The moment Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday, Prince Charles became King Charles III. As Britain and 14 Commonwealth realms adjust to their new head of state, Charles will begin to carve out his role as a monarch in 2022 — and, importantly, decide whether he will continue his activism from the throne.
As Prince of Wales, Charles did not equivocate on climate. “The world is on the brink,” he wrote earlier this year, “and we need the mobilizing urgency of a war-like footing if we are to win.” Now, as King, he will be forced to tread the paper-thin boundary between political advocacy and the throne. How he handles his activist instincts will surely influence his popularity across the U.K. and Commonwealth. But it will also matter in the U.S., where Queen Elizabeth II’s special brand of marshmallow diplomacy — soft, sweet and distinctly apolitical — charmed Americans over decades.
If Charles continues his activist work, he may stand to forfeit not only approval among the American public — already dented by memory of his 90s affair — but also American interest in the British monarchy as a whole. This is unlikely to derail the so-called special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., built through decades of allyship, secret sharing and lingual compatibility. Yet, this loss of interest would mean the loss of a British tool that has wielded a quiet power stateside for the best part of the last century, helping solidify what’s arguably the most essential transatlantic friendship.
The Queen, for her part, was widely considered the perfect envoy to America. She met with 13 of the last 14 American presidents, and understood “the personalities, the idiosyncrasies of the current government,” according to Robert Traynham, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who has studied the Queen and US.-U.K. relations. She took horse fanatic Ronald Reagan out for a long ride when he visited England, sent Dwight Eisenhower a recipe for “drop scones” (Scotch pancakes) after he’d enjoyed them at Balmoral — and even attended a baseball game for the first time with George H.W. Bush, a lifelong fan of the sport. Barack Obama said she was “truly” one of his favorite people.
The Queen not only courted presidents, she bewitched the U.S. public, despite the fact that Americans fought a war to free themselves from the tyranny of British rule two centuries prior. She netted consistently high approval scores in polls — 72 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans reported having a somewhat or very favorable view of the monarch in a May 2022 YouGov poll. Part of this fascination owed to the royal institution at large: Americans loved “all the panoply and pageantry” that surrounded the Queen, seeing her family as the “royal Kardashians,” according to Stryker McGuire, a former editor at Bloomberg and Newsweek who has written about Britain’s post-Elizabethan identity.
One critical element of this appeal is the family’s “permanent celebrity” status. “Celebrities come and go, pop stars fade; entertainers, television stars, movie stars fade,” says James Vaughn, a historian of Britain at the University of Chicago.
“But the royal family persists.”
Besides inhabiting the rarest stratum of fame, the Queen appealed across the Atlantic because she could — and did — stay firmly above the fray of politics. Among Americans, there’s a “sneaking admiration for the fact that British politics separates head of state and head of government,” says Vaughn. “In England, the monarch lives in a palace but the Prime Minister lives in a townhouse on Downing Street. Our White House is more like a palace than a townhouse and our President can act more like an imperious king than any Prime Minister ever could,” adds Elisa Tamarkin, author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America. “Monarchy in England is there only for the display."
Indeed, the Queen took that head of state role “very, very seriously,” says Vaughn. Oyster-like in refraining from controversial comments, the Queen resembled a “blank slate,” adds Mcguire. “The thing about celebrity blank slates is that the admirer can write just about anything they want to on that slate. […] They can identify with that person in any way they want.”
Elizabeth’s eldest son Charles, on the other hand, has spent decades in decidedly political territory, cultivating a resume of progressive projects that have often been climate-centered. At 21, he made his first major speech on the topic at a countryside conference in Cardiff, drawing attention to the threats of pollution, plastic and overpopulation. This was in 1970 — long before environmental concerns became mainstream political talking points. (He later reflected that others at the time saw him as “completely potty.”)
He has since progressed to bigger stages. In 2008, he addressed the European Parliament, telling MEPs that the “doomsday clock of climate change is ticking” and called for the “biggest public, private and NGO partnership ever seen.” He spoke at COP21, COP26 and the 2021 G-20 meeting in Rome, imploring leaders to listen to the “despairing voices of young people.” At the 2020 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, he launched the Sustainable Markets Initiative, an effort to nudge businesses towards sustainable practices. The list goes on.
Charles’ legacy equally can be found in the sprawling web of charities he oversees. The most prominent is The Prince’s Trust, which helps at-risk 11- to 30-year-olds secure education and career opportunities. Idris Elba was one such beneficiary. While he was a youngster growing up on an estate (public housing) in Hackney, London, he was given a £1,500 grant to train as an actor with the National Youth Music Theatre.
This commitment to environmentalism and charity work is as impressive as it is politically incongruous: There’s the loud-and-proud progressiveness of his public efforts. And then there’s his background of extreme wealth as part of an institution steeped in traditionalism and a tight-lipped culture of “never complain, never explain” — a phrase adopted by the Queen Mother.
Indeed, the Prince’s political activity did not avoid microscope treatment: In 2005, Rob Evans, a reporter with the left-leaning Guardian, submitted a freedom of information request to view letters that Charles had sent to senior government ministers over the course of the prior two years. After a ten-year legal battle and a £400,000 government spend to block the circulation of the letters, the cache of so-called “black spider” memos was released, revealing Charles’ lobbying on subjects ranging from better equipment for Iraq War troops to speaking out against the “illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish.”
Despite this scrutiny, Charles’ recent invites to major global political summits signal a growing acceptance of the monarch-cum-activist’s approach. Yet, this doesn’t speak to how well he will be received by Americans — a people who deified the Queen specifically for her charmingly vanilla approach to diplomacy, who are more sharply bifurcated than the British public on Charles’ pet issues like climate and who have demonstrated consistently low approval for the former Prince (nearly half of Americans were reported having an unfavorable view of Charles in a February 2022 poll.)
Much of this antipathy is a hangover from the highly publicized collapse of his marriage to Diana — who was much beloved in the U.S. — rather than adversity to his politics, royal watchers say. But that animus could grow if he continued to be as forthright now that he’s King. “He’d lose that shield of being a head of state above the fray,” Vaughn says, particularly because his mother “just played it perfectly.”
There’s also potential for Charles to be harnessed as a political weapon in America if “anti-environmental forces decide to attack him,” says Brian McKercher, author of Britain, America, and the Special Relationship Since 1941. He could be “a convenient cudgel to hit a Democratic administration, or even a Republican administration, that wanted to do environmental things. I think that’s very possible.”
Charles’ calls to environmental action could be heard differently in Britain and across the Atlantic. That’s because the American public is comparatively skeptical on climate change: while 51 percent of the British public believe the climate is changing and that human activity is mainly responsible, just 38 percent of Americans agree, according to a 2019 YouGov survey. By the same token, 15 percent of Americans believe the climate is not changing or that it’s changing but human activity is not responsible, compared to just 5 percent of Brits.
“The U.S. is among a series of countries that has fairly extreme polarization on this issue. Countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia also have some polarization, though not as extreme,” says Matto Mildenberger, an associate professor of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara. This is also evidenced in party agendas: Half of Conservative backbench MPs are now part of the Conservative Environment Network, a group that endorses “net zero, nature restoration, and resource security.” In the U.S., on the other hand, fierce congressional polarization means that Republicans generally oppose legislating to prevent climate change.
Against this context, Charles likely faces a choice between his climate politics and bipartisan popularity of the type his mother enjoyed in America. He has been trying to modernize the monarchy and make it influential and relevant to political concerns, Tamarkin says. “But the attachment to the monarchy — and whatever social and cultural role it plays — has depended on its historical irrelevance in these respects. Charles may help bring attention to important political issues, but it just might be at the cost of attention to and interest in the monarchy itself.”
In the end, that might be a moot point. Despite decades of environmentalism in his shadow, Charles has hinted that he will change tack as King. In a 2018 documentary, he was asked if he would continue his activist ways. “I’m not that stupid,” he responded. “You can’t be the same as the sovereign if you’re the Prince of Wales or the heir.”
As far as the British monarch’s remit goes, there’s a centuries-long precedent for the head of state to remain politically neutral. While there’s no law stating that the sovereign cannot vote, the Queen stuck to convention and never filled in a ballot. The 1215 signing of the Magna Carta followed by laws such as the 1689 Bill of Rights spawned a constitutional monarchy limited by the democratic will of parliament. While the head of state still must give royal assent before a bill becomes law, this is deemed a rubber-stamp exercise and has not been withheld since Queen Anne did so in 1707.
So King Charles has limited real political power, and he is unlikely to overstep the line. “I have zero concerns, no concerns that […] King Charles the III will rule as anything but a constitutional, democratic, lawful monarch,” says Vaughn. However, Charles still retains lobbying power: The head of state and prime minister hold private meetings, called Audiences, on a weekly basis. As Vaughn sees it, “the question mark would be: Would he try and use his role in the unwritten constitution to have more influence over policies and thinking of 10 Downing Street than probably his mother was ever willing to try to do?”
Naturally, the direction of Charles’ public work — rather than behind-the-scenes lobbying — will matter most to how he, and the monarchy at large, will be perceived in Britain and around the globe going forward. In the U.S. — where “The Crown” was must-see TV and tens of millions tuned in to the royal weddings — this septuagenarian activist may break the spell cast so carefully and diligently by his mother. For some, the niggling memory of his association with Diana will fade, replaced by a celebration of progressivism on such a visible stage. For others, the royal family’s attraction has lain exclusively in its theater: the mirage of power, drama and opulence existing at a remove from politics. For these Americans, the fairy tale is — most likely — dead.