That might sound like a strange thing to say after millions around the world have just binge-watched Peter Morgan’s “The Crown.” Moody, callous, a bit silly — the lovesick and philandering prince brilliantly portrayed by Josh O’Connor is easy to dislike.
At home and abroad, Charles’s reputation took a big and deserved hit from the breakup of his marriage to Princess Diana. “The Crown” only serves this conventional wisdom, which has lingered ever since her tragic death. Charles, it is said, will be a bad monarch.
I’m not so sure. In its quest for great drama, the show ends up ignoring precisely the things that will make Charles a good king: the intriguing set of (mostly) good ideas he has supported in his long apprenticeship as the Prince of Wales.
Does any of this matter? There’s a temptation in liberal Britain to laugh off the monarchy and dismiss it as if it hardly exists. But I’ve always thought that Tom Nairn, the prophetic Scottish Marxist thinker, was correct to warn the Left to take Buckingham Palace more seriously. The monarchy, wrote Nairn, is like an “enchanted glass” that invites Brits to see ourselves in it.
In this, the moods and personality of the sovereign matter. The monarch runs the Church of England, meets weekly with the prime minister and sets the tone for the British upper classes — all of it exercising a powerful gravitational pull over British life.
Prince Charles — unlike his 94-year-old mother Queen Elizabeth II, a child of empire who has always gravitated to the former colonial possessions gathered in the Commonwealth of Nations, which she heads — is actually one of Britain’s great Europeans.
Just two weeks ago in Berlin, in a speech in the German parliament, the heir to the throne pointedly referenced the poet John Donne, who wrote that “no man is an island.” In case anyone missed the allusion to Brexit, he added: “One might equally submit that no country is really an island either.”
He has not only made a point of Britain’s ancient links with Germany, which his own Hanoverian roots attest to, but has also been a great friend to European countries big and small. In Romania, the Prince of Wales has thrown his weight behind campaigns for orphans and human rights and even purchased his own retreat in the country.
His friends describe him as disgusted by far-right politics and “a huge supporter of Europe.”
More important, the prince is one of Britain’s most prominent and long-standing greens. Charles has been warning of plastic pollution since 1970 and has been practicing and campaigning for organic farming since the 1980s, decades before it was trendy. He has also raised millions for climate activism and has used his royal platform to give stirring speeches warning of climate change around the world.
One of Charles’s finest moments was his decision to confront President Trump about environmental collapse during the U.S. president’s controversial state visit to London last year.
True, there have been misfires, such as his kooky promotion of homeopathy. His architectural causes, such as his championing of tradition and ornamentation, are not to everyone’s taste. He would do better to rein in his occasional (and not quite constitutional) habit of writing to public officials about his various causes.
But when I think of the big picture, Charles has been an establishment figure who got it largely right, in an establishment that got it mostly wrong.
This same pioneering spirit is one Charles brought to his other great cause: interfaith dialogue. In a century that has been marked by creeping western Islamophobia, the prince has been vocal in his admiration for Islam and building ties between Britain and the Muslim world. The far right has spread rumors he is a secret convert to Islam — just as the press has suggested his frequent visits to Greece (where the family of his father, Prince Philip, was once the royal house) might add up to him being secretly Greek Orthodox.
Meanwhile, in a country where some institutions can’t quite shake the mildewy stench of anti-Semitism, Charles has grown into a proud friend of Britain’s Jews, heading a recent charity appeal for the country’s oldest synagogue and throwing a party at Buckingham Palace last year to celebrate the Jewish community of the United Kingdom.
I remain deeply ambivalent about whether Britain should actually keep its monarchy, but it seems clear my strange country is set to keep staring into the enchanted glass of the House of Windsor for many years to come.
My hope is that when the time comes, King Charles III will bring to that reflection something of what Pope Francis brought to the papacy: a more liberal, European, tolerant sensibility — in a Britain that, post-Brexit, sorely needs it.