LONDON — Many of her subjects would like Queen Elizabeth to live forever. During her 62 years on the throne she has managed to carry the monarchy from a time when it seemed increasingly an anachronism to being an object of wide adulation. And not only on the sceptered isle. Recently the French treated her virtually as their own monarch while simultaneously jeering their own president. This is almost wholly due to her. While the rest of the royal family frequently resembles a fractious and wayward clan, the Queen remains serenely above them, every inch Her Gracious Majesty.
Suddenly, though, like an unwelcome chill seeping into a warm, parlor, people are talking about the future of the throne after the Queen has gone. This discussion was precipitated as part of the panic that has swept the land on realizing that the Scottish people might actually vote to leave the kingdom.
In a desperate search to find someone—anyone—with the stature to reverse the ominous opinion polls, some eyes turned to Balmoral, the Scottish estate where the Queen is at present (even though it’s part of her sworn duty to remain politically neutral). Nonetheless she was overheard as she left church advising a small group of her subjects to “think very carefully about the future”—apparently an impromptu remark but one that on examination seemed to combine both neutrality and inclination in a way that the most supple of diplomats would envy. In a 1977 speech marking her silver jubilee, the Queen did overtly and explicitly make clear her belief in the importance of the union—but it was said as part of a wider description of her responsibilities, not as a piece of partisan advocacy.
Nobody doubts that she would hate to see Scotland secede.
However, the polls revealed that the Scottish separatists are much more republican and anti-monarchist than previously believed. Stephen Haseler, director of the Global Policy Institute in London, warned that an independent Scotland might well ditch the royal family after the Queen’s reign. “My absolute conviction is that once the Queen goes, the Scots won’t wear Prince Charles, and they will go for a republican system within the European Union.”
And thus is exposed a sentiment to be heard in many other parts of the kingdom: Spare us the prospect of King Charles III.
Much of the baggage that Charles carries is universally known. The most damaging period concerns his marriage to Princess Diana, which in its details became more bizarre than a straightforward case of infidelity—monogamy has never been a strong point of the royal family and it’s not part of the DNA of any of the European royal houses. Nor has there been a lack of a strange taste in partners, most notably the case of the androgynous Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII.
But Charles’ submission to the spell cast by Camilla Parker-Bowles during his marriage to Diana combined the sophomoric with the insanitary: In a hacked phone call, he told her that if he died he would wish to be reincarnated as her tampon.
When Diana told a television interviewer that “there are three people in this marriage” her pain was obvious. In truth, Diana had been lured into a marriage planned more by courtiers than by Charles’ heart. She was a glamorous innocent snatched from the street as part of an ancient ritual in which a “suitable” bride is selected for a future monarch, the future monarch complies (in the case of the ravishing Diana it would not seem an irksome prospect), and the state wedding takes its place in the great pageants of the land. But while Charles was lusting for Camilla— and this he really hated—Diana became a globally adored, quintessentially humanitarian, and uniting figure not prepared to suffer in silence.
The emotional scars of this marriage had a permanent effect on Charles’ character. Before the marriage it was already obvious that he was a bit of a crank. There was a New Agey dreaminess in the way he approached life, and he had a utopian vision of how the lives of his people should be lived, regardless of the political impediments to making it so.
It didn’t matter. The Brits love eccentrics, and as long as this one went about talking to flowers, advocating raw grains for breakfast and better housing for the proles, he seemed harmless enough.
After Diana a more worrying agenda emerged. Charles had always understood the social and cultural power available to any heir to the throne—a degree of proxy power not actually enjoyed by the monarch herself. In some ways it was more coercive than normal political influence. He created a bunch of charitable foundations through which he could direct his campaigns. A wide range of celebrities fawned over him and loved to be enlisted in the Prince’s causes.
At the heart of Charles’ utopian passions is a kind of saintly, patrician atavism. He sees a world around him that he doesn’t like and thinks he can make better by rejecting the future and retrieving the past. Nothing illustrates this more tangibly than his relentless campaign against modern architecture.
Charles’ architectural theories broke cover 30 years ago. In 1984 he hosted a dinner at Hampton Court Palace, the august Thames-side creation of Henry VIII, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He used the moment to publicly damn a planned extension of London’s National Gallery, calling it “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”
Perhaps more stunning than Charles’ attack was the way that the Gallery caved. They abandoned the design by the highly regarded architects Ahrends, Burton & Koralek. As a result the firm had to fire many staff and won almost no new projects for two years.
His next big kill was an office block next to the Wren masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by one of Britain’s most esteemed architects, Richard Rogers. Again his language was hyperbolic, saying that the scheme would do more damage than the Luftwaffe had managed in World War II.
Rogers, who with Renzo Piano pioneered “inside-out” architecture with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, is a particular bête noir of the Prince. In 2009 he killed another Rogers scheme for a prime lot in Chelsea, a $5 billion apartment block funded by the Qatari royal family, this time by using back channel connections to the Qataris. In a letter to the Qataris, he wrote: “For the entire duration of my life we have had to witness the destruction of so many parts of London, with one more ‘Brutalist’ development after another.”
As a result of this and other interventions, some of the finest British architects were deterred from working in their own country. For example, it was 16 years before Zaha Hadid built her first commission in her homeland, Britain (the exquisitely sculpted Aquatics Center for the 2012 Olympics) after her design for an opera house in Cardiff invoked Charles’ wrath and was killed. Indeed, Rogers said in an interview in The New Yorker that developers felt they had to get clearance from Charles before proceeding with any scheme. “They’re into minimizing risk—and Prince Charles is a risk,” said Rogers.
I have been walking through London’s financial district, where the skyline is being re-engineered by a number of new skyscrapers. This is the oldest part of the capital. The streets retain a medieval pattern and are narrow, intersected by many alleys. The new buildings make them feel claustrophobic, permanently in shadow. A 36-story tower designed by Rafael Vinoly nicknamed the “walkie-talkie” curves outward as it rises, ungainly and jarring. The one great and singular new tower, the “gherkin” designed by Sir Norman Foster’s team, is already overshadowed by a cluster of mediocre office blocks. It struck me that Charles has, albeit unwittingly, accelerated the tendency for the bad to drive out the good.
When Charles pursues his own civic visions, rather than zapping other people’s, he produces a version of England that is resolutely backward-looking. His largest endeavor is a small town called Poundbury that he has been developing since the 1990s. It’s close to Dorchester, in the heart of Thomas Hardy country—as it was in Hardy’s day, this is a rural landscape of surpassing natural beauty but also one with persistent pockets of urban poverty alongside large land holdings of the wealthy.
Charles’ approach with Poundbury is a mixture of paternalism and eco-sensitivity. There is high-density housing mixed with shops and small businesses and streets giving priority to pedestrians and bicycles, but the whole thing has an aura of a Disney World pastiche of Hardyland with no clear style of its own. One detail of Poundbury speaks volumes about Charles’ rejectionism: He seems never to have realized the advances in glazing since the 18th century. He likes small windows and greatly dislikes the sweeping areas of glass and metal that characterise the work of Richard Rogers. As a result, Poundbury’s houses have dark interiors in a land where it’s a good idea to let in as much light as possible.
Every generation of architects wants to use the technology available to it to make life better. Charles’ zealotry in stifling progressive architecture is philistine, perverse, and irrational. Moreover, this is an example of interference driven by personal prejudice, instructed more by the emotions than learning (he clearly has no idea what architectural brutalism is), that breaks a long tradition of royal restraint in public affairs—and stands in great contrast to the enigmatic dignity of Charles’ mother.
The Queen herself had a rocky period when sentiment against the royal family grew rapidly in the 1960s. The country went through a series of economic crises and the Windsors seemed to be a very expensive roadshow to fund with public money. There was a royal yacht (as emetic in heavy seas as it was costly to maintain), a dedicated unit of the Royal Air Force to provide jets for any royal going abroad, a royal train reserved for the Queen’s journeys to her various estates, and a general feeling that, the Queen apart, there were just too many hangers-on raiding the public purse.
Even those who were not already republicans wanted the royals to be more aware of how incongruous their profligacy seemed. How about adopting the Scandinavian “bicycle monarchy” model, for example?
The Queen was not prepared to mollify her subjects by going that far, but the yacht and the private jets went, she agreed to pay taxes, the more distant hangers-on were no longer funded. It began a subtle and astute rebranding exercise. For one, she admitted TV documentary crews into her palaces to film her, an unheard-of relaxation of the court protocols. She conveyed the image of a hard-working mother, albeit with a rather choleric and short-fused husband who had to be told to watch his language in public. Most of all, though, she skillfully demonstrated a work ethic and commitment to public duty, including tireless trips to all of her far-flung colonies, that removed any lingering stigma of privilege abused.
Suddenly, her subjects felt that they knew her. More crucially, they liked her. The Queen had become the brand, not the Windsors. As governments came and went she was the one consistent, politically neutral piece of glue in a country that was changing more rapidly in its social and cultural fabric than it had for centuries. She did make one brief, false step after the death of Diana by delaying her return from Balmoral to London when the whole country wanted her to seem more engaged in their grief.
She got the message. Celebrating her 60 years on the throne in 2012 she sailed down the Thames in a gilded barge reminiscent of the glory and confidence of the Tudors—even though the skies opened and it pelted down. Unperturbed, the Queen came up to the top deck without an umbrella and waved to the vast assembly on the banks of the river.
And then there was James Bond. In a masterstroke planned by the movie director Danny Boyle, the Queen consented to take part in a stunt to open the 2012 London Olympics. Daniel Craig, in his finest Bond dinner jacket, called at the Palace and invited her to parachute into the stadium with him. Of course, she didn’t. But a body double did, and it was a sensation. The whole world was stirred, not shaken.
Against the Queen’s aplomb and careful balance of fun with dignity, Charles comes across as an heir who has over a long period of waiting never figured out what his place is in a rapidly evolving modern democracy. He can seem on occasion morose, on other occasions petulant, and never comfortable in interviews. However, he has been consistently on the right side on some issues, like climate change, about which he has a well-schooled knowledge and where his passion makes an impact in the company of politicians who are more inclined to fudge and dodge.
He has also been very clever building his own business under the brand of Duchy—as in the Duchy of Cornwall, an estate with big agricultural holdings. Duchy baked goods, using organic ingredients, and dairy and meat products drawing on his own herds, are popular in upscale supermarkets all over the land. (I confess a particular weakness for his chocolate biscuits and pork pate with onion marmalade.)
Nonetheless, to become an adequate heir to the throne Charles needs to do a lot more than be an eco-sensitive farmer and supplier of gourmet goodies to the likes of me. It’s one thing to build a brand on supermarket shelves. It’s quite another to do what his mother has done—rescue, resuscitate, and keep relevant a monarchy. He might take a tip or two from his eldest son, William, who is clearly far more in tune with his times, doesn’t seem to have any private agenda based on intemperate views of the future, and, moreover, has a wife whom he adores.