After queen, new king and prime minister seek to steady ship of state

Ben Stansall/Reuters
Britain's King Charles III (left) and other members of the royal family walk behind the coffin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as they leave Westminster Abbey in London, Sept. 19, 2022, after the late queen's state funeral.
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As 10 days of pomp and ceremony came to a close in Britain Monday with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III’s subjects turned their attention to more prosaic matters.

These have been a turbulent two weeks for the United Kingdom; only two days before her death, the queen appointed a new prime minister, Liz Truss. And the government’s inbox is daunting – the war in Ukraine, double-digit inflation, surging energy bills, and rolling strikes by public-sector workers.

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Britain suddenly finds itself with a new prime minister and a new monarch. At a difficult economic moment, each will be challenged in different ways to shore up the country’s social equilibrium.

Top of most ordinary people’s worries is the soaring price of natural gas, which everyone is going to feel in their heating bills this winter. At the beginning of the pandemic, Elizabeth made a televised address invoking a spirit of solidarity and resolve, but Charles cannot weigh in on the country’s economic woes, since they have political overtones and the monarchy must be apolitical.

A tricky time, in other words, for a new monarch, especially one who can match neither his mother’s popularity, nor her place in the nation’s collective memory. And he himself will have some rough waters to navigate, as pressures mount in Scotland and Northern Ireland in favor of independence from London.

A good thing, in other words, that he has had 70 years to learn the job.

Under gray skies, Sean Brunton dips his brush into a pot of white paint in front of a cottage that abuts the courtyard of a 15th-century church. He’s trying to finish the job before it rains. But he takes a moment to reflect on the tumult of the past two weeks, from the arrival of a new prime minister to the death of Britain’s longest-serving monarch. 

“She had a good innings,” he says, using a cricketing metaphor, of Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended the throne in 1952.

As for Liz Truss, whom the queen appointed as prime minister two days before her death, he’s less sure of her political longevity, given the challenges she and the country face – war in Ukraine, double-digit inflation, surging energy bills, and rolling strikes by public-sector workers. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Britain suddenly finds itself with a new prime minister and a new monarch. At a difficult economic moment, each will be challenged in different ways to shore up the country’s social equilibrium.

“It’s a poisoned chalice, whoever gets to be prime minister in this country,” Mr. Brunton says. 

Up and down the United Kingdom, as mourning for Queen Elizabeth reached its apex with Monday’s royal funeral, that sense of uncertainty hung heavy. Britain has a new monarch, King Charles III, who can match neither his mother’s popularity nor her place in the collective memory of a nostalgia-prone country.

Ms. Truss, as head of government, must try to restore the ruling Conservative Party’s authority after her scandal-riddled predecessor Boris Johnson was forced to resign. Both are taking up their new posts in the shadow of a royal succession that few Britons have experienced.

“People genuinely feel emotionally discombobulated” by Elizabeth’s death, says Steven Fielding, a political historian and professor emeritus at Nottingham University. Though the monarch’s role in the country’s day-to-day affairs was only symbolic, “that sense of reassurance, whether real or not, that someone cares about them, has gone,” he says. 

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
House painter Sean Brunton adds caulking to a house in Royal Wootton Bassett, England, on Sept. 13, 2022. Mr. Brunton, who grew up in Northern Ireland and supports the ruling Conservative Party, mourns the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Sept. 8. He's concerned about political stability under Britain's new prime minister, Liz Truss.

At the same time, a sense of continuity is also palpable.

Within hours of the queen’s death, Charles, as heir to the throne, was proclaimed king. Days of televised pageantry – of his succession; leading the mourning in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; hosting a reception in Buckingham Palace for international guests; and following his mother’s coffin into Westminster Abbey – have burnished the image of King Charles, both as a grieving son and sovereign. 

Ms. Truss, though Britain’s fourth prime minister in six years, nonetheless has a solid majority in Parliament to pass laws, and is not required to call an election for two years. Although Brexit and its aftermath deeply divided the British public and its political class, nobody is seriously questioning the electoral system or refusing to accept defeat. Partisanship has not corroded the machinery of democracy, nor public trust in the ballot box.

Moreover, Charles is a monarch with strictly circumscribed powers. The head that wears the crown may lie uneasy, in William Shakespeare’s words, but the responsibility of governing lies squarely with Britain’s elected politicians. It is they, who, once the royal spectacle ends, will have to grapple with public frustration at the rising cost of living, particularly of heating homes and filling gas tanks.

“This is new, uncharted territory for many people … the threat of not being able to pay for energy bills. It’s a picture of instability and uncertainty,” says Professor Fielding. 

Ms. Truss has seen a bump in her approval ratings since taking office. But that’s probably a knee-jerk reaction to a week of tumult when the head of government represents certainty, says Andy Maciver, a political columnist and lobbyist in Edinburgh.

“This is all going to go away very soon,” he says. “People are starting to think about putting their heating on, and they’re going to worry.” 

How to be styled “royal”

A town of 12,000 in western England, Royal Wootton Bassett lies a short drive from the Cotswolds, a piece of picture-postcard English countryside. It earned its prefix – it is one of only three towns with the right to call itself “royal” – in a sign of the close association between the English crown and the military: The late queen, King Charles, and his two sons all served in the armed forces.

For several years, Britain’s Royal Air Force repatriated the bodies of U.K. service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan via a nearby air base. When the first cortege passed through Wootton Bassett, a local councilor led an impromptu tribute that then became a fixture of repatriations as veterans, family members, and others lined the street to pay their respects. 

Hearses would slow down as they passed the silent crowd, remembers Steve Bucknell, the town’s former mayor. The church bells tolled. Even the dogs stopped barking. Then people would quietly drift away. 

In 2011, when the repatriation flights were rerouted, ending the tradition, the queen issued a decree on “the thirty first day of August in the sixtieth year of Our Reign” that the town could “henceforth be called and styled ROYAL WOOTTON BASSETT.”  

Like others here, Mr. Bucknell, a Conservative councilor, takes pride in this designation. “We’re a very ordinary town,” he insists. “We just had an opportunity to do something extraordinary.” 

Wootton Bassett is an affluent place, but it still has pockets of deprivation says the Rev. Jane Curtis, the vicar of St. Bartholomew’s church, which hosts a weekly food bank. “We’re a town of two halves,” she says. 

Passing the church is Dave Bennett, a driver for Britain’s Royal Mail, as the postal service is called. Postal drivers went on strike this summer for higher pay and had planned further action that was postponed by the queen’s death. Mr. Bennett says he’s not a royalist, but had respect for Queen Elizabeth. Now he’s more focused on the cost of living that is outpacing his pay packet. 

“This country is struggling, big-style,” he says. “Everything is going up. Food is going up. Wages are not going up for anyone.” 

In fact, private-sector wages have risen this year, but still lag behind inflation. The squeeze on real earnings is most acute among public-sector workers who are flexing their collective muscles. Train drivers and trash collectors have already downed tools; nurses are likely to follow, at a time when the National Health Service is struggling to tackle a pandemic backlog of procedures.

Emilio Morenatti/Reuters
Britain's King Charles III walks with Princess Anne, Prince Harry, and Prince Andrew behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it is pulled on a gun carriage through the streets of London following her funeral service at Westminster Abbey, Sept. 19, 2022. The queen, who died on Sept. 8, will be buried at Windsor alongside her late husband, Prince Philip, who died last year.

A union under stress

At the start of the pandemic, after Britain first imposed a national lockdown, Queen Elizabeth made a televised address that invoked a wartime spirit of national solidarity and resolve. 

“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any,” she said. 

King Charles is unlikely to weigh in on the country’s current economic woes, nor should he attempt to, given that the monarch must be apolitical, says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “Covid was seen as an act of God,” he explains. “I don’t think the economic situation is viewed in the same way.” 

Calling on the nation to make sacrifices, such as turning down the thermostat, could also be tricky for a king whose family lives in luxury and holds vast and largely untaxed wealth. Polls show that while the queen was broadly popular, young people are skeptical of the monarchy and its role. Analysts say republican ideas could spread more widely after Elizabeth’s death, though few expect a thousand years of near-unbroken monarchical rule to end any time soon. 

While Elizabeth belonged firmly to a bygone age of deference and discretion, Charles has often publicly expressed strong opinions in favor of environmental causes, organic farming, and human-scale urban planning. He has also said that as sovereign he would not be so “stupid” as to meddle in government policy, as he has been accused of doing in the past

But even if Charles earns more public respect over time, he simply won’t have the same claim on national loyalties that Elizabeth accrued and could draw on when she addressed the nation, says David Edgerton, a professor of history at King’s College London. 

“He won’t carry in his person the affection built up over many years for the queen, and through the queen for the institution of the monarchy,” he says. “Nor, of course, will he be a figure that evokes a [shared] past and particularly the real and mythological Second World War.” 

As queen, Elizabeth presided over the dissolution of what remained of Britain’s empire, though she was still the head of state in 15 countries, including Australia and Canada. For Charles, the candidates for dissolution may lie closer to home, in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Scotland voted in a 2014 referendum to stay in the U.K. But the 2016 “yes” vote on Brexit, which Scots opposed, helped to rekindle the independence movement led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved government and is pressing for a second referendum.

In Northern Ireland, Brexit has also proved destabilizing, introducing trade rules that the British government is now trying to overturn.  

Under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which ended three decades of violence between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, Northern Ireland’s population of 2 million has the right to hold a referendum on whether or not to stay in the U.K. In May, Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, won the largest bloc of seats in the province’s parliament. Polls suggest that young people are open to reuniting with a prosperous and liberal Ireland. 

Last week, Charles visited Northern Ireland and Scotland, but the extent of his potential role in shoring up the union with either country is unclear, since the forces at work are political and revolve around Brexit, says Professor Edgerton, author of “The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History.”

“It’s important not to exaggerate the role of the monarch or monarchy. There are very powerful fissiparous tendencies in the United Kingdom which have been radically strengthened by Brexit,” he says. 

It’s also important to distinguish between Scottish independence and anti-monarchism, says Mr. Maciver, the Scottish political analyst who identifies as a unionist. When SNP leaders greeted Charles last week and sang “God Save the King,” they weren’t signaling any change in their goals, since they advocate an independent Scotland with the British monarch as head of state, as in Canada. 

“They’re not republicans. They’re independence-supporting monarchists,” he says. 

All turning out for the best?

Back in Royal Wootton Bassett, Councilor Bucknell is full of praise for Charles, whom he has met; royal town officials receive invitations to royal garden parties. “I think he’s going to be a really great king,” he says. 

At the church, Chrissy Reeves lights a candle and signs the memorial book for Elizabeth. (The English monarch is also head of the Church of England.) The retired caregiver was in tears when she arrived, but seems comforted by her act of remembrance. “She’s done so much for us and for the country,” she says. 

Ms. Reeves lives on a pension. She has cut back on spending and rarely takes holidays; her main hobby is gardening. As for the political turnover and economic turmoil, she takes comfort from reading history, another of her hobbies. 

“There are many times when everything seems to be in flux and change,” she says. “It usually turns out for the best in the end.” 

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