Last November, when Prince Charles made his way to the lectern at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, he tripped on a step and, with the world watching, almost fell. It was a briefly unfortunate moment, but as a metaphor, it was apposite. It is easy to trip on the political stage, which is one reason why modern monarchies avoid it.
As we glimpse into the future – as we did last week when Prince Charles took the Queen's place at the opening of Parliament – it is natural to contemplate the change that will one day come. One day, the Elizabethan era will end, and Charles will become king, not only of the UK, but of 14 other Commonwealth countries.
As we contemplate that change, the spectre of politics haunts the monarchy. For expectations are changing. Where once members of the royal family could remain reserved, distant, even aloof, today they are expected to emote and opine. Just as businesses, charities and other institutions are pressured to comment on just about everything, and bring about social change through adherence to disputed political beliefs and theories, so will the monarchy. And regardless of public pressure, some royals will want to do so.
Change is, of course, inevitable, and, like all institutions, the monarchy has always changed with the times. The Queen acceded to the throne 70 years ago, when the country was unrecognisable from where we live today. She has steered the monarchy through decolonisation, mass immigration, the broadcast age, the internet age, huge social, economic and political changes, royal scandals, wars, recessions and a global pandemic.
Prince Charles, heir to the throne for longer than anyone in history, has also navigated changing times. From the Prince's Trust to his sponsorship of pioneering architectural projects, Charles has forged his own role through his long apprenticeship. So too has Prince William, whose work for mental health charities, association with football, marriage to Kate Middleton and reasonably normal accent make him a different and modern prince.
The successful evolution of the monarchy has depended on a clear understanding that the royal family must play its proper constitutional role without succumbing to political opinion, fulfilling its duty of service through quiet leadership and charitable deeds, and communicating and speaking for us all at moments of celebration and joy, uncertainty and distress.
Yet the royals are now confronted by politics on several fronts. Last year Barbados opted to become a republic, and on their recent Caribbean tour, William and Kate had to contend with speculation about the survival of the monarchy in countries like Jamaica and rows about Britain's role in the transatlantic slave trade. In this difficulty, some see the hand of China, which is pumping billions into the Caribbean. But there is undeniably a genuine debate about whether the monarchy is, for former colonies populated by the descendants of slaves, an anachronism or a sturdy foundation of constitutional stability.
At home, the political challenge is not about the viability of the monarchy itself, outside a fringe minority at least, but about the purpose of the royal family. The reason the divide between Prince Harry and the rest of the family is significant is that it presents too very different visions for what the monarchy should do. On one hand, we have William and Kate, cautious and conventional, and on the other, we have Harry and Meghan Markle, refusing to be bound by tradition and readily giving personal opinions about everything from racial politics to American elections.
Part of the problem, of course, is the nature of modern news. Harry and Meghan, for example, gave their famous interview to a partisan Oprah Winfrey, who failed to press them on inconsistencies in their claims of racism within the royal family. And William faced attacks after a reporter claimed, falsely, that he had said "it's normal to see war and bloodshed in Africa", but not in a European country like Ukraine.
So far, the royal family has limited its political pronouncements to what it probably deems matters of consensus. Statements about the importance of mental health services by Prince William, or about the urgent danger of climate change by Prince Charles, might appear safe. But even such matters of consensus are dangerous. Beneath sweeping statements lie contentious choices and details of policy. And when the facts change, political positions change. Think of how quickly ministers went from limiting North Sea oil and gas extraction to begging companies for its resumption.
This is the true danger politics presents for the monarchy. The risk lies not in the extreme alternative offered by Harry and Meghan, nor really in the grotesque sense of entitlement of the likes of Prince Andrew. It lies in the mundane and the gradual, the adoption by the royals of seemingly safe political positions. It matters little if today an issue is one of consensus: if the politics changes, our future monarchs will speak only for one side of a political divide and against another. Nor does it matter if they are in the right – as Charles often has been about architecture, opportunities for young people, and environmental degradation – because the monarchy must unite us by rising above division. And it certainly should not mean criticising elected governments, as Charles did when he warned Australia for not taking climate change seriously enough. Nor should it mean lobbying ministers for policy changes, as he was accused of doing through the "black spider letters", so called because of the Prince's distinctive handwriting, that complained about issues from human rights to genetically modified crops.
In the coming weeks, we will be reminded of the enduring support for the monarchy. In June we will celebrate the Queen's Jubilee and in July host the Commonwealth Games. Only last week Charles was mobbed by mostly black Brits as he walked through South London. But such moments can prove fleeting. He must remember, as the Queen always has, that popular consent rests on the ability of the monarchy to unite not divide us.