Smoothly and amid magnificent constitutional and ceremonial traditions and rituals, Britain transitioned from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II to the reign of King Charles III this week.
Britain has not seen the inauguration of a new king for seven decades with all the splendour and ceremonial rites that this entails, many of them dating back nearly a thousand years. Yet, there is a general feeling of uneasiness in the air.
After the shock of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, questions have begun about the future of the monarchy and the country. The late queen leaves Britain in a different world from the 1950s when she took the throne.
Today, the UK faces the rise of nationalist tendencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which may lead to the disintegration of the union in the coming years. Britain also faces a shrinkage in the number of Commonwealth countries wishing to remain under the British crown. A challenging economic situation threatens the country’s international standing.
The UK will face all these challenges without Queen Elizabeth, and this raises the concerns of many.
A vital role of the monarchy is to offer a guardrail through the turmoil and upheaval of change. During her reign, Queen Elizabeth saw 15 British prime ministers, some of whom fought costly wars abroad. Some of them also applied economic policies that led to industrial decline. The number of Commonwealth countries that retained the British crown as head of state decreased from about 30 to 15.
But these transformations in Britain, and the changes in its political and geographical influence, passed without arousing too much popular concern because the queen was a constant and stable presence.
The soft, feminine face of Queen Elizabeth in her youth, and the warm smiling face of her later decades, gave reassurance and a perception that all was well in the UK. In a sense, she was not just a person, but an expression of an era and of a time that provided certainty in a changing world.
Now the mantle passes to King Charles III, and just as the late queen had to be a symbol of endurance and comfort to a nation adapting to the loss of empire, Charles will be expected to provide the same reassurance and keep a country that feels less united together.
He has a difficult task ahead.
In order to succeed, King Charles must first reach the younger generations in Britain. The 73-year-old king is not the most popular among Britons. Opinion polls have always indicated that the late queen was the most popular, followed by the new prince of Wales, Prince William, the heir apparent, and his wife, the new princess of Wales, and then King Charles himself.
The royal establishment itself is also less popular among younger people than in the older age groups.
Last year, a British YouGov poll found that only 31 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 agreed that the monarchy should carry on, contrasted with 81 per cent of people over 65.
Overall, the monarchy is an institution that is still broadly supported in Britain, with a slight majority of 62 per cent in favour, according to a recent poll. But the expression of support for the institution is very much tied to admiration for the late queen. Its popularity will be tested in the coming months and years because the majority of young people in Britain today do not have a strong bond with the Royal Family due to social and cultural changes.
The gap between the royal establishment and young people is deeper among ethnic minorities in Britain, some of whom believe that the Royal Family has not done enough to address racism in Britain. These criticisms have carried additional weight during the past few days after the shooting and killing of a young black British man in his car in south London.
The killing prompted thousands of people to demonstrate amid condemnations from London Mayor Sadiq Khan and civil rights organisations.
A study by the British Institute of Race Relations said this week that British Muslims have seen their citizenship reduced to “second class” status as a result of recently extended powers to strip people of their nationality.
Another study also published this week in the journal Sociology found that income was not enough to break British class barriers and that people from a prosperous background are more likely to move, and end up in richer areas, than those with working class parents.
With the current economic stagnation expected to affect minorities more harshly, the new king will need to help minorities in the UK to express their grievances against an unfair social order without interfering in the policymaking of the government.
Another step that King Charles III could take is to talk about the impact of the British Empire and racism on inequality within Britain and the Commonwealth.
This is a complex and sensitive subject that provokes conflicting feelings within Britain. English nationalists and the political right refuse to address this type of issue. But not speaking openly about the devastating impact of the Empire on the colonies would lead to more countries continuing to leave the British crown.
Only two days after the death of the queen, the prime minister of Antigua declared that he would go ahead with a referendum on becoming a republic.
Barbados was the last country to gain independence from the British crown, replacing the queen with a president.
Before that, Mauritius did the same in 1992. Trinidad and Tobago did so in 1976, and Guyana did so in 1970. It is expected that Jamaica will soon follow suit, having announced this several months ago, as will Belize.
In addition to addressing the legacy of empire, King Charles will have to implement his promise of shrinking the Royal Family, currently one of the largest in Europe in terms of size and expense.
In a country like Britain, where per capita income has fallen since the 1980s, the persistence of such large expenditure on the Royal Family appears in stark contrast to the troubles of ordinary Britons who face higher energy bills this winter.
Another challenge is whether King Charles can keep his thoughts to himself.
Contrary to the late queen who maintained a reputation for impartiality, the new king has taken up positions on issues as wide-ranging as climate change, architecture, organic farming, China, and immigration.
He will have to contend with a flurry of challenges, not least a country that is suffering from a steady decline in its economic power, a growing number of young people and minorities with no bond with the Royal Family, and the potential breakup of the UK, the unravelling of the Commonwealth, and a reckoning with the unsavoury parts of the Royal Family’s past and colonial legacy.
Ultimately, the new king’s job is to make sure that the institution remains fit for purpose at a time when the monarchy seems increasingly anachronistic.
But metamorphoses are nothing new to the British Royal Family. In April 1947, when Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, delivered a radio address from Cape Town in South Africa on her 21st birthday as heir to the throne, she was “the daughter of the Emperor of India.”
This title was relinquished by her father King George VI in August of the same year when India and Pakistan declared their independence from Britain.
As the UK newspaper the Guardian noted in an editorial published after the queen’s death, “she was born when Britain ruled a global empire of some 600 million people… She died when Britain was a medium-sized northern European country with an uncertain future.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.