Encounters with (Constitutional) Monarchy

Charles and Camilla appear at the front of the cavernous Westminster Hall with stained glass window behind them
King Charles III and the Queen Consort appear before both Houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall. (Photo: https://www.parliament.uk/)

I never met the late Queen Elizabeth. I did, however, once try to bar Charles’s entry to the Cambridge Union Debating Society…

The King and I were contemporaries at Cambridge. I had a sufficient, albeit lowly, degree of engagement with the Union to be enlisted as a volunteer doorkeeper on big debate nights. Once the chamber was full, latecomers were directed to the bar, where there was a relay. That evening’s program was the term’s traditional humorous debate, led by professional comedians. This always attracted a full house. Every seat was taken half an hour before the start. I had the tedious task of re-directing various bluffers, chancers and drunks who turned up late and demanded entry. By five minutes to the hour, I was pretty fed up and not disposed to be friendly to someone who pitched up with a small group and declared loudly in a gilt-edged voice that they had reserved seats. I gave him my best jobsworth response and pointed to the bar entrance. He was insistent and edged to one side, at which point I realized that the party contained a very embarrassed prince. I quickly reversed and directed them upstairs to the gallery where they said seats were being kept. I chose not to leave my post because chamber overcrowding was a sensitive safety issue. Moments later, the Society Clerk, the permanent administrator, shot out of his office because he had heard that the Royal party were standing at the back of the gallery alongside ordinary members, because their seats had been taken. He charged upstairs and sorted the situation – and had the grace to apologize that no one had briefed me to expect the late arrival.

I recall this story occasionally, mainly because I think it speaks to Charles’s attempt to engage with student life to the greatest degree compatible with security – and how light those concerns were even in the university troubles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He may have enjoyed the privilege of turning up late and reserved seating – but with minimal fuss and no pulling rank to insist on moving people from those seats.

The prince was commonly seen around town on a bicycle like the rest of us, although I understand that he rarely attended lectures and had private meetings with tutors. He got a decent grade for studies in anthropology and history, which would probably have been better if he had not had to spend a term in Aberystwyth learning Welsh. That grade has its own integrity. In the UK, teachers do not grade their own courses. This is a collective process, massively reducing opportunities for corruption. At the time, Cambridge was making a transition from students writing their names on examination scripts to anonymizing them. The history faculty had been late adopters, holding that they were all gentlemen who could be trusted not to penalize or reward students on the basis of their reputations. When the question of grading Charles arose, however, the faculty realized that their judgment would never be trusted unless they joined the movement toward anonymization.

The new King is probably the best-educated monarch since the first Queen Elizabeth. Although previous princes had spent time at either Oxford or Cambridge, their lives had been much more insulated and their studies fairly token. The evidence of impact is clear in Charles’s fascination with other cultures and alternative ways of thinking about the world – occasionally eccentric and vulnerable to mockery but genuinely anthropological. Recent days have also made evident his sense of history, reinforced, of course, by a repertoire of symbols that few living people will previously have seen. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the Royal Beekeeper ceremonially informing the bees about the death of their mistress and urging them to be good for their new master. The hives will be draped in black ribbon for the period of Royal Mourning.

There has been predictable criticism of UK royalty for failing to denounce slavery, colonialism, class inequality, etc. but this misunderstands constitutional monarchy. What any incumbent says publicly is absolutely controlled by the government of the day – or in the case of overseas visits by consultation between the UK and host governments. If there is a Royal tour of the Caribbean that says nothing explicit about slavery, for example, this is because the respective governments have chosen not to include it in the script. This means that we often have to look at the monarch’s actions and symbols.
The Queen conspicuously refused to endorse Imperial nostalgia in supporting the transition from the British Empire to the Commonwealth (now not even the British Commonwealth), from a collection of colonies to a voluntary association of nation states, many of which do not have the British monarch as their head of state. The Queen’s choice of a hat in EU blue with gold stars for the State Opening of Parliament in 2017 was widely seen as a statement on the result of the 2016 referendum. Readers can decode for themselves the significance of wearing a brooch gifted to her by Barack Obama for her first meeting with Donald Trump. I suspect that King Charles III will continue to push forward visibly with Green projects on his personal estates, even if the government does not allow him to make speeches about the urgency of responding to climate change.

It would be naive to suppose that any British monarch is going to profess radical political views in public, any more than any serious US aspirant to the presidency is going to brand themselves as a socialist. However, the monarch can stand for values rather than policies, of a kind that would probably best be captured in traditional, one-nation kinds of conservatism that used to be found in the Republican Party. Integrity, public service, concern for the natural world, and for the socially excluded are fundamental to market societies – greed is not good for social cohesion and the maintenance of order by acts of state power rapidly becomes a source of conflict and a drag on the economy. Soft social control may not be our preference but it has had a remarkably good run. King Charles is likely to understand better than most, as his mother did, that a constitutional monarch stands for values rather than policies.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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