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Princes Charles and his son Prince William leave after attending a Service of Commemoration to mark the end of combat operations in Iraq, at St Paul's Cathedral in London October 9, 2009.LUKE MACGREGOR/Reuters

If you wanted to choose a time and place when the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton transformed itself from mere nuptials into the signature tactic in a full-scale crisis of succession, it was Nov. 2, 2009, in the seaside town of Cupids, Nfld.

William's father, Prince Charles, and his stepmother, Camilla Parker-Bowles, launched their much-heralded Canadian tour with an inaugural appearance in this town, a short drive from St. John's, that managed to attract a crowd of exactly 57 people. The last time Charles had gone to Newfoundland, with William's mother, Diana, in 1983, it had been standing room only. This time, fewer than one-10th of local residents bothered to show up, and almost no one travelled to see Canada's future head of state.

The rest of the visit was a tableau of angry protesters, riot police, empty bleachers and public indifference - a shocking reaction from a country whose people are generally the most favourable to the monarchy of any major Commonwealth country.

Ten weeks later, a bold experiment was attempted, initiated by a secretive committee within the House of Windsor. Prince William, the untested grandson, was sent as a substitute for the Queen on a late 2009 tour of Australia and New Zealand, where as much as 60 per cent of the population favoured an elected president in place of the monarchy.

The result was stunning: Thousands of people attended his every appearance, and he seemed to win over skeptical Antipodeans with his informal calm.

British papers, and even some parliamentarians, began to discuss openly something that only had been whispered before: the possibility, constitutionally feasible but rare in practice, of "skipping" Charles and passing the line of succession to William. Behind this speculation lay a mounting fear that Charles's tenure on the throne could ruin the institution unless something dramatic were done.

The Windsors' committee, the Way Ahead Group, was launched in 1994 by the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Airlie, and it includes the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and their private secretaries, as well as Princess Anne and Princes Andrew and Edward.

Its mandate revolves around constitutional issues surrounding the monarchy, such as the question of royal marriages to Roman Catholics or the end of precedence for male heirs (both, ultimately, parliamentary subjects), says Katie Nicholl, a London-based Royal Family expert with contacts within the committee.

But increasingly, she says, it has become obsessed with the larger question of the monarchy's survival after Elizabeth II's death.

And by the end of 2009, Charles was becoming a serious threat to that future: Even as he was touring Canada, the London media were revealing that in the previous decade he had become a compulsively outspoken political actor, lobbying more than a dozen British cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, with his infamous "black-spider letters" - so-called because of his distinctive penmanship and his persistence - at least fortnightly, demanding meetings and seeking changes to legislation.

His role as a political lobbyist and owner of a $50-million-a-year business empire was eclipsing his role as a future monarch. And there was increasing evidence that he intended to maintain and even amplify it.

"We can't underestimate Charles's belief in himself," said Graham Smith, the head of the anti-monarchist group Republic. "He has a genuine messianic complex. He's been on a lifelong mission to reshape the country in his image." In this, Mr. Smith says, the republican cause has received its brightest gift: a potential monarch who doesn't shake hands and fade into the background, one who gets in the way.

When the Way Ahead Group met in the summer of 2009, chaired by Prince Philip, the core question was how to prevent the monarchy from fading into irrelevance or distrust, and keep it revered and respected in the eyes of a new generation. Charles, according to witnesses, dismissed this talk as "impertinent," and tried to steer the agenda, as he generally does at such meetings, into ecological politics.

But by year's end it was apparent to everyone - except perhaps Charles - that the monarchy was facing a larger threat, from a hostile Parliament and an indifferent public, after the Queen's demise, unless its elite was able to shift the playing field by doing something dramatic. And then, in the late months of 2010, something dramatic materialized - or, rather, something pleasantly ordinary, involving a grandson and a pretty girl, that could be engineered into something more.

One wedding and one funeral

William had asked his family that his marriage to Kate be a humble and low-key event. But that request was vehemently overruled by his grandmother and her committee. Indeed, the event that most royal watchers had expected to be the monarchy's big splash, the Queen's 2012 Diamond Jubilee, was scaled down to what one commentator called "a low-key, village-fete-and-street-party affair," while the grandchild's wedding was upgraded to a shower of opulence on a scale not seen since Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

The hope is that this great blast of royal love will be sharply etched in the public's memory, for a decade or more, as the matter of succession becomes uglier.

Behind it all, of course, lies another royal event that is the subject of intensive planning and anxiety in London - the eventual death of Elizabeth II.

She is 85, her mother lived to be 101 and the Queen is in good health, so the worries aren't imminent. But her funeral is not only fully planned out, but regularly rehearsed. On a secluded military airfield just outside London, as journalist John Arlidge discovered last year, soldiers practise carrying the royal coffin. A Royal Air Force jet is on permanent standby, at ready for her serious illness or death. The 710-year-old Throne of State, used only for coronations, was recently refurbished at a cost of $157,000, in case of a sudden change of Crown.

The Queen herself, reportedly obsessed with the matter, recently switched funeral-planning firms to Leverton & Sons from the venerable Kenyons because the latter had been purchased by the French government.

The wedding and the funeral - two events, possibly many years apart, that have become tightly intertwined in the minds of the Queen and her backers: Together, they are meant to form spectacular parentheses around that far-less-encouraging event, the coronation of King Charles III.

From Victorian mystique to 'black-spider' letters

"A princely marriage," the great Victorian constitutional thinker Walter Bagehot wrote, "is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind. … Just so, a royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events." He was speaking of just the sort of pomp we will witness on Friday.

Indeed, he was explaining its precise political purpose, which he argued helps to justify a constitutional monarchy, despite its flaws: By creating an air of mystery and remove, it can keep politicians and public focused on the state and its laws, not hierarchy and power, unlike a system with an elected or Parliament-appoin-

ted head of state. A constitutional monarchy "has a comprehensible element" - the king or queen - "for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few."

For this division between the "efficient" state and the "dignified" Crown to work as a constitutional whole, Bagehot added, the monarch must be a person capable of maintaining that mystique - else the entire system cannot work: "He should not be brought too closely to real measurement," he wrote. "He should be aloof and solitary."

The Crown, in fact, "seems to order, but it never seems to struggle. It is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it from both enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties - to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol."

Those words, everyone agrees, describe Queen Elizabeth II perfectly. She has remained aloof, been of no party, separated herself from business, avoided contention - in short, she has preserved the mystery. She is the embodiment of Bagehot's political ideal, and has reigned for such a long time that we came to assume this was the natural and easily reproducible character of a constitutional monarch.

And then came Charles.

The heir to the throne has spent the past decade transforming himself from the morose face of regal indifference into a powerful businessman, outspoken political activist and aggressive lobbyist. The "black spider" letters and meetings with ministers are only the beginning. Laws that have apparently angered him into action, according to official records, have involved health, education, the national budget, foreign policy and the military; for a lengthy period, he attempted to have the Labour government abolish or radically reduce the powers of its 2000 Human Rights Act.

Much of his anger seems to be directed at legislation directly related to his military regiment or his $50-million business empire, which includes nationally marketed and distributed lines of food, "alternative" medicines and housing developments.

His business activism came to a head a year ago, when he used his lobbying might to stop the redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks in west London into an architecturally acclaimed housing project (Charles is the owner of a housing charity that builds projects in more conservative styles). Specifically, he got on the phone to the Qatari royal family, who owned the site, and talked them into cancelling the project just as construction was beginning. It has emerged that he has intervened in at least four other major London projects by acclaimed architects, successfully stopping at least one.

This history of activism was enough for some observers, including members of government, to suggest that Charles had become unsuitable for the succession.

Sovereign sabotage

"Insofar as the constitution defines any duties, there is a clear duty to stay away from areas of political controversy," Lord Lester QC, then a constitutional adviser to the British government, told The Guardian newspaper at the time. "It is not the constitutional function of members of the Royal Family to seek to take advantage of their public position to influence planning or other decisions affecting private rights and the public interest."

Others suggested that it was not so serious, because Charles surely would step away from his financial and political obsessions once the crown had been placed upon his head. But he himself says his political intervention is not something he really can moderate or reduce, because it is in his nature.

Last year, he told Vanity Fair magazine that he is driven by annoyance to get involved in politics: "I don't know why I mind so much. But I always have done. So I can only assume it's something that's sort of inherent."

As if to prove it, last year Charles published, to surprisingly little public notice, his personal political manifesto, under the title Harmony. Perhaps because it was attractively packaged with many photos, few noticed the future king's urgent message.

"This is a call to revolution," Charles begins, adding: " 'Revolution' is a strong word and I use it deliberately." He calls it a revolution in "right action" and "right thinking," a return to spiritual faith and a way of life founded in nature rather than in science. He launches a lengthy attack on most of the ideas of the Enlightenment and all of what he describes as "the deliberate demolition job carried out on traditional culture by what became known as 'modernism' in the 20th century" - not just in architecture and art, but in the entire edifice of thought of our age.

His is a fascinating sort of agrarian arch-conservatism that leads him to detest, and seek to reverse, much of the past two centuries of history.

While Charles's ideas about politics, urbanization and aesthetics alarm many liberals, he also holds ideas that offend many traditional Tory supporters of the monarchy: He is an ardent believer in radical ecology, not just in his commendable awareness of global warming but in his outspoken support of such thinkers as Wendell Berry, who advocate a turn away from technology and economic growth.

A deeply religious man, Charles is also a great defender of Islam; he uses his School of Traditional Arts in East London to promote "the living traditions of Islamic art, architecture and craftsmanship, as well as those of other great religions and cultures."

Scientists and doctors have been horrified by Charles's lavish advocacy of pseudo-medical practices such as homeopathy and aromatherapy as alternatives to medicine. Many remedies with no proven medical or scientific value are part of the Prince of Wales's business empire: His Duchy Originals firm makes herbal and homeopathic supplements, and has persuaded the Boots pharmacy chain to carry them in all its stores.

It also extends to his political advocacy: His Foundation for Integrated Health successfully lobbied the Northern Ireland government to introduce remedies such as homeopathy and aromatherapy for the treatment of such serious ailments as "musculoskeletal problems, depression, stress and anxiety."

Whether you happen to enjoy or abhor any of Charles's ideas (and those who embrace all of them are a small community), the important message of Harmony is that he considers them his calling. His ideology is not just a personal faith but a mission, and he intends to use all his resources to make it everyone's ideology, not just in Britain but throughout the Commonwealth: "This will involve our taking all sorts of dramatic steps to change the way we consider the world and act in it," he writes, "but I believe we have the capacity to take these steps."

It is a job description that happens to collide violently, in numerous unpredictable ways, with the one he has been waiting his whole life to carry out. While it remains to be seen how Charles intends to reconcile political activist, supermarket entrepreneur and radical philosopher with the aloof mystique of constitutional monarch, his extended family and their political supporters are not taking any chances: Friday's wedding is a bright flash of light intended to keep eyes away from the larger problem.

Could the father be eclipsed by the son?

But if Friday's spectacle is a vastly expensive experiment in image management, it also happens to be a highly risky one. Its aftermath - the crucial months afterward when William takes the public stage as figure recognized around the world, perhaps more than his father - will be watched with careful attention by the other members of the Way Ahead Group, the British government and the leaders of the Commonwealth states.

The worry is not that the wedding won't succeed. It is that it may prove to be all too successful. What if it draws attention to what is not being said aloud? What if it reveals William to be a plausible constitutional monarch but his father as something else entirely?

There have been several historic cases where the will of the people, or Parliament, has overruled the official line of royal succession. The most dramatic was when the heir to the throne, James, Duke of York, was enormously unpopular for his political and religious interference (he was a Roman Catholic) and was subject to three parliamentary exclusion bills, from 1679 to 1681, all of them designed to skip a generation.

The public preferred a young, charismatic prince who had risen to popular attention: The Duke of Monmouth, son of Charles II, the heir's brother. Parliament preferred Mary II. The result was a decade-long dynastic and political battle, the Glorious Revolution and the establishment of modern parliamentary control of royal succession. The exclusion bills were largely a failure because Scotland, which James also ruled, had different opinions.

"There would be a similar issue today with changing the succession," says Tim Harris, a historian at Brown University who specializes in the Stuart succession crises. "We now have a United Kingdom, but we also have the Commonwealth, and so the whole of the Commonwealth would have to agree."

But perhaps a more useful example occurred in 1936, when the British public and Parliament became convinced that the personal interests of the chosen heir, Edward VIII, had got in the way of his job as monarch. In this case, those interests were not political but romantic, but the result was the same: Parliament persuaded the king, against his will, to step down and hand the crown to a more popular young prince, his brother, George VI. When the people want the monarchy to move along, it usually does.

This time around, the British people have been clear in their response. On the day William and Kate announced their engagement last year, 64 per cent of Britons told pollsters they wanted William to succeed Elizabeth, skipping a generation; fewer than 20 per cent said they wanted Charles to be the next king. Those numbers have narrowed only slightly, with 59 per cent telling The Daily Telegraph's pollsters last week they wanted the monarchy to "skip a generation." The wedding could well make this view even more popular.

Commonwealth complications

However, it is not simply a matter of British opinion: The Queen is the head of state in 15 countries, and the head of the 54-member Commonwealth. To shuffle Charles out of the deck would be a difficult operation: It is a decision that could be made only by the parliaments of the countries where he would be king. And if they were willing to change the monarchy from one of hereditary succession to one of parliamentarily chosen succession, how far would that be from an elected head of state?

The House of Windsor is gambling that parliaments will see it this way, and will endure Charles if the more stable and appealing William seems hard on his heels.

Friday's wedding is a crucial volley in this campaign, but it does not obscure the fact that Charles could alienate large parts of the realm. Australia's Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has already said she would support having her country become a republic after the Queen's death.

An embarrassing or unlikeable monarch could quickly disillusion Canadians as well, and if public opinion could be transformed in monarchy-loving Canada, then anything, anywhere in the Commonwealth, might be possible (although such structural change would be dauntingly complex).

How much will Canadians endure Charles now that the more appealing promise of William has been so tantalizingly dangled? We may start to learn the answer this summer, when it will be William's turn to visit Canada, this time with his photogenic bride.

If he sets foot on the shores of Newfoundland and attracts an audience not in the dozens but in the thousands, will that be read as a vote against his father? Or it could be a vote, as his grandmother may well hope, for a historic bait and switch: an era during which a prince is in our hearts and a king, otherwise ignored, is on our money.

Doug Saunders is a London-based member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.