This morning the Lord Speaker addressed the King and Parliament in Westminster Hall, a grand, grim and gloriously menacing structure dating back almost to the Norman Conquest and thus predating constitutional monarchy as we understand it by a millennium.
Here the first King Charles was put on trial, a process which led to his decapitation. Here the severed head of the upstart Lord Protector Cromwell was hung from the rafters as a warning to all those who might think of challenging the monarchy. This was Oliver Cromwell, you understand, not Thomas Cromwell, who had been a faithful servant of the English state in a previous century and whose severed head was hung up not in Westminster Hall but on Tower Bridge as a warning to all those who might think that serving the King was an easy ride.
As for the unfortunate failed revolutionary Guy Fawkes, who, like Charles I, was also tried in Westminster Hall, he found himself being drawn through the streets of London in a cart to be hanged, drawn and quartered, as a warning to those who might think of blowing up the king in Parliament *. He is still being burned in effigy each and every year up and down the land on November 5th. We have rather long memories.
So, although it was, therefore, unlikely that anyone would try to bump off the present King Charles today as Westminster parliamentarians, in the company of their spouses, partners and second cousins thrice removed, obsequiously professed their unwavering loyalty to and unquestioning admiration of him, eyes nervously looked sideways and up and down as His Majesty grandly arrived for the ceremonial demonstration of commitment to an institution the awesome and usually understated power of which was apparently just dawning on many of them. Those persons present who are of recent migratory stock seemed particularly ill at ease, as if only just realising where they are and what the essential nature of this land actually is.
It has drawn many in and swallowed them whole, including the Norman conquerors, whose strength it took to itself. Those who would not be loyal subjects of the king are caught in the machinery of the state in one way or another. Those who conform become part of that which imposes conformity by means which have become increasingly subtle down the years. And so change in the British state is gradual and of an evolutionary character. Whenever it looks as if sudden and radical change might be about to occur the would-be agents of that sudden and radical change are offered a means of thriving within the framework of a moderately reformed settlement. Thus the spectacle of severed heads hanging from the rafters of Westminster Hall or from Tower Bridge is no longer necessary. We have evolved, as has the monarchy.
Accordingly, after being admired and praised in the capital of England, King Charles heads north to be dutifully admired and praised in the Scottish Parliament, in the capital of the northern version of the British state. This alternative Britain must be kept happy, of course, which is why the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999. The King of Scotland will sit patiently in the chamber of that legislature, awaiting his turn to speak and wondering how many of those present wish him to be the last monarch to be bowed before in Edinburgh.
This is where the radicals are today, and this is where the next evolution of the British state will have to be performed and soon. He knows this, because he knows Scotland. And why would he not? His mother, the late Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland, was a daughter of a woman who was of the noble house of Bowes-Lyon, of Glamis Castle in the county of Angus, where the first Stuart Pretender spent his last night in Scotland after the failure of the first Jacobean rebellion of 1715, in which the late Queen Elizabeth’s family on her mother’s side supported the rebels. When their royal rebel guest left in haste in the early hours of the morning to reach the coast in time to flee so as to keep his head on his shoulders, he left his very handsome silver pocket watch behind under his pillow, where he had placed it the night before. It is still in Glamis Castle, where you can see it today. It is very recognisably a pocket watch and could pass muster today, for, after all, 1715 is not all that long ago compared to 1097, when Westminster Hall was built.
Westminster Hall, like the British constitution, is surprisingly durable. When the Palace of Westminster burned down in the 19th century, Westminster Hall was found to have survived intact. If the United Kingdom is to survive intact, the new King Charles will have his work cut out. He will have somehow to show the new UK Government what it will have to do to achieve that miraculous result, because it evidently does not know.
It is a duty of a constitutional monarch to advise the government of the day. It is his duty to help it to carry out its duties. The present UK administration, unfortunately, led by a mediocrity who does not appear to understand how government works, looks as if it may be beyond help. Looks can be deceiving, fortunately, as the British have demonstrated down the centuries, to the discomfort and embarrassment of those of their foes who failed to notice the severed heads that the British can see in their minds’ eyes whenever they cross Tower Bridge or enter Westminster Hall.
* Guy Fawkes avoided the agony of hanging, drawing and quartering but only by falling from the scaffold and breaking his neck. Lucky fellow!