London— If you blinked twice, you might have missed it: the Pacific islands were everywhere at the coronation of King Charles III. Countries and territories where the king is still head of state and of the 52 former Commonwealth nations (a.k.a. the British Empire) were represented at the grand event.
Charles III is still the official head of state in Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand— not to mention a handful of other small islands that are still part of the UK. Their heads of state were all in attendance, and soldiers from each of the Commonwealth nations also participated in the ceremony, saluting the King after he was crowned.
As head of state, the king is represented by a governor-general in the Pacific countries. In the name of the monarch, the governor-general opens and dissolves parliament, commissions the prime minister, appoints other ministers after elections, gives assent to laws passed by Parliament and performs ceremonial duties as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, such as attending parades.
What does this mean in practice? Quite a lot, actually.
Charles’ ascension to the throne brings a lot of discussion to the Pacific, where matters of self-governance, empire, the public role of the king, and the future of the planet are all concerned. No law can be passed in these countries without the signature of the British monarch, though such an occurrence is rare. Yet, it means that Parliament, which is elected by the people, lacks real state power; it actually rests in Charles’ hands.
Therefore, these countries can’t really work against British interests, which are de facto their own.
But where exactly does the king’s power come from? God. Britain may well be an overwhelmingly secular society today (37 percent have no religion at all), but on paper, the UK is a theocracy. The British constitution is much closer to Iran's than that of the U.S. or France. The king is de facto head of the Anglican Church or “defender of the faith” and Charles’ coronation was full of ancient and holy relics.
The most sacred moment was hidden from public view, when the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed Charles with holy oil as the holy spirit descended on him (or so they say.)
So why should the Pacific care about all this pomp and pageantry? It’s a reasonable question that many countries are asking. In the Solomon Islands and Australia, discussions about removing the monarchy have arisen a lot lately. Before the coronation, Australia’s ambassador to the UK said it was “only a matter of time” before Australia becomes a republic.
Tuvalu held two referendums in 1986 and 2008 as to whether to become a republic (both failed). It reminds us of European imperialism’s lasting legacy, as did the coronation itself, which contained numerous stolen jewels, medals and materials from the former colonies.
The monarch might be the head of state, but as the late Queen Elizabeth II showed us, the role of the British sovereign has become largely symbolic and ceremonial. The monarch generally stays out of politics, except at the opening of Parliament.
In Britain, as in the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, the local leaders are left to get on with things. They report to the monarch in weekly audiences or communicate through their private secretary. These conversations are entirely private and never become public knowledge. One such occasion that did become public (sort of) was during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
Then Prime Minister David Cameron asked the queen’s private secretary if she “could raise an eyebrow, or half an eyebrow.” as the independence movement was gaining momentum. The queen told a Scottish newspaper on a visit that the Scottish people should “think very carefully.”
The intervention wasn’t exactly unhelpful. Should Charles do the same in the Pacific when republican sentiments grow stronger, it won’t exactly hurt. As a prince, Charles went well out of his way to learn about the different faiths and has shown strong support for marginalized communities. He will try to be as inclusive a king as possible. However, he is much less popular than the late queen, so it should come as no surprise that murmurs in these three countries are already underway. And as his role is mostly symbolic, it further fuels questions about the monarchy’s necessity here.
Yet, being too vocal or opinionated can result in a public telling-off by the prime ministers. Such an instance happened in 1912 when one of the great reforming prime ministers, Herbert Asquith, wrote to George V asking that he show more restraint and keep his opinions to himself. Asquith feared it could sow public discord at a sensitive moment in Europe’s history. As Walter Bagehot once wrote, the king must have a genius for discretion. The king can and will express his concerns to his heads of government privately, but the public won’t ever know about it.
This brings me to the most important point for the Pacific: climate change. When he was a prince, Charles babbled about climate change and global warming when such concepts were fringe and completely unpopular. He was a climate activist championing green energy, sustainable farming and organic food, often to much public ridicule in front of unsympathetic audiences. But he was right.
In Britain, climate change still tends to alienate the more conservative segments of society. Being too vocal not only crosses constitutional lines but could undermine the UK Parliament’s ability to actually take meaningful action that benefits the Pacific.
Don’t expect to see overt or obvious signs that Charles III is working tirelessly to reduce our carbon footprint and sea levels and save the dying ocean. But do look out for subtle gestures, visits, and keywords in his speeches. He has already given some subtle hints as the world struggles with the cost of living, the oil crisis and the disruption to supply chains.
King Charles III knows better than most leaders the Pacific islands’ struggles due to climate change. He sees it as a problem that is getting worse and needs real global leadership. It just won’t be his own.
Dr. James C. Pearce is a historian and author of "The Use of History in Putin's Russia." He previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. Send feedback to email@example.com