The UK is going through some tough times at the moment. We have just had the pandemic, followed almost immediately by an economic crisis and our Queen has just died. We have a new Prime Minister who most ordinary voters know nothing about. The coming winter may be the most difficult since 1978/1979. Yet I am hopeful.
The response by the overwhelming majority of British people to the Queen’s death has been one of shared grief and united sorrow. No one had to come out to view the Queen’s coffin pass on the road from Balmoral to Aberdeen and then on to Edinburgh, but the pavements were packed. The same will be the case on the journey to London and this will continue until the day of the funeral.
Overseas with a few notable exceptions, governments and peoples have expressed sorrow, empathy and indeed a love for someone else’s queen that is rare indeed.
Would Britain really have been better off if after the Queen’s father died, we had decided to become a Republic?
I am not remotely opposed to the Republican form of Government. Some very fine countries have presidents. The USA elects a president as does France. Both are good places to live as are Germany and Ireland. But so too are the various constitutional monarchies in Europe like Norway and Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. It isn’t at all obvious that Norway would be more pleasant, more free or more democratic if it replaced Harald V with a president. Britain would face exactly the same challenges this winter if we had a president rather than King Charles III.
The UK is as it is because of our history and our history is intimately tied up with the monarchy. It is because Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland that the heir to the throne upon Elizabeth I’s death was James VI and I. Without that marriage, it may well have been the case that Scotland and England remained separate countries with similar languages like Portugal and Spain.
It is also because of monarchy that the transition from absolutism to democracy happened gradually here and without revolution. If the European Union can claim to have prevented European war after 1945, then it is still more obvious that the Kingdom of Great Britain prevented Scotland and England continuing the periodic battles and wars that had marred the centuries prior to unity.
Because we have a constitutional monarchy, we can abolish it when we chose. It would merely require a Republican Party to win a General Election. But it would be time consuming to change our constitution. If a Prime Minister were also head of state, it would change the nature of Parliament and the nature of our democracy. Liz Truss is Prime Minister because she won her battle to be an MP in South West Norfolk and was chosen to be leader of her party. She wasn’t elected by the country as a whole, no Prime Minister ever is. She can hardly then be the equivalent of a president. But if we had presidential elections like in the USA, we would no longer have a Prime Minister, but a totally different political system. Alternatively, if we elected a symbolic president with no powers, we would end up with someone anonymous like the President of Austria. But this is no obvious improvement.
We are not in the Middle Ages. We are one bad king away from getting rid of the Monarchy. If Andrew the First was to be our next King, I suspect we would not have a king at all. But we are not in that situation. Everything King Charles III has done in the past few days suggests that he will be both good and popular.
I have seen some criticism of the King that the head of the established church should not be an adulterer and a divorcee. But this is to misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the church. Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) is to forgive her and tell her to go and sin no more. If anyone sincerely accepts that they have done wrong and repents with the intention of not doing that wrong again then Christianity offers forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t matter how large or small the sin. To have a sinner as head of the church reminds all of us that we are sinners too. Adultery and divorce are now commonplace. All sex outside marriage was considered sinful by Jesus. So go ahead throw the first stone at King Charles.
Each of us has done things that we are ashamed of. Each of us has treated boyfriends and girlfriends or husbands and wives poorly. Charles III is no different from the rest of us and deserves the same second chances that we too hope for when we do wrong. He now has a new marriage and a loving wife. Camilla has behaved well for many years now. She too deserves no less love and forgiveness than we all also hope to receive when we show weakness and the frailty of our humanity.
Everything I have seen in the past few days suggests to me that Queen Elizabeth II has brought the British people close together in her death and that King Charles III will bring us closer still in his life. The crowds packing the pavements of Scotland do not look like people who want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom nor for Charles III to be the last King of it. He represents continuity with our long history and unity. Scottish nationalism cannot compete with our story of shared purpose rather than separation.
Long may he reign.