The job of the British monarch is largely to be, not to do. This was well understood by the late Queen and, judging by his first utterances, the new King.
Yet the model must always adapt. The values and nostrums of monarchy were set by an older generation whose reference points are drifting further away. You have to be at least 30 even to remember Diana, Princess of Wales. Now, for example, there are expectations on the famous to speak out on social issues.
Though the King’s first days have won admiration, abolitionists sense their moment moving closer. The first wave will come as UK dominions, notably Australia, debate whether to become republics, as they probably should. Which confident nation wants a head of state in another country? Even before this week, republicans at home are very much a minority, most Britons being supportive of the monarchy or at least unfussed. But the Crown will want to remain alive to both indifference and the missteps which boost opposition.
Yet even among supporters there are pressures for a new style. The King accedes at an awkward age, too old to benefit from the protective enchantment that was felt for his mother but too young to enjoy the sentimentality reserved for the truly aged. By instantly elevating his heir to be Prince of Wales, the King signals that this reign is a two-for one deal. The emphasis on his popular son invests more of the nation in continuity.
Given the pitfalls of seeming too political, the King appears to want to copy the model he set as Prince. The task of speaking on societal issues, he says, will pass to others, notably his son. This protects him while allowing his heir to demonstrate relevance to the younger population.
He can and will send signals of modernisation, slimming down the core unit and shaving the layers of sometimes troublesome minor royals. He should also trim the stuffy and fawning formality (though not the pageantry), beloved of older courtiers. He should not resist former colonies wanting their own head of state but make clear these republics remain welcome in the Commonwealth.
The Crown’s best interests lie in being mildly, rather than thoroughly modern. But values do change. While all agree the monarch must not stray into party politics, a world leader is increasingly expected to be a voice on some issues.
For the more liberal minded, this is easy. The King, and William, the new Prince of Wales, should be strong voices on climate change. There are other areas, like mental health, where royals can and do speak up.
This presents an opportunity but also risks, especially as the King’s views are well-known. When ministers lift a moratorium on fracking or promote oil exploration even the palest green comments can be interpreted as criticism. Mental health seems safe territory but raising its salience usually highlights its underfunding. These are not necessarily reasons for silence — a line can be trod — but they highlight the danger.
For perhaps the most under-appreciated point is that the more serious threat to the monarchy, if and when it comes, will not come from the left but from a populist right.
Liberals may be susceptible to the strong intellectual case for a republic, but they also value stability. The Crown endures as a unifying force and the status quo is less troubling than change. There is no tailwind for republicanism.
What would change the numbers would be if the monarchy lost those ordinary non-ideological voters on whom it can normally count. Recent politics offer a glimpse of how that support can be eroded.
Despite Liz Truss’s youthful flirtation with republicanism, the current Conservative party has absolutely no desire to assail the monarchy. But it no longer stands as squarely as it once did behind the UK’s institutions. The populist, radical rightwing which now drives it has shown an indifference to almost every other pillar of the establishment if they impedes its political goals.
Ministers and media outriders deride the judiciary as lefty lawyers and “enemies of the people”. The Church of England is dismissed as a hotbed of hand-wringing socialists. The civil service is a liberal establishment “blob” and the BBC similarly captured. One can debate the merits of their views but what is indisputable is that, in pursuit of radical reform, the right has stirred up public anger, depicting those central institutions as sinister, liberal elitists.
While the main parties of the left run from abolition, it is not hard to imagine the rightwing media or politicians turning on a King or heir already considered hostile to their agenda. In recent years the populist right has proved better than the left at mobilising discontent against a gilded and “out of touch” elite. In past times such clashes have presaged a quiet royal retreat, but bottles are not as easily recorked today.
The danger is not that the Tories turn on the monarchy but that they become less assiduous in protecting it from other voices on the right if they feel their interests no longer align.
I do not suggest that this is imminent or even likely, or that the party harbours any such intent. It does not. But Conservatives are no longer careful with the institutions they once resolutely defended and a monarch being urged towards modernity and relevance should understand where the real threat, should it materialise, may lie.