Sept. 20, 2022

The future of the monarchy under King Charles III

A Q-and-A with history professor John Ferris
Charles, Prince of Wales

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has left King Charles III as head of the British Royal Family. After a record-breaking 70-year reign under Elizabeth, a beloved figure to many around the world, the task left to Charles is nothing short of modernizing the monarchy for the 21st century and making it relevant to a younger generation of Commonwealth subjects — including Canadians.  

How will Charles move forward in the early days of his reign and what will some of his first acts as King look like? Will the Commonwealth nations remain and continue on with the British monarch as the official head of state? Would it be possible under the Canadian constitution to secede from the monarchy event if Canadians want to?  

  • Photo above: Charles, Prince of Wales, speaks at the Forest event at the UN Climate Change Conference in November 2021. Flickr photo by COP 26 licensed under Creative Commons

University of Calgary history professor John Ferris, an expert on British history and the monarchy, weighs in on what might come next. 

Q: What will the reign of King Charles III look like? 

A: Charles’s friends have been leaking to the press for years, ideas of what Charles will do with the Royal Family when he becomes King. One consistent theme is that he will reduce the number of people associated with the Royal Family to a handful of working royals, himself and his children.

He may keep close contact with Princess Anne, who is a hard-working and able person, but he will cut away many of the hangers-on, like the cousins who have been affiliated with the Royal Family for the past 30 to 40 years, or even closer relatives who have been chronic embarrassments in more recent times — I need mention no names here. Probably Charles will ruthlessly prune the most effective portions of his relatives from the rest, who will no longer be in a position to exploit their connections with the Royal Family, or to damage it.  

He will now move quickly and, I think, decisively, to reform how the Royal Family works. And he will aim to give William, in five to 15 years, a strong position to keep the Royal Family relevant to and the head of state of Britain and, if possible, portions of the Commonwealth. Charles will not abdicate, but he knows his age and he will be planning how to shape his succession through his actions.  

Q: How big of a challenge does Charles have filling the role occupied by his mother for 70 years? 

A: I find it hard to imagine Brits or Canadians five years from now having the same sense of affection for King Charles III that they did for Elizabeth II. I’m not being hostile to Charles when I say that, simply recognizing that she is really hard to match.

Elizabeth was an impressive woman, with an unusual form of charisma, whom I think was the highest-status person on this planet for much of the past 70 years. She intimidated even Donald Trump. Just as Evangelicals hope for a personal relationship with Jesus, so too admirers of Elizabeth felt a personal connection with the Queen.  

John Ferris

John Ferris

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

But Charles is a clever man who is manoeuvring to maintain the credibility of the monarchy everywhere in Britain and the Commonwealth that he can. He will borrow from his mother’s capital as a fondly remembered figure wherever possible. I do believe that Charles is capable of building a bridge that would modernize the monarchy enough to make it acceptable to a new generation in Britain, though probably not in the Commonwealth.  

Having said that, Charles is an odd man, in terms of his personality and politics. Though he was much less the villain that he was portrayed during the collapse of his first marriage, he embodies the establishment in many ways while in others he is anti-establishment. He supports homeopathy and defends it against attacks by conventional doctors; he launched a vehement campaign against modern architecture in Britain; and advocates organic farming and radical adjustments to climate change.

He is genuinely multicultural in his approach and interests: he views his official role of Defender of the Faith (i.e., the Anglican Church) really as meaning Defender of All Faiths. He was a successful and innovative leader of the Crown’s economic interests, making full use of the tax concessions which support any of its businesses, and his own ability to lobby national and foreign leaders. In recent years, his businesses and charities, and modes of fundraising, have raised much criticism in Britain, which impelled his statement when he became monarch that he would step back from them.   

Elizabeth was much more active in public political terms as Queen (and incidentally, Charles as Prince of Wales) than any of her predecessors since the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, in 1861. Elizabeth made use of her position as head of the Commonwealth to carve out an independent role in some aspects of British foreign politics, especially those most associated with symbolism, which she used to further British national interests, some internationalist issues which concerned her and, of course, to bolster the position of the Royal Family. 

I find it hard to imagine that Charles will be a silent monarch, yet he cannot take any actions which will affect partisan politics, which are remarkably chaotic in Britain today. Stay tuned. 

Q: What will all this mean for Canada?  

A: The Royal Family, since before the Second World War, has regarded Canada with particular affection among the Dominions. They made more of an effort to maintain their credibility in Canada than they have done in any other parts of the former British Empire. So, Canada matters to them, though the most important place is Britain.  

One question for Canada is what exactly Canadians feel about their connection to the Crown. There were genuine and deep connections to the Crown among Anglo-Canadians throughout the 20th century, though they waned from 1990 with the collapse of the Chuck & Di franchise.

For the first time, Canadians will have to debate what they really think about the monarchy. I think that firm supporters of the monarchy now are a small minority in the country, no bigger a group than those who really want to see it gone, but that across the board Canadians are fairly evenly divided on the matter, with few regarding the matter as a major issue.  

Q: In 2022, how important is the Crown to Canadians?  

A: For Canada, the importance is cultural and political. We have never yet had a strong anti-monarchical movement. We accepted whoever was King or Queen in Britain as our King or Queen. Elizabeth developed a real rapport with Anglo-Canadians, plus other parts of the country. She was seen as a legitimate head of state by Canadians. On top of that, her personal qualities made Canadians happy to have her as Queen, especially because we could bask in the reflected prestige of the monarchy, and find a way to distinguish ourselves from our neighbours to the south. 

Right now, we’re going through a period where reflecting on her and the Crown will be a top-level news item in Canada, let alone in Britain. At the end of that period, attitudes may change in one way or another.  

The Queen was the head of state for 15 countries when she died. It may be that several of them might drop that status, Australia or various Caribbean countries for instance. The Commonwealth really has been meaningless for decades.  

But in Canada, the monarchy is too entrenched in the constitution to be eliminated except at immense effort. Justin Trudeau calls it a “non-starter,” and for once I agree with him. 

Q: Why would it be so difficult to secede from the monarchy?  

A: The dilemma is that if Canadians decided that they wanted to end the monarchy, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to do. Basically, the monarchy is baked into every element of the Canadian constitution, which is almost impossible to change.

To remove the Crown requires a major series of constitutional changes. Under Section 41 of the Constitution Act of 1981, no change in the status of the monarchy in Canada can occur unless an identical resolution is passed by both Houses of Parliament and every province. You would have to be naïve not to imagine that every political interest in the country would exploit that opportunity to make gains for itself, at other’s expense, which would create a political mess.

This would take us back to the days of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accords, which were not pleasant times. Just to mention one example — since in formal terms, all treaties with Indigenous Peoples were signed with the Crown, many or all of the 619 First Nations would claim the right to have to assent to its abolition, which I think actually would have legal legs, and make that step even harder.    

UCalgary campus flags lowered

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

As a Canadian, I would not favour abolition of the monarchy, except for far-stronger grounds than exist today. With the monarchical system, we are in the happy position that our head of state rarely is around, yet attracts all of the deeper loyalties attached to that position — and also denies the advantage of that charisma to our prime ministers, who frankly have far more power than the leaders of almost any advanced liberal democracy, and much more than is good for them, or us.

Every major advanced country finds the relationship between the head of government and the head of state problematical — it is one element of the power of American presidents, and a perennial problem for French republics.  

Incidentally, to eliminate the Crown from the Canadian constitution would create second-order problems of significance. In Canada, the powers of the Crown work through the Governor General and Lieutenant Governors. These powers really matter politically.

Twice in the past century, a Governor General actually acted as tie breaker to appoint a federal government, most recently with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008-09 (when Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean allowed Harper to prorogue Parliament, allowing him to avoid a non-confidence vote by a coalition of opposition parties. She acted under excellent constitutional advice, and made a good decision, i.e., by doing as little as she possibly could and letting the problem solve itself).

This issue is of particular interest to Albertans, since the Lieutenant Governor recently said that she could not assent to a provincial law allowing Alberta to ignore federal legislation.