Monarch, monarchy, and constitution

I doubt the regnal year is used commonly now, but today is the eighth day of 1 Charles III. It feels very strange. Despite being more than half a century younger than the late Queen, I always thought half-seriously that she would outlive me (and everyone else). I learned of her death on Instagram first as the official account posted an update at 18:30, a couple of minutes earlier than on the BBC which I had been following online. A seventy-year reign is remarkable in any context.

Donning my worn-out historian’s hat and sitting in a rickety political scientist’s armchair, the ongoing events, ceremonies, and rituals marking the death of the monarch, which necessarily means the ascension of another, have been fascinating. They demonstrate that the monarchy as an institution and the monarch as a person matter in the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom. The monarchy and the monarch are parts of a 3D jigsaw puzzle or an unstable Jenga that is the British constitution. What exactly is the British constitution? What roles do the monarchy and the monarch play in it? I have no idea. I probably can make a better attempt at explaining the constitution of the seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire than the twenty-first-century United Kingdom.

The sense of loss and grief is genuinely felt by many. At the same time however, the life goes on, indeed must go on for many others. My acquaintances range from monarchists to republicans, some of whom are affected personally by the loss, while others are indifferent. Perhaps a collective memory is being formed or created at this moment, but such memory is not monolithic or uniform and will certainly be contested and reinterpreted as the time goes on. This happens at the societal but also individual level. Some of the people who are in deep mourning would have had a very different attitude towards the monarchy some twenty years ago. Indeed the dominant narrative will by its nature exclude and alienate people who define themselves against it. Subscribing to the notion that the more elaborate political ceremonies and rituals as well as their extensive coverage on media are, the more amorphous they are in terms of what exactly they represent, and reading too much into them, there may be a hint of political and constitutional fragility and uncertainty.

A unifying and constant presence has passed away at a difficult time for the UK politically and constitutionally: Brexit is incompletely done, as acutely manifested by the current impasse in Northern Ireland, and another independence referendum in Scotland in the near future is quite likely. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but the reign of Charles III may turn out to be eventful and highly consequential, and dissected and debated by future historians.