A planetary role for King Charles
Once upon a time, a beautiful young Queen stepped ashore from a magnificent yacht, accompanied by her Prince Consort. The couple were carried away in a gilded horse-drawn carriage to the applause of a great crowd. The year was 1957, and among the throng in Lisbon’s regal Terreiro do Paço, bordering the vast Tagus estuary, a small boy, Marcelo, watched wide-eyed.
Many years later, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa recounted his childhood experience to Queen Elizabeth II when they met at Windsor Castle – the Treaty of Windsor, signed in 1386, had set in motion the world’s oldest and most enduring diplomatic alliance.
During the many decades of the Queen’s long reign, the United Kingdom and Portugal underwent fundamental change. The United Kingdom ‘lost’ an empire, and Portugal shed a dictatorship. Both countries joined the European Union, although the United Kingdom subsequently decided to go it alone.
Above all, society changed, becoming less deferential, with in Portugal better education and in the United Kingdom a more multicultural population.
It is possible to argue that the United Kingdom could get on perfectly well without the anachronism of monarchy. Does the world we live in today really need so much pomp and circumstance, it could be asked.
Portugal and Italy, for example, both replaced their monarchies by republics, with a President carrying out important, but essentially non-executive and ‘non-meddling’, constitutional tasks.
Nonetheless, the popularity of the British monarchy remains consistently high … and the recent transfer of authority to Charles III seems to have boosted this popularity even more. So why remove a winning team?
Perhaps the most important consideration is the perceived quality of the senior members of the Royal Family. Are they doing a useful job, with sufficient empathy, or are they just living it up at the expense of the British taxpayer?
Queen Elizabeth was anything but a meddler. A great strength was her sense of humour, an arm she often employed to outwit politicians and signal her point of view.
On one occasion, when Brexit was still only a threat, the Queen wore a hat at the State Opening of Parliament that teasingly resembled the European flag. A few months ago, flowers in the Ukrainian colours could be seen in a vase placed on a table next to her.
But if the monarch is not meant to meddle, what can he or she usefully do? Pinning coloured ribbons on people’s chests is a bit limited in scope, just apart from the boredom factor. For the new king, the answer seems obvious.
Charles III is an expert on the environment. For decades, the King has met and talked to the most knowledgeable people in the field. Not only does he have all the climate information at his fingertips, he also has the unequalled prestige to put people together and leverage finance for action.
Of course, the climate emergency is not a national issue, but a planetary and existential one. In this case, however, it’s difficult to imagine a more participatory and democratic role for a contemporary monarch than being a form of climate emergency response leader.
This would give substance to the rather empty term ‘Global Britain’, as well as allowing the monarchy to draw on the late Queen’s planetary authority.
The new king has been forbidden to attend COP 27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. This decision is extraordinarily short-sighted of the new British government. But who knows, maybe the government will make a U-turn on this.
By JAMES MAYOR