King Charles III


Originally shown at the Almeida in the Spring, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III has now transferred to Wyndham’s West End theatre. Early reviewing focused on the humour and, if Saturday’s audience is anything to go by, it has stimulated ticket sales. However, even determined laughers were defeated in the second half: this is a dark and serious play. The characters speak blank verse which, to an English audience, subliminally signals Shakespearean themes: power, honour, ambition and loyalty. This medium, powerfully appropriate to depict the real monarchy of late medieval England, might seem overblown for today’s Biedermeier and showbiz version. The triumph of this production is to discover serious themes even in a toothless monarchy, messages which match the medium.

The story is easily outlined: Charles stumbles at the first constitutional hurdle of his reign and is forced to abdicate even before being crowned. Such a synthesis serves the plot scant justice. Charles, hesitant, decent, uneasy even before he has worn the crown, attempts to persuade his prime minister to reconsider a press regulation bill with all-party support. Fatally he overplays his hand first by declining to sign the bill into law, and then – when this has provoked a constitutional crisis – by dissolving Parliament. When Parliament refuses to be dissolved and no general election follows it is the new king who is made to abdicate. The play ends with William and Kate ascending the throne as joint monarchs and royal activism extinguished.

Walter Bagehot’s The English (sic) Constitution (1867) distinguished the dignified and useful parts of the country’s basic law, famously consigning the monarchy to the former. Yet there is no question that the gradually passage of monarchical power to the prime minister – a phenomenon of the long eighteenth century which helped forestall a second English Revolution – has left some grey areas, the ‘reserve powers’ or ‘Royal Prerogative’ of government texts. The Charles of the play (the admirable Tim Pigott-Smith) is fated to dispel the possibility of royal political action and increase the power of the political class – precisely the opposite of his intention. Well-meaning and anxious, he believes his defence of press freedom will rally support, especially since his family were victims of media intrusion. He has confused shadow and substance, not comprehending that the whole point of the Royal Prerogative is that it cannot be used. The whole House wants the press bill and so a new monarch’s views are immaterial. Lacking a legitimate basis to act, he is doomed. Long years anticipating his future role have not equipped him to grasp this overarching political fact. Driven from one failing expedient to another he is finally cornered when it becomes obvious that the very existence of the monarchy is at stake.

In its battle with Charles the political class is represented by two classic specimens. The prime minister is a silky Blairite bully, primly conscious of his dignity and status. The Leader of the (Conservative) Opposition duplicitously encourages Charles in private while solidarising with the prime minister in public. It is no contest. However, it is not their superior skills which defeat Charles but a revolt within the Royal Family. If the nuclear option for politicians is a republic, they can play a lesser card and replace him with his own son and daughter-in-law. This however requires the William of the play to repudiate filial loyalty in the grim closing scenes, ‘there’s son against father’.

The Shakespearean trope was caught even by a Saturday night West End audience. In a marvellous coup de theatre, the deposed Charles intervenes in William’s Abbey ceremony. Taking the crown from the Archbishop, he muses on it before the terrified son who has failed to wait his turn, Hal to Charles’s dying Henry IV; a deposed Richard II teasing an embarrassed Bolingbroke. Charles’s bitter rebuke makes crown itself into metaphor. Splendid to look at, it is empty: ‘turn it this way and there’s nothing there’ he says peering through at William. Which is emptier, the space within the orb or its usurper, a hollow man for a hollow crown?

This scene is elegiac. The decisive moment comes when William breaks ranks, opening a way for monarchy to continue. His Brutus is married not to Portia but to Lady Macbeth. For all her ‘common’ associations, the Kate of the play is an eighteenth century woman, content to enjoy power vicariously; unlike Charles, she understands that the whole thing is just for show. She persuades William that his father’s course threatens the institution itself and with it her own career and that of the infant Prince George. Once he is king she will rule through him and later through her son. The politicians acknowledge her role and formalise it with a joint crowning. We don’t need Shakespeare for this. It is a close parallel to the events of 1688-9 when a runaway James II was deemed to have abdicated. His own daughter and husband were crowned joint monarchs in his place, an event that inaugurated the era of parliamentary supremacy and mythic royal power lasting till our own times.

How prophetic is King Charles III? Unusually we know much of the real Charles’s views on architecture, farming, the environment, hunting and much else besides. Once king he will succeed a long line of dullards who, if they had opinions, rarely uttered them. Britain has not had an intelligent monarch since the death of William III or, arguably, Charles II. Given the degree of popular support and media interest the institution apparently still commands an activist monarch could yet upset the apple-cart. The failure of the British public to grow up politically circumscribes political action. Even Alex Salmond, brave enough to frighten the Westminster establishment, envisages a union of crowns, not a Scottish republic. Britain’s preposterous Royal Family is still a fit subject for serious drama.

Martin Upham, 16 September 2014


Rights are won, not conceded

Right from the start the UK government has approached Scottish independence in a patrician way.  This was most glaringly obvious during the referendum negotiations.  Prime minister David Cameron, confident of a No vote, insisted it be all or nothing and refused to countenance a third question on enhanced powers (devo max).  As I warned at the time this was likely to blow up in his face.  Now that it has, everyone recognises it for the blunder it was.  Lest there be any doubt remaining, the offers of the last week from the three unionist parties (actually replicating what they said in the Spring and therefore already discounted by the Scots electorate) do constitute various versions of ‘devo max’.  Of course the problem still remains because:

  1. The three offers are all different, with the Conservatives at the most generous end (because they are furthest from power in Scotland).
  2. They were made by Gordon Brown who ceased to be prime minister in 2010 and is not in a position to deliver them.
  3. They purely address Scotland’s constitutional status and this (assuming a No vote on 18th) is infeasible because of the ramifications for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But what has not yet been understood is that barring the devo max question was as much as about method as about content.  Cameron’s original stance can now be seen in the light of powers that the Conservatives are prepared to concede.  He is prepared to be flexible if he can preserve the Union.  But what is not negotiable is the entrenchment of any new powers for Scotland by a popular vote. A voted majority for devo max would first of all be a vote for a definite proposition, and not for the vague and sentimental waffle served up in the past week.  Second it would be absolutely irreversible, consolidated by an open and free vote of the Scottish people. David Cameron’s approach to all this has been that of the feudal lord, who graciously concedes.  But concessions can be withdrawn – as these will be after a No vote.  The only rights worth having are those you win by your own efforts.  I am one Englishman hoping Scotland will vote Yes on Thursday.


English socialists should hail the approaching Scottish Yes

Since about 1960 the true bedrock of the United Kingdom has been the Labour Party. This is true in the sense that only Labour has sufficient support in all three UK countries to hold them together.  (Ireland, which was divided in the last territorial loss from the UK has a separate party system.)  We have reached the extraordinary point where the UK prime minister cannot have a public meeting in Scotland, partly because he knows the reception he’ll get but also because he knows his special line in condescension is a sure-fire vote-loser. In the current referendum campaign, a No vote always depended on the mass loyalty of the traditional Labour vote.  But Labour has completely failed to mobilise it. Why?

One answer is probably complacency, though there have been signs for years that it is flaky, with seats fraying to the Nationalists.  Moreover there was no proper debate before Labour adopted its knee-jerk No stance; and, fatally British Labour determined the Scottish Labour position. Another is the embittered, carping, negativity radiated by the Scottish Labour hierarchy, relentlessly talking down and seeking to debase each step taken by the SNP government.  But what is really striking is that Labour has no answer to a critique, urged with the authority of a successful government, from its Left.  The mindless repetition of ‘what is your Plan B?’ was believed to be a deadly weapon against the Yes campaign.  How effective was it against an opponent who had actually demonstrated over many years that Scotland could be governed from left of centre?  When Britain’s two major parties actually agree on ‘anti-austerity’ spending plans from now until 2020, no wonder Scots are flocking in the opposite direction.  Labour’s inability to mobilise its traditional mass vote is a direct consequence of its evolution into New Labour.

New Labour’s right wing stance is the Achilles Heel of the Union and the wound there will be fatal.

There is too much knee-jerk opposition to nationalism on the Left.  English socialists should embrace the Scottish independence cause. (I won’t discuss Wales here, except to predict First Minister Carwyn James will face some awkward questions back home as to why he thought it appropriate to go to Scotland and plead for the Union.)

  1. It will be a shattering blow to the complacent and largely unanimous political establishment of the UK which threw everything at the Yes campaign and lost.  These are the same people who have been telling us for the last six years that there is no alternative to the ‘anti-austerity’ programme.  Cameron will be the first prime minister since Lloyd George to lose part of the UK.  What will authority will remain to him? Ed Miliband will be confronted by the stark reality that there is no right-wing path back to power for Labour.  Clegg, an irrelevance in this campaign, is history.
  2. It will force a re-examination of the constitution of the shrunken UK.  The reality of London-based government will be laid bare in a smaller country.  Real re-balancing – economic and constitutional – must follow Scottish secession.
  3. It opens up new vistas in international relations.  Someone is bound to ask why the shrunken UK should retain its UN Security Council seat.  And hopefully everyone will ask why the new state is retaining nuclear weapons – another subject on which there has been no debate.
  4. British prime ministers from Blair to Cameron love to strut the world stage, dreaming of past glories.  Perhaps we can anticipate a little more modesty in future, starting with an end to Cameron’s ludicrous sabre-rattling in the Ukraine.  Meanwhile the slavish subservience of the UK – militarily, diplomatically, culturally – to the United States has been an international embarrassment.  At last it will be questioned here at home.
  5. Free at last of the imperialist mentality England in particular can rediscover itself.  It is too easily accepted that this is a conservative country naturally inclining to market forces.  It is also the country of Wat Tyler and John Ball, of the mother of modern revolutions, of Tom Paine and the first trade union movement.  England can rediscover its own radical self.  It will be a shock for the Faragists when it does.  Some in the Scots Yes campaign argue that it is impossible for Labour to win.  Not so. But Labour does need to become a very different party if it is to return to power.

In the wake of the Scotland vote, new vistas open up for the English Left.  Labour can be part of it but only by turning away from the consensual politics of the last 30 years.