A life of public service is forcing the newly anointed monarch to end a lifetime of private activism.
That may be easier said than done.
Esther Webber and Annabelle Dickson
Illustration by Peter Strain
LONDON — It was during his first address as king — the speech he’d waited his whole life to make — that Charles III acknowledged he will have to give up some of the things that have given him the most satisfaction.
“My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities,” he said, a little more than 24 hours after his mother died at Balmoral Castle, bringing to an end the reign of the only monarch most Britons can remember. “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”
The entire speech was designed to reassure a country in mourning for Queen Elizabeth II that her successor would not depart from the style of steady, even-handed leadership she had embodied. But it was this line that stood out as an acknowledgment of how difficult that could turn out to be.
Unlike the queen, who was famous for not letting her views be known — much less drive the public debate — Charles has spent a lifetime immersing himself in sometimes controversial political or social causes.
The queen was steadfastly silent on political matters throughout her reign and the content of her weekly audience with the prime minister remains private by convention. As a consequence, even the hint of a publicly expressed opinion had the potential to cause a huge fuss, as occurred in 2014 when she urged Scottish voters to “think very carefully” about their choice in that year’s independence referendum.
Charles’ habits stand in marked contrast to his mother’s. The causes he was involved in as prince don’t fit neatly into traditional categories of left or right. He has stood in support of fox hunting and in opposition to “ugly” modern architecture, but he has also championed organic farming and advocated for action on climate change well before the subject was embraced by the mainstream.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the newly anointed monarch will be whether he will truly be able to leave the passions of his previous life behind.
Even if Charles is able to bury his convictions under symbols and ceremony, the rest of the country is unlikely to ignore the very public record — of opinions and controversy, activism and obstinacy — that will inevitably follow him as he seeks to carry out his daily duties.
Far from being a firebrand, Charles has forayed into activism with the same, bumbling awkwardness he brings to the rest of his public demeanor, often downplaying his efforts as aristocratic hobbyhorsing.
But that hasn’t stopped his efforts from being pilloried in the press or blowing up in the faces of various governments of the day.
In his own reflections, there has often been a hint of feeling that he’s not doing enough. In 2005, he was asked by a television interviewer if he felt he was making a difference. “I don’t know,” he said. “I try. I only hope that when I’m dead and gone, they might appreciate it a little bit more. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes that happens.”
In another television interview in 2020, he acknowledged that his early push for conservation in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, was “considered rather dotty.”
While he can rightly consider himself vindicated now that the zeitgeist has caught up with him, Charles still hasn’t been able to escape the occasional bout of ridicule. On a visit to Greece in 2018, he provoked amusement by declining a plastic straw in his iced coffee because of their impact on marine life — an item which has since been banned from general sale by the British government.
Just how central his views are to his life — and how much he hoped they would influence the workings of the British government — became apparent with the 2015 publication of what the press called “black spider memos,” a reference to his scribbled handwriting.
In these notes and letters to government ministers and politicians spanning about a decade and released only after a long legal battle, Charles can be seen advocating for a badger cull, for improved equipment for troops in Iraq, for the wider availability of alternative medicines, for changes to the design of new hospitals, and against the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
In an aside directed at the then Health Secretary John Reid in 2005, he displayed at least a measure of self-awareness, and an acknowledgment that his views might not be listened to, beginning his missive with “At the risk of being a complete bore…”
Although several right-leaning papers defended his interventions as a corrective to the policies of then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, the memos helped embed a view of Charles as a “meddling” royal — an image he has never quite shaken off.
In his most recent controversy, he was reported in June to have privately condemned Boris Johnson’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling.”
Charles is aware of the potential for dissonance between his history as an activist prince and his new role as head of state.
In a BBC documentary marking his 70th birthday, he tried to dismiss the matter, saying, “The idea somehow that I’m going to go on in exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense.”
A former official at Clarence House, his residence and office as prince, downplayed Charles’ activism.
“There has been a misinterpretation of what he does — he travels the world and he brings to light issues that are raised with him. That’s very different from being interventionist,” the former aide said. “If you look at the choice he had, should he have spent 50 years doing nothing?”
Peter Mandelson, who transformed the Labour Party’s public image as head of communications under Blair, was once approached by Charles with concerns about the way he was being perceived.
“The [king] does have a modern outlook,” Mandelson told POLITICO in an interview before the queen’s death. “He has occasionally walked a tightrope, but he’s not reckless. He uses his voice and convening power, I think, in carefully considered ways.”
“He knows his limits will change when he becomes monarch,” he added. “But he has acquired a lot of wisdom in his 70 years. And I, for one, hope he will continue to be guided by this wisdom.”
Charles’ balancing act may have paid off. A focus group convened by the communications consultancy More in Common for POLITICO found that, despite the mountains of negative media coverage, the participants were generally unbothered by Charles’ activism.
More in Common’s director, Luke Tryl, who carried out the research, summed it up: “For this group, there was no conflict between being the monarch and holding strong views. They knew the king had opinions on things like the environment, thought he had been ahead of the curve on climate change and expected he’d keep voicing them, either privately to the government, or through his son.”
One participant — Adrian, the director of a vehicle tracking company — said he thought Charles would have to take a more diplomatic approach now that he was king. “People want to really see someone with a moderate calm about themselves.”
Christine, a retiree from the focus group in Oldham, said: “I think he should make his feelings clear — after all he is the king. He is supposed to be the head of the country, the monarch, why shouldn’t he have his say?”
There was not much sympathy, however, for any private sorrow Charles may feel at the sacrifices he will have to make.
“If you are brought up a certain way and that’s how you live your whole life, you don’t know any different,” said Tracie, an administrator. “So, I don’t feel sorry for him. He knew the job role before it came.”
There is no question Charles will struggle to find ways to keep himself occupied. Many expect him to continue to advocate for action on climate change — now that the cause has become almost completely uncontroversial.
He’ll also have new battles to fight, in his role as king of 15 countries and head of the Commonwealth — a group of 54 nations with its origins in the British Empire — as his very ascension risks accelerating the centrifugal forces threatening to tear his realms apart.
Even as his mother’s reign drew to a close, countries like Barbados, Jamaica and Australia were laying the groundwork to remove her as head of state or ditch the monarchy altogether. In addition to the crown, Charles has inherited his mother’s position as head of the Commonwealth, but there have been calls to have that position rotate between its members, rather than resting with the British monarch.
Meanwhile at home, some fear the passing of the royal scepter could weaken the ties that bind the United Kingdom itself since the queen enjoyed higher levels of popularity in Scotland than the monarchy, or than Charles. One Sunday paper set out what is at stake, asking on the front page whether he could be “the last king of Scotland.”
“Those people who support independence and/or feel strongly Scottish are less likely to favor the continuation of the monarchy than are those who wish to keep the Union,” says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University. That’s in part because the monarch is “regarded as a British institution, and it isn’t regarded as a Scottish institution anymore,” he added.
Charles’ visits to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the days after the queen’s death were long planned but served to underline the importance of the Union to the crown as it comes under strain especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Close observers of the prince have suggested his activities in recent years have been carefully chosen to bolster certain ideas or places which were important to both him and the queen, knowing he would soon be more limited in what he can say and do.
For instance, his near-annual trips to Ireland seem calculated to build on the queen’s watershed visit in 2011, which marked a high point in the long and violent history of British-Irish relations. On his first journey to the Republic in 2015, he went to Mullaghmore where his godfather was murdered by the IRA in 1979.
“I think it was his way of making sure that the positive impact of her visit wasn’t dissipated by time,” said a diplomatic official based in Ireland.
The same official said that when Irish President Michael D. Higgins made his state visit to the U.K. in 2014, he and Charles were seated next to each other at lunch at Windsor Castle. “He [Charles] asked a lot of questions about Ireland and the mood in Ireland, what people felt, those kinds of things and there was a real, genuine intellectual curiosity.”
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff say that while they might facilitate a member of the royal family’s trips abroad, the agenda was driven by Clarence House and the prince’s priorities.
Whatever the difficulties Charles may be facing in dialing back his activism, there’s little indication he regrets it. Indeed, even as he prepares to inter his opinions under his robes and crown, he seems to be preparing his older son and heir Prince William to take on the mantle of advocacy.
Together with his wife Kate, the new princess of Wales, William has chosen to focus his energies on conservationism, early-years education and mental health through their Royal Foundation charity.
An employee of a charity of which William is patron said: “William has a bit of time to carve out a bit of an identity and actually do things before the royal demand to shut up and not be a political activist in any way shape or form takes precedence over everything else.”
Whatever comes next, there’s no questioning whether Charles knows the pressure that can build on someone waiting in the public spotlight for his turn at the top. “Nobody knows what utter hell it is to be Prince of Wales,” he reportedly said in 2004.
If William does follow in this father’s footsteps, that might be the once activist prince’s most lasting legacy — a subtle reshaping of what people expect from a prince and heir to the throne.
That too was touched upon in Charles’ first address as king. After indicating he would surrender the political interests not compatible with the crown, he added, “I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”