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King Charles III and members of the royal family follow behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre, as it is carried out of Westminster Abbey after her State Funeral on Sept. 19.POOL/Reuters

Hamida Ghafour was previously a London-based reporter for The Globe and Mail and for British national papers including The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the succession of King Charles III has presented the British with the opportunity to display the kind of pageantry that no other nation can quite pull off. Each minutely scripted event – the Queen’s lying in state, Charles’s proclamation and the state funeral – has been set in medieval surroundings, attended by people in period costume performing rituals with crowns, orbs and sceptres.

These romantic traditions fascinate a world in which the business of modern government is usually conducted under fluorescent lighting by technocrats in grey suits. While the global public could be forgiven for imagining Britain as a Downton Abbey theme park full of formality and flourish, the archaic ceremonies obscure an essential nature of the monarchy: a pragmatism and flexibility that have ensured the survival of the institution since the time of Alfred the Great in the ninth century, if not even earlier.

British kings and queens have proven adept at striking compromises with their subjects and with Britain’s Parliament, changing with the times even at the cost of curtailing their power. Consider the Magna Carta of 1215. King John imposed heavy taxes to finance his overseas wars and punished those who didn’t pay. Rebellious barons demanded the king agree to the Magna Carta, which stated that the sovereign was subject to the rule of law. John reluctantly signed it. The Magna Carta kept the peace temporarily, but more crucially, precedent was set: A king could not do whatever he pleased.

The way in which a country’s competing factions share power – and the catastrophic results when political compromise fails – is applicable to so many nations. For me, a naturalized Canadian citizen, it has a personal dimension. The country in which I was born, Afghanistan, overthrew its monarchy in 1973. Zahir Shah’s removal by his cousin Daoud, nicknamed the Red Prince, unleashed a calamitous chain of events from which the country has not recovered.

That balance has only occasionally tipped over in England. An earlier Charles – Charles I – believed he ruled by divine right; his opponents, including some members of Parliament, disagreed. Charles was put on trial for treason, found guilty and executed in 1649. The monarch’s power was held in check by Parliament and an influential merchant class. Over time the monarchy lost its executive power, and today its constitutional role is apolitical.

Royal survival, then, is dependent upon the fickle court of public opinion. There is no escape from its judgment, and misfires can be costly. After Princess Diana’s death in 1997, public mood soured against the Queen as out of touch with the grieving nation. Upon the urgent advice of Tony Blair, the prime minister, she delivered a graceful address paying tribute to her daughter-in-law.

Newcomers to the family sometimes test the institution’s appetite for change. For a brief, thrilling moment, when Charles walked Meghan Markle down the aisle at her wedding to Prince Harry, it seemed the British monarchy could embrace racial diversity. The couple’s role was expected to focus on the Commonwealth, made up of many former British colonies, and bridge the incomprehensible gulf between racial-justice protests and an institution that represents the acme of privilege. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have since made allegations of mistreatment, but the Queen’s personal popularity deflected many of the PR grenades the couple lobbed from their new home in California.

The Royal Family also seems unafraid to throw its own members under the bus to protect the institution. Prince Andrew, the favourite son of the Queen, was effectively banished because of public revulsion over his friendship with the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and a sexual-assault lawsuit of his own.

How will King Charles embody both flexibility and constancy? He seems aware the institution will have to sing for its supper in an era of acute economic distress because of rising gas bills and climate breakdown, and that taxpayers will not be as tolerant of frivolous spending as they perhaps were during the Queen’s era.

The monarchy’s finances were reformed after a landmark 1986 consultancy report, which prompted the Queen to ask, “Why do I have so many footmen?” Last year, the British Treasury provided the Royal Family £86.3-million through the Sovereign Grant, which covers official expenses, including travel and renovations to official residences.

Charles has emphasized his work setting up 20 charities, as well as around climate change and youth. But he also reportedly has a vision of a slimmed-down (read: cheaper) monarchy in which only the sovereign, his or her children and grandchildren remain working royals.

But herein lies the contradiction of pragmatism: Charles will also have to maintain the mystique that keeps people coming back for more. As the essayist Walter Bagehot wrote of the monarchy in 1865: “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

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