Can the United Kingdom Survive Charles?

The new king inherits a disunited nation in which the center can no longer hold and disaffected regions are peeling away

Can the United Kingdom Survive Charles?
In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II walks onto a pitch in Dublin alongside Irish President Mary McAleese (right) and Christy Cooney (left), president of the Gaelic Athletics Association. (Maxwells/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

As the coffin of the 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II was lowered into the royal vault at Windsor Castle last month, a gray-haired man dressed like the jack from a deck of cards intoned the list of her titles.

The late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Monarch, Elizabeth the Second, by the grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

After a poignant lament on the bagpipes, the Garter King of Arms David Vines White repeated the list, this time ending with the phrase, “God save the king.”

Everything about the death of Elizabeth — the U.K.’s longest-reigning monarch — and the accession of her son, Charles, was designed to stress the continuity of an institution that is the repository of nationhood for a country that was once a global empire and lives still in its afterglow. But it was all theater — a trompe l’oeil — because the kingdom is disunited and possibly headed to the breaker’s yard.

Over the course of centuries, the crown has been held by brigands, murderers, madmen, rakes and despots. Elizabeth was the exception. Her ancestor, the first King Charles, had his head chopped off and a republic was declared; another, James II, was chased from the throne because he was a Catholic. In 1714, the British crown passed to a German prince (again to keep the Catholics out). And in the middle of World War I, the royal family name was changed from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor to placate anti-German sentiment.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Elizabeth’s grandfather, George V, refused asylum to Nicholas II of Russia — his first cousin — for fear the Bolshevik contagion would spread to England. King George V, it later emerged, was euthanized so his death could be reported in The Times rather than in a down-market evening title. Elizabeth II herself succeeded to the title only because her uncle, the Nazi-supporting King Edward VIII, abdicated in favor of her father, George VI, so he could marry a twice-divorced American against the wishes of the state church and government.

Watching the pageantry of her state funeral — reportedly seen by billions — you might think you had tapped into a time warp in the fabric of history rooted somewhere in the medieval ages. Yet much of this flummery is a modern invention. You have to go back 262 years for the last state funeral of a monarch in Westminster Abbey. Sailors pulled her coffin only because unruly horses refused to pull Queen Victoria’s in 1901 and naval ratings were pressed into service. The whole thing — down to the bagpipe music — was choreographed by Elizabeth herself. The parade of armed forces that accompanied her coffin, led by Canadian Mounties to reinforce the colonial links, outshone any May Day march on the streets of Moscow. Crowned heads and presidents came to mourn and were seated in an order of precedence that revealed a country still yet to come to terms with its decline as a global power. Front-row seats went to European royalty, while the leader of the one remaining global superpower was in row 14. The presence of so many world leaders said more about Elizabeth’s reputation than the political and economic standing of the country she ruled. The imperial state crown glittered on her coffin, but her reign has been one of managed and mismanaged decline.

The messy dismantling of the empire left the world with unresolved tensions in countries as diverse as Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and Israel-Palestine. The economy has tanked — with the sabotage of homegrown industries, rapid decline of manufacturing and the self-inflicted wounds of withdrawal from the European Union. And the United Kingdom is not so united anymore: The Welsh are increasingly at odds with British government policy, and Scotland is heading for independence.

One thing that has changed for the better during Elizabeth’s reign is the position of women. The inhabitants of the corridors of power in 1950s Britain, when she came to the throne, were almost all male. While there were still a lot of men in gray suits at the state funeral, those sitting in Westminster Abbey reflecting on the death of the queen included three women: British Prime Minister Liz Truss, appointed just two days before the monarch’s death; Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the person most likely to destroy the union first (if Truss doesn’t do it for her); and Michelle O’Neill, first minister designate of Northern Ireland. Of the three, O’Neill had the most reason to be uncomfortable in her VIP seat in the choir stalls.

O’Neill is vice president of Sinn Fein — the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which contests the crown’s claim to the northeast part of Ireland. In 1979, Westminster Abbey was the venue for the ceremonial funeral of the queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten of Burma (a ceremonial funeral is one step down from a state funeral). Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, was murdered while vacationing in the west of Ireland. The bomb that killed him also claimed the lives of two children and his mother-in-law.

Surprisingly, O’Neill’s presence was overlooked by most commentators. The BBC even got her title wrong. But — and this is a very big “but” — O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral was seismic in terms of British-Irish politics and a much more powerful statement than the presence of the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Michael Martin and President Michael D. Higgins, the first Irish head of state to make a state visit to the U.K (in 2014). As first minister designate, O’Neill was signaling that she sees herself as representing all in Northern Ireland — nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, and nonbelievers too. It was an act of peace and reconciliation made manifest. And her presence was amplified by the release the following week of census figures showing that Northern Ireland — the state established to ensure an in-built Protestant majority — now had Catholics as its largest grouping, while the number of those identifying as “British only” had fallen to just over 30%.

Just a decade ago, Sinn Fein was wrong-footed by the queen on her state visit to the Irish Republic. Conditioned by generations of antagonism to the British crown, the party was unwelcoming, if not downright hostile. But the monarch visited Croke Park — home of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the site of one of the worst British atrocities in the War of Independence — and laid a wreath at the monument to honor those who died in that war and in the Easter Rising of 1916, which propelled Ireland toward statehood. At the state banquet in Dublin Castle, she ignored Foreign Office advice and opened her speech in Gaelic, the language the British had tried to wipe out and which unionists in Northern Ireland today still will not recognize. Sinn Fein was won over.

A year later, during her Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland, the former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, who had become deputy first minister, shook hands with the queen. McGuinness, who died in 2017, later said he liked her. The party that once advocated fighting for Irish unity with the ballot box in one hand and a rifle in the other has mastered the art of politics to such a degree that it is currently expected to be in a position to form a government in the Irish Republic at the next general election, to be held in 2025. It topped the polls in the last Northern Ireland Assembly election for the first time, giving it the right to the post of first minister, though the refusal of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to sign up to the executive means Northern Ireland currently has no functioning government. It is feasible that in the not-too-distant future, Sinn Fein will be in power north and south of the border.

The demographic shifts revealed in the Northern Ireland census figures issued on Sept. 22 (their release was delayed because of the queen’s death) came as a shock to unionists who just a century ago had heralded the northern six counties of Ireland as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people.” But in truth they only confirmed what many already knew: The vise-like grip held for so long by the unionist elite, sustained by a paramilitary police force and underwritten by the British military machine, was no more.

After the death of his mother, King Charles III went on a tour of the constituent parts of his new kingdom. In Belfast, he was welcomed by the outgoing speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who, due to the DUP’s refusal to appoint a new speaker and activate the assembly, was a member of Sinn Fein. Next in line of protocol was O’Neill, the leader of the largest party in the assembly. At the later service of thanksgiving in the Anglican cathedral church of St. Anne, the king was welcomed by the lord mayor of Belfast, who is a Sinn Fein councilor, and by the cathedral’s constituency member of parliament, also from Sinn Fein. If ever there was a sign of unionism’s eclipse, this visit was it.

The king was relaxed in their company, and the speaker cracked jokes with the monarch at the expense of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Like his mother, the king (who regarded Mountbatten as a surrogate father) has put his personal loss to one side in the cause of peace and used his soft power to promote reconciliation. Writing about the king in the Belfast-based Irish News newspaper, veteran journalist Deaglán de Bréadún recalled Charles’ words on a visit in 2002 to a peace and reconciliation center in County Wicklow, Ireland: “I have always felt what can only be described as a sense of affinity with the rhythms of the Irish soul.” He then told the gathering, “I am only too deeply aware of the long history of suffering which Ireland has endured, not just in recent decades, but in the course of its history.”

Those words could have just as easily come from the lips of a professional Irishman, U.S. President Joe Biden. And here we come to another interesting dynamic from the Queen’s funeral: the troubled relationship between Biden, the mourner in row 14, and Truss.

Truss has risen without a trace and finds herself in office much to her own surprise as well as that of an electorate that didn’t vote for her. As a young politician, she called for the abolition of the monarchy, but two days before the queen’s death she was asked to “kiss hands” (they don’t) and become her 15th prime minister. She has a reputation for changing positions to suit the political tide. Once a strong supporter of Britain remaining in the EU, Truss has since thrown in her lot with the most anti-European faction of her party. One of their targets is the Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated by her predecessor Boris Johnson to ensure that leaving the EU did not result in the reimposition of a border in Ireland and the unraveling of the Good Friday peace agreement, whose 25th anniversary is next year.

The mourner in row 14 is a strong supporter of the protocol.

Biden was expected to meet Truss while in Britain for the funeral, but cancelled their meeting after an unwise media briefing by Truss’ people that suggested she was going to play hardball with him over the protocol. Presidents might be prepared to take a back seat at church, but they are not going to be talked down to by the jumped-up leader of a failing state. The leaders’ subsequent meeting, on U.S. soil on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly, was muted amid suggestions the long-standing “special relationship” between the U.K. and U.S. was no more. On her way to the U.S., Truss had already conceded that the much-hoped-for replacement to EU trade — a trade deal with the U.S. — was not in the cards. In former President Barack Obama’s pointed phrase, Britain was very much at “the back of the queue.”

Said to be a Chinese curse, the saying “may you live in interesting times” is no more relevant than this past month. We have witnessed the death of a monarch who was the thread that held the U.K. together; the downfall of a disgraced British prime minister and the arrival of a successor who has already burned her bridges with the U.S.; a demographic shift in Irish politics with a “minority” community, whose rights and culture are still not fully recognized in law, now the largest religious grouping in Northern Ireland; a dramatic fall in the numbers of those there who see themselves as “British only”; and the accession of a new monarch who has been welcomed by members of a party who once rejoiced at the murder of his great-uncle.

The scene is now set for an intensification in demands for the British and Irish governments to think about a new Ireland beyond the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and to lay the groundwork for a referendum on reunification. Unionists, whose approach to date has been based on denial, show no sign of adjusting to the new realities, but adjust they must. The queen is dead, and with her the certainties that once held her kingdom together.

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