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Critics argue that the monarchy is a keystone of the British class system, which over the years has stifled a good deal of individual initiative in a nation that now so sorely needs it. But Socialist George Orwell, writing in 1940, envisioned a future in which the "King and Common People" might forge "an alliance against the upper classes." This could yet happen. "Prince Charles is well aware that the role of government may change radically by the time he inherits the throne, because of changing social and political forces," observes the Sunday Times's Anthony Holden. Yet the very hopes pinned on Charles point up how fragile the royal edifice is. It is still a hereditary monarchy whose worth is at the mercy of all the disasters and disappointments that can befall any family. Britain has seldom been so fortunate in its heirs to the throne.
The country's present good fortune is also the world's. Though shorn of empire and struggling to survive economically, Britain remains a cradle of modern Western democracy. Even with all its trappings, its monarchy is a living lesson for other nations seeking to strike the proper balance between ceremony and service, tradition and change, authority and freedom.
Prince Charles has spoken blithely of serving a "30year apprenticeship" for the monarchy. It is a prospect to daunt a young, energetic royal heir, and once it did: Queen Victoria's son was a frustrated debauchee by the time he ascended the throne as King Edward VII at the age of 59. Windsor watchers insist that abdication in favor of her son is out of the question for Elizabeth, barring, of course, incapacitating illness. But the Queen is doing her best to see that Charles' long apprenticeship will be a useful one, and so is Charles, who has sat down with advisers to chart an independent career akin to his father's. He is already privy to the red "boxes," locked leather cases of official state papers, that Westminster and Whitehall dispatch daily to the Queen (even Prince Philip does not receive them). Charles can also expect to act more and more as the Queen's "vice president, embarking for foreign capitals on the good-will trips and, tied in with them, trade missions that he handles so well.
His March trip to South America was more than a social success; it cost $21,000, but he brought back an export deal worth nearly $2 million.
One job that might suit him for a while would be Governor General of Australia, a country that Charles has loved since his six months there as a student. The post has been a touchy one ever since Governor General Sir John Kerr, in order to break a parliamentary deadlock in 1975, used long dormant powers to sack Conservative Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and call for new elections. Kerr last year resigned, turning the job over to the Australian-born academic Sir Zelman Cowen. But after Cowen has had another four or five years in office, says a source close to Buckingham Palace, the Queen would like to appoint Charles to the position.
That would require an invitation from Australia, and probably some domestication for Charles. Says the source: "It's the sort of job that demands a wife to help out with all the ceremonial chores."
Life is what I make it," says the Prince, who clearly intends not to waste his years of waiting.
"In these times the monarchy is called into question," he said recently. "It is not to be taken for granted. One has to be far more professional than one ever used to be." An American journalist who has traveled with the Prince observes, "That guy works so hard you would think he was running for office." In a way he is. Although the office is his by birthright, Charles knows that he can succeed in it only by hard work. "I am planning to find out all I can about British life," the Prince has declared, "including the government, the civil service, business, agriculture, the unions everything. And since I have a long time ahead of me, there is no point in trying to do everything at once." Ambitious plans, but sensible. And reassuring qualities both, in a man who will be King.