Long live the King. Even if you don’t like him (and many don’t), it would be positively churlish to wish Charles III a short life, considering that he’s already seventy-four years old. Churlish, but not in our vulgar society déclassé. In a reversal of the linguistic order of things, it seems the higher you go up the class scale in Australia, the more churlish people become. In a more green and pleasant land, even a literal churl would be loath to malign a newly crowned king. But a more green and pleasant land would not have made a Senator of Lidia Thorpe. A more Green land, perhaps, but not a more pleasant one.
Ill-tempered republicans notwithstanding, King Charles III sets out on his reign alongside Queen Camilla in fine trim. He is an enthusiastic climate catastrophist (check), a patron of organic farming (check), and a soft touch for asylum seekers (double-check). His historical support for fox hunting is now politically irrelevant, and his distaste for contemporary architecture is widely shared by the voting public, if not by the artistic class. In any case Buckingham Palace is unlikely to see government plans for a steel-and-concrete annex anytime soon, and Charles doesn’t take the Tube. So he should be fine.
Charles is the oldest man ever to ascend the English throne. He is also the first to have been divorced. It is true that his distant relative Henry VIII had three of his marriages annulled, one rather forcefully, but he was never divorced. Another antecedent, George IV, sued for divorce, and the bill was carried in the Lords, but the government chose not to present it to the Commons. Instead, they opted for poison. Or at least, that’s the rumour. At his coronation, George’s estranged consort Queen Caroline of Brunswick attempted to bluff her way into Westminster Abbey. She ordered the guards to stand aside for their Queen, but they had strict orders to block the way—a task apparently made all the easier by the Queen’s large proportions. The next day, she fell mysteriously ill. Within three weeks she was dead.
This time around it’s not only the King who is divorced, but the Queen. Feminists: you’ve come a long way, baby. Not so long ago, it proved impossible even to make a divorced woman the Queen Consort—though to be fair to an almost-forgotten era, Wallis Simpson was twice-divorced. And so the eleven-month king Edward VIII abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, choosing “the help and support of the woman I love” over the majesty and prestige of the British Crown. That one selfless act may have caused the deaths of millions and the disintegration of the British Empire.
Historians have suggested that Edward the Duke of Windsor was a Nazi collaborator. He may well have been. They say that he was an anti-Semite who knew about the concentration camps. That may be true. It is known that in May 1939 Edward gave an address from the battlefield of Verdun—never broadcast in Britain—in which he urged “all those in power to renew their endeavours to bring about a peaceful settlement” in Europe. The historian A.N. Wilson considers this “extraordinary new evidence” of Edward’s German sympathies; extraordinary, perhaps, but hardly new: the speech was broadcast globally by NBC radio and widely reported in British newspapers at the time. It seems that English Second World War historians are almost as thorough as Australian historians of colonial-era massacres.
It might be noted that Edward’s notorious appeal (for peace) was made at a time when Franco had just marched into Madrid, Mussolini had just annexed Albania, Hitler had just occupied the rump of post-Munich Czechoslovakia, and Mr Churchill had just given a speech in Parliament to the effect that:
If peace is to be preserved there seem to be two main steps which I trust are already being taken or will be taken with more decision immediately. The first, of course, is the full inclusion of Soviet Russia in our defensive peace bloc … The second main step which, it seems to me, we should take, and which I cannot but feel that the Government are taking, is the promotion of unity in the Balkans.
In the hindsight of history, it is clear that Britain was not ready for war. It was even clearer to Edward, living in Paris, that France was not even interested in getting ready for war. When war duly came, Edward was made a major-general and assigned to review the troops in France. The somewhat more thorough historian Alexander Larman told the BBC that “what the Duke of Windsor was able to see was there was no possible way that the French lines were in a good enough condition for a full German assault to be withstood”. How right he was.
Imagine if the obnoxiously outspoken Edward had been King, instead of the quiet and compliant George VI. Might a King Edward, the ardent admirer of German industrial militarism, have cajoled the pre-war government into supporting Churchill’s calls for rearmament? A stronger RAF might have prevented a Battle of Britain. Might Edward have persuaded Chamberlain not to guarantee Poland’s security? Moralists might rebel at the thought, but Britain lacked the ability to help Poland, and France lacked the desire. Might a pro-German king even have kept British troops off the Continent? If so, Britain would have been much better armed when it “stood alone” against Hitler in 1941.
A slight resource boost early in the war might have been especially decisive in Asia. With a few more men and aeroplanes, Britain might very well have held Malaya, Borneo and Singapore. A better-armed Britain, unburdened by the historical losses of 1940, would likely have rolled up North Africa in 1941, kept the Mediterranean supply lines open throughout the war, and as a result never have lost Burma in 1942. Tens of millions of non-Europeans might have been saved the horrors of Japanese occupation—and no one in Poland or France would have been one whit worse off.
No one doubts that the more reserved George-née-Bertie was a good man. Yes, Roosevelt took a liking to him, and he overcame his stammer to give The King’s Speech. We all saw the movie. But contrary to Churchill’s hopes, 1939 Soviet Russia was not in Britain’s “defensive peace bloc”; it was a German ally. If there was any “unity in the Balkans”, it was pro-German unity: Bulgaria, Romania and (yes, look it up) Yugoslavia all went Axis. Even Scandinavia and the Low Countries refused to join the Western alliance, their leaders desperately hoping that Hitler would pass them over. Iceland had to be forced into the Western alliance by a British invasion. Ireland was Ireland. If Britain had to stand alone in 1940, at least an Edwardian Britain would have stood with a few more men and a lot more equipment.
On the downside, Elizabeth II would not have become Queen until 1972, appeasement accusations would not have become a staple of foreign policy writing, and Casablanca would never have been made. The Poles would be even more uppity about Western betrayal, and the French would never stop talking about how “perfidious Albion” cost them the war. All in all, that sounds like a small price to pay. Shame about the Poles.
Conventional accounts of the Second World War make it out to have been the best possible war for the Western Allies. Pop historians love to provoke us with “what ifs” about Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad: but for a butterfly’s wing, things could have gone all wrong. But it’s much more likely that we had the worst possible war: Norway and Sweden could have stood with the Allies; Guderian’s blitzkrieg could have stalled in the Ardennes; the French fleet and colonies could have joined the Allies, instead of going Vichy. And a worldly king who pressured Chamberlain to take a more calculated approach to foreign affairs could have made the world safe for democracy.
That’s a valid proposition whether or not the King was a democrat. Whether he was or not, England was never going to turn into a fascist dictatorship in the 1940s. Even Scotland didn’t start to turn fascist until 2011. Today, when the threats to the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth are so much different, might Charles III be the king of the moment? Of course, it’s impossible to say. The monarchy is less consequential today than it has ever been (sorry, Professor Flint), but it still matters in time of crisis, and the next republic referendum is always just around the corner. Seen from that perspective, a soft-touch, organic-farming, climate-catastrophist king might be just the thing. God save us—and God save the King.