apex of this better “aristocracy”. Its leadership is inherited, tying it to tradition, to land, to the interpersonal and to patronage. It is naturally linked to the rural soil, to the encouraging of creative labour, and to life, as instanced by the causes that Charles III supported when he was a prince.

However, mixed government supposes a perennial sense (well known to Charles as a reader of RenĂ© Guenon) that human beings tend either to be thinkers, doers or sustainers — therefore to fall into contemplative, political-military or economic social roles. A monarch is naturally drawn towards the top-down integration of these three elements, just as he tends to see the need to link the executive, judicial and democratic powers within the political sphere.

Therefore, the monarch not only enables but also counterbalances the aristocrats. His power resists their latent republican desires for purely oligarchic rule; indeed, it often depends upon a “Caesarian” appeal, over their heads, to the people, as we see in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Caesar. The monarch can act as a counterweight to the over-confidence of the supposedly wise, whose wisdom has degenerated into mere expertise. A king is properly concerned with the inculcation of genuine wisdom and often this resonates much more with the common-sense and folk traditions of the people than the bourgeois theorising of the semi-educated.

For this reason, there is nothing inappropriate about King Charles’s specific interest in a better pedagogy. Ultimately, a non-liberal politics exists to inculcate virtue in its citizens. Charles has often promoted exactly that, through his various trusts and projects. But at the same time, he has also attended to the popular voice with respect to architecture, family, community, land, craft and local economy. Experts have tended to deride this work, ignoring the fact that monarchy can help to render democracy more substantive, as opposed to allowing it to become increasingly hollowed-out by attention to only formal procedures.

Everything here is paradoxical: if more power is to spring from below, it needs a space shaped, crafted and protected from above. Only a king may possess a destiny sufficiently at one with his people to be relatively immune to selfish distractions and partisan influences.

That is why monarchy is never apolitical or merely “dignified” and ceremonial — but is, rather, political in a sense higher than is usually observed in our agonistic politics. Deeper than our arguments lies always our consensus, without which the arguments could not be peaceably conducted. Kings and Queens can legitimately attend to the shaping and promotion of this consensus, even though it will never, of course, be without some contestation.

Charles as Prince was right to focus on matters of land, life, labour and education. He was right also to focus on trying to include the socially marginalised. All this is about the pursuit of the common good, and should not be controversial, or thought of as “meddling”. A Trusketeer politics that ignores the common good is not a politics at all, but an anti-politics. It is a monarch’s higher priorities that may serve to preserve the Union of four distinct peoples and a shared feeling of “Britishness”, despite an increase in federalised self-government.

We need to understand that our institutions are all in disarray because we do not understand the real principles of mixed constitution which they embody, nor their ultimate links to sacral monarchy. For it is impossible to pursue a shared Good, Truth and Beauty if one has no conviction that these things are eternally real — and can, to a degree, be rendered truly incarnate and instantiated as “harmony” here below. Congregations in churches and Hindu temples may be inspired by the priestly promise of the celestial, but the people in the queue were even more inspired by the notion that heaven might be brought down to Earth — and the hope that, one day, the Earth itself would be restored, when only “God”, or the Truth itself, is finally our ruler.

Monarchy is subordinate to a spiritual priesthood — to us, the established church, which now guards the orb and sceptre until coronation day — and yet looks carnally beyond it, to a greater integration of soul with body and of understanding with pleasure. This is why everyone was so awed and yet excited by the funeral.

But how can we renew our constitution today? Monarchy should be a key part of that renewal: it has an especially strong role to play now that elected leaders are so distrusted. Without a monarchic tempering, populism may well deliver ever-further extremism, and liberalism may deliver ever-further intolerance of those who uphold objective norms. Our hope must lie in Charles exercising the higher and more fundamental politics proper to a king.

He could make more of his views public, where crucial aspects of our civic life are under threat. He could reduce his household, but increase his assembly of advisers and their interactions with the Civil Service. He could meet more regularly and not just ceremonially with members of his Privy Council. He could increase his influence with the House of Lords. He could consider the exercise of the royal veto in relation to matters that obviously violate the verdict of the ages or fundamental human liberties. In the future, the Crown might also move to prevent gross violations of our constitution, such as Blair’s removal of the House of Lords’s role as our highest court, or Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament.

Above all, Charles could expand the role of Royal commissions, colleges and trusts. On the model of the National Trust, he could establish organisations operating under royal charter concerned with ecology, land use, water, energy resources, housing, education and so forth. They would both produce strong ideas and put them into practice, on land that the organisations themselves owned.

None of these measures would damage representative democracy, because elected assemblies would still generally have the last word. But by increasing and encouraging honourable virtue and wisdom — drawing at once on ancient traditions and popular instinct — Charles’s reign could truly enable more popular involvement in social and economic processes.

God is said in the New Testament to have “emptied himself” by becoming a man on Earth. Instinctively, the people of this country recently responded to the self-emptying character of royal power. They saw that the monarch is us — her body our body, her death our death — and yet, miraculously, she is not dead, not even in her fragile earthly body, which is re-embodied in Charles. They saw that real power is obedience to the Good and service to the people. They saw that they can only be people themselves if they pursue these kingly virtues and become a “royal priesthood”. It is this vision that we must now seek to realise if we are to save ourselves as a polity.


John Milbank is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham


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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

If you are so confident he represents us best out of anyone, let’s put it to a vote shall we?

We could have an open candidate list and a few months of no holds barred campaigning. I very much doubt Charles would win against his son or against candidates willing to trawl through Charles’ past misdemeanours, even with a servile media.

Charles is King because he is the eldest son of his mum who was Queen. Nothing more, nothing less. He has no special claim to best representing anyone but himself. And his prattish mistakes suggest he’s not even very good at best representing himself.

I’m not advocating for a presidency. But to suggest Charles is uniquely qualified above all others is delusional devoteeism.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“let’s put it to a vote shall we?”

Well, no. That’s the point.

People inspired by Monty Python’s “well I didn’t vote for you” anarcho-syndicalist peasants as the last word in political theory always seem to overlook the fact that they eat dung.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

As I said, I’m not advocating for a president, I’m criticising the fawning pretence that Charles is a better representative of the people whose influence should be expanded under the guise of Royal Commissions.

Gill Holway
Gill Holway
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Pretty much like any politician then other than we are stuck with him and he with us.

Iris C
Iris C
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

He has had decades of life experience – following the ups and downs of society with different politicos in power. He has no need to offer unsustainable promises to gain power and has the wherewithal to be incorruptible.
Perhaps we need a benevolent monarch like Frederick the Great!. . ..

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Yes, let’s do away with all that messy democracy. What’s needed is a government of academics, bankers and globalist bureaucrats led by a thick as mince man child who talks to plants. Yep, that’ll do it.

What is it about Nottingham University?

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

MPs of course are famous for having never pursued careers in academia, finance or the public sector before being elevated by the democratic will of their two-dozen strong local party selection committee and inflicted on a safe seat.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Even an imperfect democracy is preferable to the authoritarian plutocracy that you seem to prefer.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

You: the King taking a more active constitutional role means rule by academics, bankers and globalist bureaucrats.
Me: that’s what we have right now.
You: why do you hate democracy?

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

I did not read the article, but say I do like Charles – as I grew up he was ahead of me in age and on TV a lot, and seemed a good man, And since our wonderful Queen passing away, I have felt he will make a good King. I support him as King.

But the thing is him and the World Economic Forum WEF….(our psychopathic overlords) just do a search – this is what I wish was being addressed – sorry if it was in the above, I just scanned it for those 3 letters.

you will find endless stuff like this, and some gets pretty wild…

‘Now-King Charles has a long history of working with the World Economic Forum. Charles has been attending WEF meetings since at least 1992. Daily Mail said in 2020, “Earlier this year, Prince Charles launched his Sustainable Markets Initiative at Davos,” which is the meeting place of WEF.’

I believe the ‘Global Elites’ (Davis) are behind all which is bad/evil in the world, and are out to enslave the planet – so I would like Charles, or his spokesperson, to address the Klaus Schwab and Larry Fink thing….

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

Given King Charles’s involvement in Poundbury and his advocacy for climate change, I would call him a creature of the educated ruling class, and therefore likely to be much beloved of university professors like the writer.
But beloved of ordinary Brits? I wonder.
A bigger question is King Charles’ Head, as David Copperfield’s pal well knew back in the day.

Last edited 1 year ago by Christopher Chantrill
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

This makes an elegant case for the British monarchy while also touching on the problems of true democracy (i.e. elite capture). Historically speaking, as far as Europe is concerned, the power of monarchs was generally limited by the power of landed nobility, and vice versa. The monarch’s ability to unify many lands and peoples was counterbalanced by the fact that the nobility collectively had more direct control over far more wealth/manpower/territory than any monarch. Thus, a persuasive and popular monarch could further restrict the nobility (oligarchs) by threatening them with the will of the people, or more literally, confronting them with the brutal reality that more of the people would take his side in any perceived conflict. Weaker monarchs, on the other hand, were more easily manipulated by members of the nobility. This dynamic takes many other forms but the pattern remains; the most potent threat to oligarchy is a powerful autocrat. As an American, I rather admire the British monarchy as it represents another safeguard against a truly horrid bunch of oligarchs gaining power as the monarch could theoretically wrest control if he or she had enough popular support to do so, and even without formal power can still wield a counter-influence. Whether Charles III can be that sort of monarch is a debatable point, but even if he isn’t, the next one still might be, and that’s the point. The monarch may be just a symbol, but symbols can have great power, as the author reminds us.

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
1 year ago

A more political monarchy?

Doubtful – but bearing in mind that Charles has been banging on about the Climate for a generation but still obviously hasn’t the faintest idea of the well established fact that tiny increases in temperature in 170 years, followed by a small increase in a trace gas essential for all life on Earth, may be interesting, but is certainly not a harbinger of doom; is unpersuasive that he is the Man for the job.

A thousand pitties that we couldn’t have had Queen Anne Ii.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Ah, there it is: Above all, Charles could expand the role of Royal commissions, colleges and trusts.  I guess the author is hoping Charles is an Unherd subscriber.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

I found this is a profound and moving essay on our situation at the present time after the Queen’s death. I share John Milbank’s appreciation of our King and his hopes for Charles’s reign, but I doubt whether certain powers, including the media, would allow him to extend his influence much. I hope I’m wrong though.
Thank you.

Gill Holway
Gill Holway
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Neither Kings nor Politicians ever come with guarantees.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Well said Claire. One of the best essays I’ve read all year. Im doubtful too, but while both the Left & Right have reason to distrust him, he also receives support across the spectrum. It will be as God wills it.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago

Diana would not agree.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

This essay makes me think the British are bigger fools than I had imagined.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Truss can at least claim the support of the majority of Conservative Party members. Whose support can Charles claim? Camila’s?