EDINBURGH, Scotland — Not far from the city’s ancient center, Anna Torrens and Ben Goddard, both 20, patiently stood in an hours-long line to pay last respects to their late queen. Self-described monarchists, they should be easy sells for King Charles III — who spent a day on the ground here for “Operation Spring Tide,” his inaugural tour of the United Kingdom as monarch.
But as much as they adored Queen Elizabeth II — “She was kind of a mother figure to everyone, wasn’t she,” Torrens mused. “Everyone loved the queen,” added Goddard — they see Charles in a more skeptical light.
“He’s got a lot to prove,” Goddard said, adding that much of what he knows about Charles comes from the Netflix series “The Crown.” “Looking back at my education, there wasn’t much about the monarchy. Not much on [a future] King Charles. They brushed passed that — if anything, because he’s had a very scandalous life.”
Charles, a king-in-waiting for 73 years, ascends to the throne with a central challenge: ensuring the future of the House of Windsor, with the disadvantage that he is less popular than his mother.
Almost no one sees the death of the queen as the end of days for the British monarchy, the heads of state of these isles and the remnants of a once vast empire. But British republicans — a minority who want to abolish the monarchy — nevertheless sense an opportunity with Charles in charge.
For Charles, it raises a question that’s a twist on the words once spoken by his ex-wife, Diana.
Can he be the king of people’s hearts?
“All the polling shows the majority of English people still want to retain the monarchy,” said Brian Feeney, a political commentator in Northern Ireland, where Charles and his second wife, Camilla, breezed through on Tuesday. “To what extent that loyalty is to the queen, and whether it will be maintained by Charles, is the question.”
Ten years ago, according to YouGov, nearly 75 percent of Britons were in favor of “continuing the monarchy,” a figure that dropped to the low 60s earlier this year. And while the queen’s personal popularity still hovered at around 81 percent before her death, support for Charles was far lower, at 54 percent.
He has appeared to gain backers in the emotional aftermath of his mother’s death. Pundits have praised him in recent days for displaying the bearing and gravitas of his kingly station. In a new YouGov survey, 63 percent of Britons said he would be “good king,” up from just 32 percent in May.
Yet 1 in 3 — or 35 percent — also say they’d like to see him retire before his death to make way for his more popular son William, compared with 25 percent who had said his mother should step down early. Fewer than half say he will do a “good job at being a unifying figure” for all parts of Britain.
Charles has begun to set the tone for his reign, and mount something of a charm offensive, in meticulously planned stops this week in each of the “four nations” of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
He has taken the royal “walkabout” — first popularized by his mother in the 1970s — to a more tactile level, reaching out to touch people, shaking with both hands. He accepted a cheek kiss from one emotive subject on the Mall in London — a breach of royal protocol but perhaps a public relations coup. In Belfast on Tuesday, he patted children’s heads. He sought out a corgi on the rope line, who gave him a lick. He gave the sense that he didn’t want to leave.
The response from anti-monarchy groups within Britain has been muted. A handful of protesters have been arrested or threatened by British authorities — including a man who heckled Prince Andrew in Scotland on Monday — prompting criticism from some politicians, as well as human rights and free speech activists.
Short of launching a new Twitter hashtag — #notmyking — the group Republic has limited its lobbying efforts. Spokesman Graham Smith said activities would ramp up after the late monarch’s state funeral. He said the organization had seen “thousands” of people sign up since the queen’s death.
“There’s been a big drop in popularity of the monarchy in the last few years, and that’s while the queen has been on the throne,” Smith said. “Charles is not equipped to turn that around. Where people were very reluctant to criticize the queen directly, that is not the case with Charles. We now have this completely different monarchy, reduced to fairly unimpressive men, who no longer have their heat shield — the queen.”
Though they exist everywhere, royal skeptics in the British Isles tend to be defined by two factors: generation and geography.
In a May YouGov poll, 31 percent of those between ages 18 and 24 said Britain should have an elected head of state, compared with 33 percent who backed continuation of the monarchy. In contrast, large majorities of older generations vastly preferred the current system.
“I understand the history of [the monarchy], and I understand how important it is in society,” said Katie Ford, a 19-year-old university student in line to pay respects at Elizabeth’s coffin in Edinburgh. “But at the same time, like, it’s hard for me to say that it’s a good idea for, you know, something that costs this much money to be happening when there are so many people who are struggling.”
Polls suggest the monarchy enjoys less support in Scotland than in Britain as a whole. Scottish nationalists have said they would keep the crown in the event of independence from the United Kingdom. But some wonder whether Charles will exert the emotional grip the queen had on the Scottish people.
Elizabeth’s suggestion that Scots “think very carefully” during the 2014 independence referendum was seen by many as influencing hearts and minds to remain in the union.
“I feel like we stayed because a lot of people like the queen and felt something towards the queen,” Torrens said. “But I’m not quite sure, if they were to do another vote in a couple of years’ time, with Charles on.”
The monarchy — an institution steeped in the tea of colonialism — is even more polarizing within Northern Ireland.
“Every political scientist who looks at the north of Ireland identifies it as a political, ethnic conflict caused by colonialism,” Feeney said. “The north … is the last part of [British colonial rule in Ireland]. That is why there continues to be political, ethnic divides, with conflicting identities and allegiances. People in the north of Ireland who are not British don’t see themselves as part of the same polity.”
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The reception was warm for the new king in Belfast on Tuesday. Northern Ireland Assembly speaker Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein politician who was once jailed for his connection to the Irish Republican Army, paid tribute to Elizabeth as someone who “showed how a small but significant gesture, a visit, a handshake, crossing the street, or speaking a few words of Irish, can make a huge difference in changing attitudes and building relationships.”
The queen’s 2012 handshake with Martin McGuinness, then-deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and a former IRA commander, marked a historic moment in the peace process.
Yet while Northern Ireland’s political leaders came together to honor the late queen this week, a Brexit-related boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party has prevented the formation of a new power-sharing government since May elections. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, now the largest party in Northern Ireland, still does not recognize the authority of the British monarchy.
Based on a changing political landscape and demographics, Charles can reasonably expect Northern Ireland’s drift from the United Kingdom and movement toward Irish unity to accelerate during his reign.
Charles also takes over at a delicate time in broader British politics — when the country is confronting its worst bout of inflation since the 1970s and energy bills have skyrocketed. He may find increased resistance to taxpayer money being used to support royal estates and activities.
Royal watchers expect him to push for a slimmed-down, somewhat modernized monarchy. Experts say that could mean fewer royals on official duties and perhaps even the opening of parts of Buckingham Palace for public events.
It will be a fine line in a country that is known for — and seemingly revels in — exceptional pomp and circumstance and where royal enthusiasts seem to shudder at the notion of the more casual “bicycle monarchies” of continental Europe, where royals can often be found cycling rather than riding in Bentleys.
“I think that what Prince Charles has already indicated is that the monarchy will be smaller. It’s going to be more like a Scandinavian monarchy in the future, but not in a bad way — more informal,” former prime minister David Cameron told the BBC on Sunday. “He stopped as he entered Buckingham Palace and talked to people in the crowd, and that was a signal that he was sending that he wanted people to feel that he was approachable.”
Charles has gone through decades of public rehabilitation since the years of his disastrous marriage to Princess Diana. He has won praise for his charity work and his prescient warnings of species extinction and climate change. He has also benefited from a reappraisal of his adultery, gaining a measure of sympathy for apparently being pressured into marriage while in love with another woman: Camilla, now the queen consort.
But Charles is still carrying baggage. And within Britain, at the heart of some people’s reluctance toward the new king is not so much a distaste for hereditary privilege or the shadow of colonialism, but the ghost of Diana.
“I am not a fan of Camilla. I was a fan of Diana,” said Belfast bartender Pamela McMurray, 37. “Obviously, you don’t know the person personally, but you have certain loyalties, so that is where that stems from.”
Ferguson reported from Belfast.