Why King Charles must never apologise for the wrongs of history
No one, neither king nor pauper, should surrender to the jealous god of identity politics.
There are a fair few things I’d like to see King Charles apologise for. Those meddlesome ‘spidery letters’ he wrote to government ministers. His green doom and gloom. Prince Harry. But slavery? The British Empire? No. Never. Charles should utter not one word of contrition for those historical events. For if even he, the literal king, were to cave to the woke insistence that ‘the privileged’ must self-flagellate for the crimes of their forefathers, it would set a terrible precedent. It would represent the final victory of that jealous god of identity politics, with disastrous consequences for democracy.
The latest cry for Charles to beat himself up for the actions of his ancestors comes from Indigenous leaders. Ahead of the coronation, politicians and campaigners from 12 Commonwealth nations penned an open letter in which they ‘call on the British monarch, King Charles III’, to ‘immediately start the conversation’ about the imperial misdeeds of monarchs of old. Apparently, what Indigenous people need from His Majesty is ‘apology, reparation, and [the] repatriation of artefacts and remains’. In short: enjoy your day out being crowned and anointed, and then crack on with repenting, forever, for things done centuries before your birth.
The first weird thing about the recent explosion of angst over Charles’ shady ancestors is how surprised everyone sounds. Magazines publish breathless pieces on how Charles ‘descends from rulers who waged wars, built empires and extracted wealth from colonies’. Yes, we know – he’s the king. Kings and queens were bastards. They chopped off heads, imprisoned princes, taxed people to within an inch of their lives, conquered countries, put down rebellions. That Charles’s family tree is pock-marked with iffy people is literally the least startling thing about him.
But he still shouldn’t apologise for any of that stuff. For one simple reason: he didn’t do it. Charles has never owned a slave, sent ships in search of booty, put a wife on the chopping block. It is nearly 3,000 years since Ezekiel said, ‘The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father’. Now the noisy identitarians of the 21st century want to reverse all that. They far prefer God’s implacable rage in the Book of Exodus, in which He seethed: ‘[I] am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.’ That the woke are so infused with Old Testament fury, with such a severe urge to punish even the descendants of wrongdoers, confirms what a menacing and regressive movement theirs is.
The letter calling on Charles to make reparations for historical wrongs sums up everything that’s rotten in the cult of contrition. There’s the self-infantilisation of the apology-seekers, for one. There is a distinctly therapeutic feel to the letter. The signatories are essentially entreating the king to recognise their pain – and to alleviate it, in all his graciousness, with words and maybe money. They want His Majesty to ‘acknowledge the horrific impacts’ and ‘legacy’ of the crimes of yesteryear. That is, soothe our historic hurt with your kingly validation.
This is one of the twisted ironies of the politics of apology: it can boost the moral authority of the person who’s being pressured to say sorry. The Indigenous campaigners are not only dragging the king – they’re also imbuing him with an almost godly power to lift them from the pit of generational despair. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Charles took them up on their offer and uttered the s-word. Indeed, last year, in Canada, he gave a speech in which he said ‘we must listen to the truth of the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples’. (He’s been reading the Guardian, hasn’t he?) We must ‘understand better their pain and suffering’, he said. He seems instinctively to recognise that the fashion for contrition can benefit the elite. It expands his dominion, granting him jurisdiction not only in the concrete worlds of pomp and constitution, but also in the emotional world of easing the little people’s traumas.
We all laughed – well, I did, sorry – when Princess Diana said: ‘I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts.’ Yet now her husband, so long depicted as the yin to Di’s yang, might just embrace such a role. Charles is king, but it’s Diana’s world. I can envision a future royal tour in which Charles and Camilla sail the Earth validating the ‘pain and suffering’ of once-colonised peoples. It would be of a piece with the campaigning of the new Prince and Princess of Wales, Will and Kate, who are obsessed with the mental health of the plebs. If royal authority at home is increasingly justified in the Oprah-ite language of relieving the anguish of one’s subjects, why not overseas too? The identitarians don’t seem to realise that the thing they want – the king weeping for old wrongs – would be a new form of colonialism. Emotional colonialism. Where once monarchs sought to deliver foreigners from ignorance, now they’d deliver them from PTSD.
Elite empowerment is a key part of the showy penitence of the modern era. This is why so many political actors, from Tony Blair to the Vatican, enthusiastically seize every opportunity to let their lip wobble. Blair expressed remorse for the Irish Famine. Pope Francis begged for forgiveness for ‘the offences of the church’ in the colonial era. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was essentially institutionalised contrition. Australia holds an annual National Sorry Day in which everyone’s expected to quietly atone for the mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples. All of these things are best understood not as genuine expressions of sorrow, but as arrogant displays of emotional literacy; as declarations that one has ascended to the plane of therapeutic correctness, and is thus fit to rule in the era of emotion.
Yet while the cult of contrition might be helpful to elites looking for new ways to justify their rule, it’s a disaster for the rest of us. It is divisive and anti-democratic. The woke rehabilitation of God’s jealous visitation of the crimes of the father on to the son is utterly destructive of public life. It is a form of racial collective guilt – and racial collective pain. All whites come to be seen as the morally stained sons and daughters of ancient crime, and all black, brown and Indigenous people are reduced to the morally scarred sons and daughters of those crimes. This depressing, deterministic creed turns us from equal citizens into either ‘the privileged’ or ‘the oppressed’, where the former must forever repent to the latter.
As a republican, I know I’m expected to welcome the demand that King Charles publicly acknowledge the wrongs of monarchy. After all, I’m someone who wants to remove the king’s crown, titles and ‘divine rights’, so surely I’ll enjoy seeing him say sorry, too. Not a bit of it. Such a debased spectacle would not be a challenge to monarchy at all. On the contrary, it would represent a kind of Battle of the Bloodlines, where two different versions of historically determined authority would be fighting it out for control of society – the historically determined divine right of King Charles vs the historically determined divine pain of the woke. My turn to apologise: sorry, but I prefer equality and democracy to the rule of any given identity.