He might have to be a lot more active than his mother. Credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

November 15, 2021   6 mins

Kings and queens have to stay out of politics. Gone are the days when British monarchs could call elections, veto legislation, and choose prime ministers. To survive, the crown must accept this loss of power and put on a smile at parties. Encourage a little, warn a little, but always, always remain neutral. The Queen has done this exceptionally well, adapting to changing public attitudes without ever giving away her opinions.

And that’s why people worry about Prince Charles. Our future king threatens to be a politically active monarch. “I simply can’t see what I see and do nothing about it. I could not live with myself,” he told his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby. The Black Spider Memos were the most worrying of his interventions to date; they revealed him successfully pestering ministers for changes in policy and spending. It is impossible to imagine the Queen sending 27 notes to ministers in just over a year asking for, among other things, specific items of defence expenditure. Perhaps Dimbleby is right to say, “a quiet constitutional revolution is afoot.”

And maybe that’s no bad thing. The last monarch to have a major influence over modern politics staged a few vital interventions. As Jane Ridley, author of a new biography of George V, told me: “George’s role was not to change things politically, but to react to events and crises, which he did with aplomb. He enabled the appointment of prime ministers at times when, through war or through political realignment, the party system was not functioning to produce agreed candidates.”

The political system has matured and stabilised since then. But it’s certainly showing its age now. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that, in the coming years, it will become so dysfunctional that a monarch must stick his nose in. And if he is obliged to be a more political monarch than his mother — long may she live — Charles ought to read Ridley’s account of his great-grandfather’s life, which provides a blueprint for how a monarch might effectively and acceptably involve himself in politics.

But it could also help Charles learn from his great-grandfather’s mistakes. For one thing, he needs to keep his voice down. George was notorious for blurting out his country-squire opinions. (“Of course you said it, George,” his wife, Queen Mary, admonishes him at one point, “we all heard you.”) Neutrality did not come naturally. He was so obviously a Tory. Just after he became king, when the Liberal Party was in power, he told the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, “I don’t know how you can go on serving that damned fellow Lloyd George.” These ministers weren’t exactly thrilled to be working with a rude, reactionary king who they thought was “a dunderhead”. Especially because the nation was in the middle of a constitutional crisis.

The House of Lords had voted down a budget for the first time in centuries, and the Liberal government was threatening to neuter their lordships with the Parliament Bill, which would abolish the Lords’ veto of legislation. The Liberals prevailed — by manipulating the naïve new king. The PM, Asquith, bounced George V into a promise to create hundreds of new peers to vote through the Parliament Bill, if it didn’t get through the first time, by threatening a “King and Peers vs The People election”. George’s private secretary, Knollys, advised the king to make the promise — having not told him that if the Liberals resigned, the Tories would take over, avoiding the threatened election. (Knollys was rightly sacked for this low-grade duplicity.)

When the bill went to the Lords, it looked like Tory peers would defeat it. George couldn’t let that happen. If the Tory peers voted the Bill down, he would have to make good on his promise. And a supposedly neutral constitutional monarch would be in terrible trouble if he created hundreds of peers to favour one party over another. Talk about interfering.

His other private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, sprang to action. Ridley has been much praised for rescuing George from his reputation as a dullard. She ought to be celebrated, too, as a political historian: she has discovered that Stamfordham asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to get the bishops in the Lords to vote for the bill. A former Viceroy of India was summoned from Scotland to do the same. Lord St Aldwyn was “encouraged” to vote the right way, while Lord Rosebery was outright asked to do so. He did — and took 20 others into the lobby with him. The bill passed by 17 votes. There we have it: the palace’s interventions were decisive in a parliamentary vote.

This is, supposedly, unthinkable. So strict is the non-interference principle, the monarch isn’t even allowed to go into the House of Commons, let alone have their flunkies tip the balance in a legislative vote. Imagine the uproar if it was revealed that Charles had persuaded enough of his aristocratic friends to squeeze a bill through Parliament. But George was dragged into politics by Asquith, and if the palace hadn’t interfered in the vote, he’d have ended up doing something even worse: making a load of new lords. Charles’s second lesson, then, is to keep out of things unless strictly necessary.

This was sharp work, especially from Stamfordham, one of the many supporting characters expertly handled by Ridley, who makes the page fizz, bristle, and shuffle with figures like the fantastically waspish Lady Geraldine Somerset, the heart-breaking Prince John, and the blinking but quietly effective Royal Librarian, Owen Morshead (you can practically hear him cough politely). Stamfordham is the best of them though: the king’s loyal retainer, darting around London, corralling politicians and producing clear, effective memos that kept the king better informed than his ministers. Like Jeeves, he always appears at the right moment with a solution to George’s woes.

Stamfordham’s advice kept George on the right side of the constitution. During the Irish Home Rule crisis, George drafted a crude letter threatening to veto a bill unless it was put to the electorate — something no monarch has done since 1708. The accepted wisdom is that the royal veto no longer exists. But Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, has said that the use of the veto in similar situations remains an open question. Imagine Parliament sent Charles III a bill to abolish civil liberties. We might well prefer him to copy his great-grandfather’s threatened intervention than his mother’s scrupulous impartiality.

It was the very real threat of civil war in Ireland — a threat the complacent Asquith met with endless rounds of champagne and bridge — that drove George to meddle. Sounding a lot like Charles in conversation with Dimbleby, he wrote to Asquith in 1914, “I cannot help feeling that the government is drifting and taking me with it.” And without George, Ulster might have been bloodier: he organised a non-partisan conference, for instance, and told Bonar Law, the Tory leader, to restrain his practically seditious rhetoric — which is more than we expect of the Queen, but less than we might get from Charles.

Although he liked to flex his fading prerogative — like when he outrageously tried to refuse Lloyd George an election in 1918 — George turned his role into an enabling one. When he was asked to open the new Parliament in Belfast, he insisted on giving a speech in favour of peace. The speech opened the way for talks, proposed by that quiet hero Lord Stamfordham, leading to the Anglo-Irish treaty. The palace were arbitrators, not partisans.

It took the same role when Bonar Law resigned as prime minister in 1923, he was too ill to nominate a successor. Commotion ensued. The choice was between the unknown Stanley Baldwin and the experienced Lord Curzon. Curzon was the obvious choice to almost everyone, especially himself. But he was a peer. And it was increasingly obvious that having a lord for PM was unacceptable in the new age of democracy. The Conservative party chairman was inundated with letters for Baldwin, but it took a royal intervention to sort out the kerfuffle. George, in consultation with the party’s biggest actors — including Balfour and Salisbury — picked Stanley.

Nowadays, the Queen waits for the party to appoint a leader, taking a purely ceremonial role (imagine if she’d weighed in on the choice between Boris and Hunt). But the systems we use for selecting leaders will be challenged on day. Charles might have to do what George did and make a neutral intervention to keep the system running. We might be grateful.

But Charles will have to learn to moderate himself. Ridley’s portrait is a of a deeply Tory, reactionary man, who learned from experience to rise above politics and intervene without prejudice. The same king who bellowed at a footman who dropped a tray, “That’s right, break up the bloody palace!”, sharply admonished a coal rich aristocrat who was bad mouthing the unions to “try living on their wages before judging the strikes.” When the government wanted to stop banks paying Russian money to unions during the General Strike, George intervened, furious at this attempt to “touch the pockets” of strikers. He had come a long way since the 1911 railway strike, when he wrote to Asquith proposing legislation to stop strikes spreading. At that point, he and Mary were worried about “encouraging socialism… and pandering to the Labour party”. Like our Queen, he moved with the times.

Unlike previous biographers, Ridley takes no superior pleasure in painting George as a philistine. She combines a historian’s rigour with even-handed admiration for George’s gruff and prickly character. He wasn’t cultured or metropolitan, but he well understood the way the country was changing and how politics needed to follow, despite the fact that he didn’t appreciate Cezanne.

It’s not uncommon for people to mock Charles, either. He’s no philistine, but he is a crank. There may be more acceptance of his views, but like George he seems to belong to another world. While the Queen is timeless, Charles is old-fashioned. Where she is restrained, he is amateurishly enthusiastic, passionately gathering causes. He isn’t known for his temper (George was almost constantly in a foul mood), but he has the air of being high maintenance. Let’s hope he finds himself a courtier as good Lord Stamfordham.

What might be more important, though, is Camilla. George’s Queen, the redoubtable Mary, has, until now, been undervalued as an effective consort; but Ridley shows her at George’s side, an essential part of the process. “George always used to tell me everything first”, Mary said as a dowager. If Charles has to be a politically active monarch, his success may well rely on his famously enduring bond with Camilla.

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at The Common Reader.