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The 70-year itch

Constitutional monarchs need to know when to shut up. After a lifetime of waiting, is the opinionated heir to the throne capable of that?

Royal sources, even off the record, are usually quite bland. They are guiding hands for a journalist trying to shape a story, vanilla quotes which spout the monarchy’s view. Occasionally, though, a royal source gives their own view. Earlier this year one impeccable source at the heart of the royal family told me their biggest fear. “Charles’s accession,” he said, “could be the greatest threat to the British monarchy since the abdication.” Why so? He continued: “There’s a great danger he will make it all about him. He needs to play it very carefully. He’s capable of getting it right, but also of getting it drastically wrong.”

That opinion, proffered in a quiet but brutally honest aside, is more widely held within royal circles than you might think. Senior courtiers and high-ranking Whitehall mandarins privately share the fear that the Prince of Wales could morph into a meddling, dangerous monarch. An opinionated king, who can’t stop interfering in the issues of the day under the pretext of “wanting to make a difference.” One who wants to remould the role from a stately, silent figurehead decked out in fancy uniform to that of a far more pro-active sovereign—potentially threatening the whole constitutional basis and future of the monarchy itself.

For many in Britain, King Charles III—and despite past reports he may reign as George VII, Charles III is almost certainly what it will be—still seems a distant prospect. The Queen, now 91, shows little sign of frailty, even as her husband retires from public life. Yet for those grey men—and, yes, it is still mainly men—who silently operate in Whitehall’s shadows, the historic transition is one they have secretly discussed for decades.

Indeed, the plans for the Queen’s death and Charles’s accession are rehearsed down to the last detail, filed under the codename “London Bridge.” Charles, who will become king at the moment his beloved mother breathes her last, will address the nation within hours of her death. This represents the first departure from what happened on the death of George VI in 1952; the young Elizabeth, on tour in Kenya, returned wearing black but said nothing, starting out her reign—perhaps—as she meant to continue. But it is another age now, and Charles is a very different personality. He will “set out his stall” to parliament, heads of Commonwealth, foreign heads of state and religious leaders in what is, effectively, his regal manifesto. This will be the moment in which seasoned Palace insiders will be holding their breath. It should be easy—a son taking over from a parent, something the monarchy has managed for 1,000 years. Yet this time, many in the palace believe, the Queen’s death will represent the most constitutionally fraught situation that will happen this century. Why is that? As one source nervously told me, a happy outcome requires “the king getting the tone right.” And not just any king, but Charles.

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In Prospect’s September issue: Emily Andrews, Andrew Brown and Tom Clark assess what the reign of King Charles might look like. Andrews profiles Charles and questions whether he will be able to keep his opinions to himself. Andrew Brown look at the coronation—the world is a very different place now from when the last one took place. Tom Clark explains the results of our poll, conducted by ICM, into people’s view on Charles taking the throne—it turns out fewer people than ever before want the heir to become our monarch. Elsewhere in the issue Nick Cohen details his battle with the bottle and shows that Britain has a problem with drink that it doesn’t want to talk about, and Toni Morrison Also in this issue: Toni Morrison on America’s stubborn race divide, Brian Klaas on how Europe should deal with Trump and Jessica Abrahams explains everything you need to know about fourth wave feminism