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Sensemaker: King and country

Sensemaker: King and country

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia’s front line in north-east Ukraine collapsed (more below).
  • Belgium’s largest-ever terrorism trial opened in the case of the 2016 Brussels attacks that killed 32 and injured hundreds more.
  • Spain’s 19 year-old Carlos Alcaraz won the US Open and became the world tennis number one.

King and country

The UK is inviting the world to witness the ceremonies that preserve its constitutional monarchy. Ukraine is fighting for its life and for democracy, and winning. Both stories are about the sweep of history, accelerating across the Donbas even as pomp and circumstance attempt to slow it down in London. 

King. The apprenticeship is over. Plans in place for decades are unrolling into action to a backdrop of trumpets and gold braid. It feels already as if Britain’s new king is determined chiefly to do what he can to keep the UK united, by force of air miles if not charisma.

  • Charles the Busy. Since last Thursday Charles III has become king, started to process the loss of his mother and travelled from Dumfries to Balmoral and London. He returns to Scotland today to greet Scottish parliamentarians, lead a vigil and remind the world that even if Scotland votes for independence there are no plans – yet – for it to renounce the monarchy. Tomorrow he’s in Northern Ireland, where devolved government is paralysed by unionists who can’t accept a Sinn Fein majority in the province, and who, as one put it to the FT’s Jude Webber, will “cling to their Britishness” all the more fiercely now. Can Charles slow the drift towards Irish reunification? Without overtly getting into politics it will be hard. On Friday he will be in Wales.
  • Dissent. There has not been much. A history lecturer was arrested and de-arrested for yelling “who elected him?” after the royal proclamation was read out in an Oxford church. Hecklers on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh attracted the attention of police and the dismay of others who’d waited hours to applaud the royal hearse at the end of its six-hour drive from Aberdeenshire. But images of William and Harry together outside Balmoral set a tone of national truce that’s likely to hold at least until the funeral next Monday.
  • Remembrance. That funeral will be the biggest occasion of its kind – commemoration as pretext for an impromptu global summit – since Nelson Mandela’s in 2013. Biden, Macron, Erdogan and Ardern (who faces a 24-hour flight from Auckland) are among dozens of heads of state and government already confirmed. London will be “full”. Those who want to see the Queen lying in state could face 20-hour queues. In the meantime, random acts of remembrance like this one at London Bridge have heartened a country anxious to learn something about itself from the Queen’s death.  
  • Standstill. The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee delayed a rate rise. The Met Office shrunk its output to daily weather reports only. The Premier League postponed a weekend’s worth of matches in a season already squeezed by the World Cup. The day of the royal funeral was declared a bank holiday despite NHS managers’ concerns about cancelled operations and appointments. There is a rationale – for many people this will be a once-in-a-lifetime event – but it’s being tested.
  • The grimace. Was the new king trying to communicate irritation and amusement, or pure irritation, when he pulled a face at aides while signing his new contract with the nation on Saturday? Only he knows. 

Country. Ukraine’s breakneck advance into formerly Russian-held territory at the weekend was so dramatic that it replaced British royalty at the top of most non-British news bulletins and, crucially, proved impossible for Russians themselves to ignore. 

Two key cities – Kupiansk and Izyum – were liberated.

Ukrainian troops were last night reported to be at the outskirts of a third, Severodonetsk, which Russia’s army fought for months to capture. 

In northern Kharkiv province, Ukrainian forces posted footage on social media platforms from a checkpoint in Hoptivka, less than 5 km from the Russian border. 

Ukraine’s President Zelensky claims his military has liberated more than 30 settlements and 3,000 square km of territory since last Tuesday. His own senior commanders have warned against overconfidence, and Russia hit back last night with missile strikes on Ukraine’s power grid. But the past week’s fighting has been Kyiv’s most significant victory since March, for at least three reasons:

  • Strategy. The advance in Kharkiv province was on Russian lines weakened by Moscow’s decision to divert forces to the south in response to Ukraine’s promised counter-attack on Kherson in the south. As a bait-and-switch it worked a dream.
  • Tactics. Military analysts say the signs are Ukrainian forces – and special forces – simply outfought what Russian troops they encountered with better planning, better coordination of ground and air assets and better use of intelligence, much of it provided by the US.
  • Timing. From the point of view of debates in Germany about whether to continue providing arms to Ukraine and how much pain to endure by not buying energy from Russia, the surge could not have come at a better time. Zelensky has shown that in the fight for European democracy, weapons work. 
  • Moscow mood. Not good. Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader who has sent thousands of fighters to the front, says Putin needs to order full  mobilisation, declare war and replace his commanders. Members of the St Petersburg city duma have called for Putin’s impeachment for treason. Anchors and guests on state TV channels admit openly that the “war” effort – no longer just a special military operation – is failing. Putin is now a moderate compared with some of his nationalist critics. The risk of escalation has never been greater – yet nor has the risk to his position.

It is not the King who threatens constitutional order

Matthew d’Ancona

In the populist era, we have more to fear from reckless government than meddling monarchy


Truss’ naked short
Big news was being made when Liz Truss was passed a note last Thursday in the House of Commons alerting her to doctors’ concern about the Queen’s health. She was announcing an energy costs relief package that has since attracted little comment – except from Bloomberg’s Javier Blas, who says it fails to protect the poor, encourage energy conservation or make any serious attempt to gauge the true cost of the bailout or say how it will be funded. It’s true the plan is regressive in that it’s not means tested. Worse, though, is its vulnerability to wholesale gas prices if they go on up this winter. There is no limit to what the UK government will have to pay to energy companies to bridge the gap between those prices and the retail cap if they do. Instead, Truss is betting wholesale prices will eventually come down. Should the Russian retreat (see above) turn into a rout, they might, but still, she is committing the UK to a “naked short” on gas. All the more reason to help Ukraine win.


Musk wants out
Elon Musk really doesn’t want to buy Twitter. Verge reported at the weekend that the Tesla boss’s legal team has sent Twitter a third letter demanding to be released from its $44 billion pledge to buy the platform, this time on the ground that Twitter paid its former security chief, Pieter Zatko, $7 million in severance pay. There’s a clause in the Twitter purchase agreement’s smallprint barring the company from making out-of-the-ordinary severance payments. But the letter also serves the purpose of putting Zatko’s name back in tech headlines, which helps Musk because it was Zatko who blew the whistle on Twitter’s alleged understatement of the number of bots on the platform, which is the central pillar of Musk’s case that he should be allowed not to buy it. As things stand he faces penalties of about $1 billion if he pulls out. His current net worth is around $260 billion, but you don’t get rich by spending it.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Scholar fired
The new UK government’s sacking of Tom Scholar as permanent secretary to the Treasury has riled former mandarins. Robin Butler, cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair said it was “very unusual and very regrettable” and accused Truss and her new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, of treating the civil service “improperly”. Gus O’Donnell, who was also cabinet Secretary for Blair as well as for Gordon Brown and David Cameron told Times Radio that firing someone “with no notice for no apparent reason” who was highly regarded was no way to earn the respect of the Treasury and the civil service more broadly. Scholar wasn’t the only one shown the door: national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove also left his role and the current cabinet secretary, Simon Case, is widely expected to follow. During her leadership campaign Truss denounced Treasury “orthodoxy”. Her first week on the job has certainly been unorthodox. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Boreal tipping point
There are 15 million square km of subarctic “boreal” forest in Russia and North America. These trees and the ecosystems they support are one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks, but they have lost more tree cover to fire than any other region on earth in the past decade, the FT reports – and that could turn them into a carbon source instead. If fire and rising temperatures make this vast area a net carbon emitter – as has already happened in large parts of the Amazon – keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels could be put permanently out of reach. It doesn’t help that cooperation between Russian and western scientists on the health of boreal forests has ground to a halt. Yet another reason to win, and end, the war. 


Sweden votes 
A centre-right bloc dominated by the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats is poised to claim the narrowest of victories in Sweden’s parliamentary election, ending eight years of centre-left rule. The result remains too close to call but with 90 per cent of votes counted Reuters was close to calling it for the right bloc. The Sweden Democrats were unrepresented in parliament until 12 years ago, when they won 5.7 per cent of the vote. This time they have won more than 20 per cent of it. Sweden’s new government is likely to be led by Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate party, but his political debt to anti-immigrant sentiment is already clear. 

From the deluge of articles, analysis and musings on royalty and the Queen published in the last few days, here are a few gems:

  • Jonn Elledge for the New Statesman on whether a nationwide blackout on fun is really what the Queen would have wanted. 
  • Nesrine Malik in the Guardian on the Queen’s role stabilising a country pulling itself apart. 
  • The FT’s Jude Webber on the ground in Belfast ahead of King Charles’ visit tomorrow. 

The week ahead


12/9 – King Charles receives addresses from both houses in Westminster, then flies to Scotland for a procession of the Queen’s coffin from Holyroodhouse to St Giles’ Cathedral. He will meet Nicola Sturgeon and receive condolences from the Scottish parliament; Mark Rowley begins new role as Met Police Commissioner, 13/9 – King Charles visits Hillsborough Castle in Belfast and meets new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and party leaders of Northern Ireland Assembly; Queen’s coffin flown to London accompanied by Princess Anne, then taken to Buckingham Palace, 14/9 – After a procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall the public will be able to view the Queen’s coffin 24 hours a day from 5pm until 6.30am on Monday 19; Office for National Statistics inflation figures released, 15/9 – Deadline for UK response to EU infringement procedures over Northern Ireland Protocol; London Fashion Week begins, with some shows expected to be cancelled; 16/9 – King Charles visits Cardiff Castle and receives condolences at the Senedd, 19/9 –State Funeral for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey


12/9 – International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in Vienna amid “serious doubts” about Iran’s intention to revive nuclear deal; European Court of Auditor publishes special report on Covid-19 vaccine procurement; 74th Emmy Awards held in Los Angeles; 13/9 – William Ruto set to be sworn in as Kenya’s new president; UN General Assembly opens in New York; Twitter shareholders expected to vote on Elon Musk’s takeover deal; World Meteorological Organization climate change report launched; 14/9 – G7 ministers due to meet in Germany; State of the European Union address delivered by Ursula von der Leyen in Strasbourg; Xi Jinping to visit Kazakhstan, his first trip abroad since January 2020; 15/9 – Shanghai Cooperation Organization forum begins in Uzbekistan with Xi and Putin due to attend; Ig-Nobel Prize awarded in Massachusetts, 16/9 – Nato defence chiefs due to meet in Estonia; Oktoberfest begins in Munich; Russian Central Bank set to announce interest rate

Thanks for reading. Please share your thoughts on the Queen and tell us how you think Tortoise should cover this moment. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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