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Chris Laidlaw: Charles never to reign over us?

Prince Charles' visit to New Zealand inevitably provokes questions about his future suitability as King of this country.

Charles is an unusual personality, not easy to pin down. There is a lack of clarity about him; a certain hesitancy. As the heir to the throne, he is in a perennially impossible situation; damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

As he once said, plaintively, "There is no set-out role for me. I'm really rather an awkward problem."

That awkwardness has eased somewhat since the death of his erratic wife and the decision, finally, to marry his first and real love, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

But the knives have been sharpening. There has been some talk of installing Prince William after the death of the Queen; jumping a generation as it were and leaving Charles to Camilla and his plants.

Even if Charles wanted to turn the throne over to William, the choice of succession is not his to make. Parliament would have to agree to allow Charles to leave, then pick a new King - as it did when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 - and that would cast the entire idea of monarchy out into open, rancorous and possibly fatal debate.

Charles has prepared and is still preparing to assume the throne. It has been a lifetime vocation and he is not going to give it up now.

It might be a bit of a wait, however, because his mother is unlikely to give it up voluntarily either and she, like her mother, is in this business for the long haul.

Prince Charles is not a glamorous, compelling personality but he is much more balanced and astute than the poisonous British press chooses to project him.

Charles has never been greatly interested in the Commonwealth. He is not an internationalist by nature or experience and he confines his initiatives and his interests within a relatively narrow range in Britain. In the absence of any reputation for anything else he is saddled with the image of someone who talks to vegetables and denigrates modern architecture.

As and when Charles does become King his main preoccupation will be consolidation at home. There is no coherent republican movement in Britain yet but that would change rapidly if Charles III gets off on the wrong foot.

Much the same goes for the wider Commonwealth connection. Because the Queen is such a hard act to follow it may be impossible for Charles to preserve that tenuous loyalty and stem what might turn out to be an irrepressible ebb tide of support for keeping the sovereign at the top, if at all.

Thus, the future of the sovereign as the titular head of the Commonwealth rests largely on next the King's PR performance.

Fortunately, Charles is no Canute. He is not going to try to preserve the monarchy as a gilded anachronism, a glorified theme park offering more pomp than circumstance.

He is very well aware of the fine line between solemn respect and high farce. He has personally tiptoed along that line and been deeply hurt by the consequences of stumbling on the way.

He knows that the monarchy will probably survive. It has, after all, endured devastating wars and spectacular divorces, abrupt beheadings and humiliating exiles and come up smiling benignly over its subjects, who have shown a remarkable capacity to put up with all this.

His lengthy affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles is something that has had to be managed with infinite patience, not just by him but by the Palace establishment as a whole. The Windsors are not fast movers when it comes to such matters.

Everything is weighed, grocer-like, before the ancient machinery of change is activated. The last time this kind of thing happened it all ended a bit messily with Edward VIII opting for a divorced commoner over duty, and all the catastrophic consequences that followed for the collective solidarity of the monarchy.

That affair left a mass of scar tissue on the delicate Windsor corpus. It's no wonder the palace is distinctly bashful when it comes to reconciling the absorption of a divorcee mistress with defending the faith.

There has never been much clarity as to Charles' attitude towards countries like New Zealand - older Commonwealth dominions which are still ostensibly loyal to the Crown - but which are increasingly seeking their own identities out from under the old British cultural blanket.

An opportunity arose to talk to him about this when he visited New Zealand early in 1997.

A dinner had been arranged in Christchurch for him to meet a variety of outdoor-oriented people, mainly Canterbury farming grandees and captains of local agro-industries. I was included as a conservationist.

The conversation was not scintillating. Not even the best of Canterbury's new pinot noir could liven it up, although I noticed the Prince of Wales was downing more than his fair share.

Pretty soon I was able to engage Charles in what amounted to a private conversation and I steered the subject round to constitutional matters.

Because he seemed to be particularly open and affable I asked him what his reaction would be if, as King, he was told that New Zealand wished to remove him as Head of State and become a republic. One eyebrow shot up. Had I gone too far?

"I take it you assume that will inevitably happen," he replied, with just the hint of a wry smile.

"I do, and I support it," I said.

"Well, to be frank, I think it would come as a great relief to all of us," said Charles. "It would remove the awful ambiguity we have at the moment. It seems to me that it would be a lot easier for everybody if you all had your own completely independent head of state.

"I certainly never want to be dragged into any constitutional disputes in New Zealand or anywhere else. I simply can't imagine how difficult it would be to be faced with having to dismiss a New Zealand Prime Minister."

Perhaps he sees the writing on the wall already. Certainly he will have felt the colder winds of rejection as a future King while in Australia.

In New Zealand the reception may be kinder, more muted. But he will know it is only a matter of time before the rupture occurs and that there may never be another King of New Zealand.

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