A New Monarch Heralds Uncertainty in Britain

Despite knowing the heir to the throne for seven decades, Britons are unsure of what Charles' reign will bring — and how to behave

A New Monarch Heralds Uncertainty in Britain
King Charles III at St Giles Cathedral on September 12, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland / Photo by Karwai Tang / WireImage

The cabbie of London — whose brain is the repository of the infamous “Knowledge” by which taxi drivers know every street in London and how to get there most efficiently from any point — is an institution as ingrained in the psyche of the nation as the monarchy itself. Walking toward Trafalgar Square, the day after the queen died, I hail one on impulse. “I’m afraid I’m on my way home,” he says in a comforting Cockney accent. “Where you off to then?” 

“I know it’s cheesy,” I reply, “but I’m going to Buckingham Palace.” 

“Oh, that’s perfect, jump in,” he says. “I’ll be going past. Not right past, mind you, given the situation, but I’ll drop you as close as I can. OK?” 

That’s definitely OK, and I settle in to pick his brains. “What are you hearing, then?” I ask. 

There’s a big exhalation. “Everyone’s sad, aren’t they? Except that idiot footballer, but there’s always idiots. No, I reckon the country’s united on this one. How couldn’t you be? It’s the queen!” 

The frequency with which I’m seeing her image increases: As we drive past bus shelters, their advertising panels are lit up with the regal portrait and her dates, and huge buildings have the same photo projected onto them. It appears throughout the country, from McDonald’s to train stations to supermarkets, an unusual sight for Britain’s fragmented public realm, where few signs are as ubiquitous. 

“And what next?” I venture. “How are people feeling about King Charles?” There’s a pause. “We’re waiting to see, I suppose,” the cab driver begins. “We saw him out today. I think people are willing to give him a chance, but we have to see. He’s not the queen, is he?” 

That he’s not, but we’ve had a long time to think about him as head of state. He has been heir to the throne for more than 70 of his nearly 74 years on Earth, possibly one of the longest apprenticeships in the world; he’s taking on the role at an age when most people in the country have retired. What’s more, signs of a more imminent accession have been coming for a while. And so this uncertainty — shared by many — is interesting to contemplate, as it is at odds with the apparent solidity of the institution of the monarchy and the feelings toward the late queen herself. There is a parallel with the uncertainty so many of us are feeling at how to behave, similarly at odds with the rigidity of protocol the country has developed over the past millennium. 

“Is the rugby going ahead?” someone asked on a WhatsApp group chat — for a team of under-9s. The question was possibly triggered by the news that (professional) cricket matches had been canceled, along with soccer, boxing and horse racing (the queen’s personal favorite) events. Train and postal strikes have been called off, and schools were inundated with calls as to whether they would be closing, with no guidance from the government initially issued. “We’re working on the assumption that we’ll be closed the day of the funeral, but we don’t even know when that is,” one London teacher told me on Sept. 9 (before the announcement on Sept. 10 of a national holiday for the day of the funeral — Sept. 19 — meaning that schools will indeed be closed, along with many other public and private institutions). 

I have been receiving a steady flow of emails from organizations with or without royal patronage, with tributes to the queen and a mixture of cancellations and keep-calm-and-carry-on attitudes, everyone making their own decisions in the absence of clear rules, whether from government or unspoken etiquette. These emails range from official staff guidance from the University of Cambridge to a tribute from the local yoga studio. At New Lines, we had an event planned in London and pondered what to do, a consideration some of our American colleagues were surprised by. But the mood of a country isn’t an easy thing to determine. In the end, with many of our journalist guests redeployed to coverage of the queen, we postponed.

My parents, not on social media, found out about the queen’s death when they went to a live broadcast from the U.K.’s National Theatre. There was an announcement of the news and an explanation of the decision to carry on — the queen being a great supporter of the arts in general, the theater and the National Theatre in particular, the statement said. The national anthem — the lyrics changed to “God Save the King” — was played, for which all stood. My mother said how strange it was to then sit through an entire performance of “Much Ado About Nothing.” But the show did, indeed, go on. 

This unease at what “should” be done, by institutions and individuals alike, is perhaps understandable given how few of the population have seen the passing of a monarch — you’d have to be over 75 to remember the last time “God Save the King” was said or sung outside historical dramas — and the world has changed a great deal since 1952. 

Perhaps this is the root of the uncertainty about King Charles himself. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s a sense of history pervading Britain at this time, reinforced by the blanket media coverage on all channels. Whatever your feelings about the monarchy, queen, Commonwealth or empire, the passing of Queen Elizabeth II feels momentous — and is at the very least the end of a 70-year era that gave some tumultuous decades a semblance of stability. That sense of history is what took me to Buckingham Palace on Sept. 8, as I previously wrote about for New Lines, and that’s what is moving people to take their children to pay respects at royal residences around the country; overnight line-ups are already predicted when the queen lies in state in London. 

Charles was directly in line to the throne from the moment he was born, destined to be king, accidents and revolution aside — unlike his mother. Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry “the woman I love,” Wallis Simpson, who had been twice married when they met in 1931. As a young princess, Elizabeth would have expected to be the monarch’s niece or cousin all her life but became queen-in-waiting when she was only 10 years old and Edward’s brother, her father, ascended the throne to become George VI.

This made for very different childhoods, and they’ve also had very different adult lives. The queen’s father died when she was only 25, and she was crowned at 26 and ruled over not only the U.K. but also six other countries, a number that steadily grew as colonies gained their independence, many choosing to keep the British monarch as their head of state. Over her reign, the queen was head of state of 32 countries and had ties to others in the Commonwealth. In 1999, Australia had a referendum on whether to keep the queen as head of state, and to the surprise of many, the country voted to keep her, its currency retaining the monarch’s profile as it is on Britain’s own coins and stamps. 

How much was this vote to do with the attachment to the old motherland of the U.K. and how much was affection for the queen will become clear now Charles is king. Much of the fondness toward the queen was surely born of longevity and the quiet dignity that marked her approach to service — which is clearly not going to be Charles’ image, coming to the throne at a very different age, after a life already dogged by scandal and rumor. The death of Princess Diana resulted in lurid speculation about both his faithlessness during their marriage — with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the queen consort — and his role in Diana’s death, with conspiracies never quite dying away. 

More relevant to the future of the monarchy is Charles’ attitude to his political role. As heir to the throne, he has had many of the same official duties as the monarch, meeting heads of state and traveling on global tours. But he is notable for having been more outspoken on issues — more than is comfortable for those who do not want any element of hereditary power in political decision making. Famous for his political memos, he has expressed a raft of concerns on issues from modern architecture to climate change to sympathy for Palestinians. Far from the queen’s quiet diplomacy, Charles has used the media and public and private messages to politicians to raise his concerns.

He has been clear that this won’t be how he will reign, which, notably, he stated in a BBC interview for his 70th birthday, almost 4 years ago. And indeed, his first appearances as king have signaled continuity rather than change. The day after the queen’s passing, the new king and Queen Consort Camilla returned to Buckingham Palace from the queen’s deathbed in Balmoral Castle, Scotland. The roads outside were cleared for the car, but they unexpectedly stopped and got out for a walkabout. That is, the very first public appearance of Charles as king was informal and unplanned, meeting the crowds gathered to pay respects to his mother. He continued this tone in his first address to the nation the same afternoon, pledging: “As the queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.” He followed this by speaking of his “darling Mama” with genuine emotion, winning over even anti-monarchist friends of mine, and reassuring others that his reign was not “all change.” 

Having been an heir for 70 years of his life, Charles is now in an extraordinary position, a septuagenarian ruling over a country that has never been more diverse and that has practically known no other monarch. He becomes king at a moment of immense political upheaval, with a brand-new prime minister, and a public reputation for quirky ideas and a tabloid-worthy private life.

And his concerns about the environment will put him on a collision course with the government Prime Minister Liz Truss has put together, full of climate change skeptics and fossil fuel lobbyists. This will cause cognitive dissonance for those sections of the press and wider society that are both staunchly conservative and staunchly pro-monarchy and tradition, whose nationalist rhetoric won the day during debates over Brexit, when there was a queen on the throne who did not make clear her political opinions — or at least tried to keep them quiet. 

If Charles does make his opinion clear on a political decision made by an elected government, it is unclear how the public will respond. With some of his views, such as climate change, he is more aligned with public opinion than Truss’ government and so perhaps will be forgiven the occasional verbal indiscretion. But what will such a clash do for the future of the monarchy itself? Can he be forgiven politically for having stronger views than his mother allowed herself? The mood is uncertain, the future impossible to read. 

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy