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Sensemaker: Pomp and happenstance

Sensemaker: Pomp and happenstance

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Putin and Xi met in Samarkand on Xi’s first foreign trip since Covid.
  • Germany’s finance minister said rebuilding Ukraine would cost $350 billion.
  • R Kelly was found guilty on charges of child pornography and enticing minors for sex.

Pomp and happenstance

Britain’s new king is resting today as his subjects queue for miles to see his mother lie in state. His past week has been packed with ceremony, leaving little time for grieving or reflection. The same will be true of the next four days.

Charles’s time will be parceled out like a president’s. One-on-one meetings with visiting VIPs will be filleted between slow marches, endless costume changes and Monday’s colossal funeral.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Earl Marshal of England, the Duke of Norfolk, has been planning the funeral for 20 years, but nothing about it is set in stone. As the historian David Cannadine has shown, most British royal ritual was invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and given rocket fuel by the yellow press, the advent of photography, and Elgar.

Before that, Walter Bagehot, snob and editor of the Economist, predicted that “the more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show, which have ever pleased the vulgar”.

Before that, British royal funerals were ill-planned and often shambolic. Like most great royal pageants of the first three-quarters of the 19th century they “oscillated between farce and fiasco,” Cannadine wrote in The Invention of Tradition. Charles Greville called George IV’s funeral in 1830 “a wretched mockery”. William IV left early. The Times said of the mourners it had never seen “so motley, so rude, so ill-managed a body of persons”; and of the late king himself: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures… What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

The Queen has served the nation magnificently by comparison, which means she will be a hard act for her son to follow. 

Last night at Tortoise, Peter Flynn, an equerry to Charles in his past life as Prince of Wales, said the new king would have to busy himself after the funeral with four categories of task: big and small, near-term and longer-term. Within those categories there are two others:

  • People. When a “full spectrum” royal family was operating in the Queen’s heyday its members performed 2,500 – 3,000 official engagements between them per year, Flynn said. Of them, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh carried out about 200. Princes William and Harry performed about 200 more between them, with Prince Charles and Princess Anne each contributing a stakhanovite 600. If the number of working royals is to shrink to six or fewer, as Charles is said to want, the number of engagements will have to shrink too – perhaps to fewer than 1,000.

It’s now accepted Prince Andrew won’t be on the roster. Or is it? Despite his £12 million payment this year to Virginia Giuffre to settle her sex abuse claims Andrew remains a “counsellor of state” who could in principle stand in for the King in his absence while Princess Anne, whose record is blemishless, could not. The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 stipulates this, but laws can be amended. 

  • Palaces. Charles has inherited principal residency rights to Buckingham Palace, Sandringham, Balmoral, Birkhall, Windsor Castle, Holyrood House, Hillsborough Castle, Craigowan Lodge and the Castle of Mey. He retains residency of Highgrove and Clarence House. As head of a slimmed-down “firm” he may want to slim down its property portfolio, not least because his efforts to expand it with the refurbishment of Dumfries House in Ayrshire has led him to accept cash from suspect sources including a Russian oligarch implicated in large-scale money laundering.

One of the new king’s strengths is his capacity for work. His red boxes of official papers never go unread, but he’ll need to guard against lack of sleep if it means he can’t control his temper. “The Queen’s poker face was immaculate,” Flynn says. “[Charles] doesn’t have one. He’s a far more emotional human being.”

He and his mother could have opted for modesty in her remembrance, but chose not to. Maybe when this is all over he should think about slowing down the royal family, as well as slimming down.


Brexit and bonuses
The UK’s Treasury has confirmed an FT report that it’s considering taking advantage of Brexit to scrap a cap on bankers’ bonuses of twice their annual salary. The cap was introduced under EU law after the 2008 financial crash to discourage excessive risk-taking. It may have helped achieve this, but second-order effects included raising some bankers’ base pay to compensate, and raising costs for employers wanting to move key people to London from New York. Kwasi Kwarteng, the new chancellor, has sacked the Treasury’s long-serving permanent secretary and told those left behind that he wants policies geared to growth at all costs. Unlimited bonuses could deliver a bit of that and help compensate for City business lost to Dublin, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam since Brexit. Either way, Kwarteng and his boss seem unphased about Brexit being seen as a way to help the rich get richer.


Ford and petrol
The Ford motor company still believes in gas. After betting expensively on EVs, it’s stuck with internal combustion for its new Mustang. The seventh generation version of Detroit’s most famous muscle car has either a 5.0-litre V8 engine or a distinctly un-American 2.3-litre turbo, depending on your taste and oil price outlook. There’s no electric version, not because the company has cooled on batteries – it hasn’t – but because it’s already put the Mustang badge on a very different car, the all-electric Mustang Mach-E SUV, which has been selling well in a different niche. Over at Chrysler, they’re discontinuing petrol-powered muscle in favour of battery-powered Dodge Challengers and Chargers from next year. Back at Ford, dealers who want to sell EVs have been told they’ll have to pay for their own superchargers. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the 3,000 dealers in Ford’s network do.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Big Covid  
As of May 2022, there were 6.9 million reported and 17.2 million estimated deaths from Covid. That “staggering human toll” says Jeffrey Sachs, professor at Columbia University and chair of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission, “is a profound tragedy and a massive societal failure at multiple levels”. In a report released yesterday the Commission lists a string of failures in the global response to the pandemic, including delays in recognising it was an airborne virus, a lack of coordination between countries in suppression strategies, inequitable distribution of key safety supplies and failures to combat systematic disinformation. There’s particular criticism too of the World Health Organization for acting too “cautiously” and “slowly”. But the overarching lesson of the report is the need for national preparedness for pandemics as well as global cooperation. Further reading: Politico and Die Welt’s extensive reporting on how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its partners promised to fill the gaps left by governments in global vaccination schemes – without accountability for their failure. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Transition trillions
We are a day late to this party but it’s worth noting: Oxford University has put some serious modelling behind the hypothesis that a full transition to clean energy could mean net savings rather than a net cost. This should be intuitive. Once you’ve installed a wind turbine or a solar panel, the marginal cost of energy is zero as long as the wind blows or the sun shines. But vested interests have preferred to focus on set-up costs of infrastructure and subsidies, and stick with oil and gas. This seems like a bad call, and not just for the planet. A study from the Oxford Martin School published in Joule this week finds that decarbonising the world’s energy systems by 2050 would save $12 trillion. It’s a probabilistic study based on the legacy energy sector’s consistent failure to predict how fast renewable energy’s unit costs would fall. Why would they stop falling now?


Russia coup? 
Surely it’s time? The war is going badly. Azerbaijan is killing Russians on its border with Armenia. Sanctions are hurting. Oligarchs are miserable. When are Putin’s people going to turn against him? Julia Ioffe in Puck asks the doyenne of liberal Russian journalism, Evgenia Albats, and gets this answer: “I don’t think it’s a stupid question, but I do think it’s too early.” Albats explains that no one trusts anyone in contemporary Moscow, so the basis for successful plotting doesn’t exist – and of course, Putin has contrived things so that unlike in Soviet times there is no mechanism to choose his successor. None of this means his inner circle won’t eventually lose patience, but Ukraine and its Nato allies need to keep the hammer down. 

Thanks for reading. Please do share your thoughts and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Tom Pilston, Getty Images

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