What’s in a regnal name? The UK’s new king takes the throne

Charles III succeeded to the throne of the United Kingdom on September 8, 2022. Image by Mark Jones.

I’m sure that by now you have seen the headlines – Elizabeth II, the second-longest-reigning monarch in human history – has passed away. Her 70-year, 214-day reign was almost seven years longer than that of Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. Having taken the throne in 1952, she was a living symbol of the United Kingdom for many around the world for their whole lives, myself included. Now, her son, whom I spent my entire life calling “Prince Charles”, has succeeded to the throne as King Charles III.

Many were shocked that he took the name “Charles III”. It was widely speculated for decades that he would choose to be called George VII instead.

Wait, what? Isn’t Charles his name? Why would he be called George?

Well, when a person takes the throne as a monarch, he or she doesn’t HAVE to keep the same name. It is actually quite common for monarchs to take a different name upon their succession, called a “regnal name”. Among previous British monarchs, Queen Victoria was originally named Alexandrina, Edward VIII was called “David” by his family, and George VI was named Albert. This is why British royals are born with so many names, as it gives them a choice for how they want to be called. The new king was named “Charles Philip Arthur George” when he was born.

The reason that many people were convinced that the new king would want to be called George was because of British royal history. There have been many popular and beloved British kings named “George”, including the new king’s grandfather, who reigned during World War II. As for the two previous kings named Charles, well…

The King who was Beheaded

King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland reigned from 1625 to 1649.

The first British monarch named Charles was the son of King James VI of Scotland. When Charles was three years old, his father was proclaimed King James I of England, uniting the British Isles under his rule. James was chosen by the English Parliament because he was a Protestant; however, the versions of Protestantism in Scotland and England were quite different. Scotland preferred Presbyterianism, while their neighbors to the south famously established the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII, and his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I, transformed it into a moderately Protestant church that retained many Catholic traditions. King James had to balance the competing religious demands of his English and Scottish subjects. While this was a delicate job, James mostly succeeded, and gave us the King James Version of the Bible in the process.

Charles did not inherit his father’s tact. A man who preferred the ancient traditions and rituals of the church, he attempted to impose Anglican-style worship in Scotland. He also married a Catholic wife. Not only did he court controversy in religious matters, he also proved to be a tyrannical dictator.

Since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, English monarchs had been constitutional monarchs, whose power was limited by centuries of laws, customs, and traditions. Parliament was and is the lawmaking body of the realm, drafting the legislation that takes effect when it receives the Royal Assent. Also, the ministers who take care of the day-to-day running of the government, while technically chosen by the monarch, have to have the “confidence” of Parliament to get and to keep their jobs. Charles rejected all of this, arguing that God had chosen him to rule, and that all his subjects had to simply obey him. For 11 years, Charles didn’t call any Parliament at all and chose to rule by decree as the absolute monarchs of continental Europe at the time did.

Unsurprisingly, his subjects rebelled. Scottish rebels rose up against the king’s religious impositions. To suppress the Scottish rebellion, Charles needed to raise taxes, and only Parliament can do that. When Parliament refused to do so until the king made political concessions, he attempted to arrest five of its members while they were in session. This led Parliament to lead a rebellion of its own. The civil war ended with King Charles I arrested, tried for treason by Parliament, and executed on his own palace’s grounds.

The Embattled Philanderer

King Charles II reigned from 1660 to 1685

The second British monarch to have been named Charles was the oldest son of the first. Born in 1630, he was still a young boy when his father’s rule sparked rebellion and civil war. Upon his father’s execution, he was proclaimed King of Scotland by the Scottish Parliament, who were enraged at not having been consulted by their English counterparts about this. The young king made a deal with his Scottish subjects whereby he would accept their Presbyterian faith. The arrangement didn’t last, as England invaded and successfully conquered Scotland. Charles fled into exile, and spent the next nine years of his life doing the European royal equivalent of couch-surfing.

His fortunes changed with the political winds back home. By 1660, the regime that had killed his father and driven him out had collapsed. He was recalled back to England, and arrived in London on his 30th birthday to cheering crowds who proclaimed him King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland.

However, it was very clear from the outset that Charles’s power was going to be restricted by a Parliament that, while now filled with people who would be more compliant, still distrusted royal authority. They refused to allow their king to adopt a policy of freedom of religion, for example. It didn’t help that the king was always spending far beyond his means to both live a life of luxury and give out money over-generously. He also kept multiple mistresses and fathered as many as 14 illegitimate children, while his own wife never bore him a legitimate heir.

His reign was quite tumultuous. Much of London burned in a massive fire in 1666. Scottish Presbyterians, feeling betrayed by this king who went back on his oaths to them and reintroduced his father’s Catholic-flavored Anglicanism, rebelled against him twice. He lost a war with the Netherlands, leading to him concluding a controversial alliance with France. When his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, became a Catholic, Parliament tried to block him from taking the throne. This led to Charles II copying his father and dissolving Parliament in 1681, choosing to rule by decree. While some feared this would lead to yet another civil war, the king’s opponents backed down rather than risk a bloody conflict. Charles II would retain his absolute rule for the remaining few years of his life.

A Modern Monarch

Then-Prince Charles visiting New Zealand. Image from the New Zealand Defense Force.

Now, there are many, many things that have changed in the last 337 years. It seems exceedingly unlikely that the reign that’s beginning in 2022 will look anything like the ones that ended in 1649 or 1685. For starters, King Charles III is a very different man than the two previous British monarchs with that name.

Born in Buckingham Palace in 1948, Charles was a Baby Boomer who grew up in a time when many modern technologies we take for granted today were first becoming available. In keeping with the modern sensibilities of the day, his mother, even though she was the Queen, decided to break centuries of tradition when raising him. Rather than having a private tutor teach him in the palace, little Prince Charles would be going to school like any other British boy. Well, not like ANY British boy; of course he attended schools that served upper-class children. He also spent two years as an exchange student in Australia.

In 1969, his mother officially made him Prince of Wales, a title traditionally given to the heir to the throne. However, it was more than a mere title to him, as the prince made an effort to learn how to speak Welsh. He also spent several years serving in the Royal Navy, first as a helicopter pilot, then as the captain of a small mine-hunting ship. Famously, he married Princess Diana in 1981. Though Diana was a beloved figure around the world, and took care that her two royal boys had as normal of an upbringing as was reasonably possible, Charles never wanted to marry her, and carried on an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Naturally, this led to their divorce in 1996. Diana was tragically killed in a car accident the following year. Eventually, Charles would marry Camilla in 2005, and upon his ascension to the throne, she has taken the title “Queen Consort”, the traditional title of the king’s wife.

As Prince of Wales, Charles lived a life performing numerous royal duties in support of his mother. He was patron of numerous British charities, particularly Welsh charities. He would go on tours across the UK and the other Commonwealth realms. He was a patron of the arts, an advocate for British veterans, and a supporter of various environmental causes. In between all of these things, he was also an entrepreneur; he took the landed estates that were part of his royal inheritance and turned them into an organic farm business that partners with British grocery store chain Waitrose, with all profits from every sale donated to charity.

What will the new king do?

It seems to me that many Americans don’t really understand the role of the British monarchy. We either treat the royals like we do any other celebrity, or we try to understand their role by comparing it to our own political system. Nether of these attitudes does justice to the actual position the monarch has in British politics and culture.

To better understand the British monarch’s role, you first have to understand that God put him or her in charge. That’s the legal understanding that has been long established in British constitutional theory, dating back to the middle ages, and expressed by British coins bearing the monarch’s portrait alongside the words “Dei Gratia Rex” or “Dei Gratia Regina” (King or Queen by the grace of God). That’s also why, to this day, the reigning king is also the leader of the Church of England, and every member of Parliament, soldier, police officer, judge, Anglican priest, and many more must swear a personal oath of loyalty to the king. Not to a nation, not to a constitution, but to a person.

King Charles III is now commander-in-chief of the British military and has the sole power to declare war, appoint the Prime Minister and other top government jobs, decide when Parliament convenes and when elections are held. No bill passed by Parliament becomes a law without his consent, and he is himself immune from prosecution from any crimes (since they are his laws, and he is the source of all justice). Also, he now owns all the swans, dolphins, and whales in the United Kingdom and its waters. Yes, really.

Yet, as we’ve already established, when a monarch tries to exercise too much power and becomes a tyrant, bad things can happen. That’s why monarchs have exercised restraint for centuries, allowing the elected representatives of the people to exercise political power in their name. As one website puts it, “the [King] reigns, but does not rule.”

The new king could theoretically choose whomever he wants as Prime Minister, but as Parliament can remove a PM they don’t like, he will most likely always stick to the tradition of picking the leader of the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons. He will also most likely continue the tradition of always following the PM’s advice when naming people to the other important government jobs. Indeed, for nearly two centuries, British monarchs have never exercised their theoretically immense powers in any way contrary to what the democratically-elected officials responsible to British voters want. This arrangement is called the “royal prerogative”, whereby the monarch is the one who officially makes the final decision, but only based on the “advice” of his or her ministers. Indeed, being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom means that you meet with your boss daily, and you tell him what to do, not the other way around.

The monarch must be seen as non-partisan and above the bickering of the politicians. This is because he or she is a symbol of the nation, something like a living flag. When the monarch is speaking, he or she is speaking on behalf of the entire nation. This allows for a sense of continuity and stability that you won’t see in a political system like ours in the United States, where our nation’s leader is a politician who can be incredibly controversial and despised by half the country. It also allows the British to preserve a tradition that dates back to their earliest origins while still adapting to modern times and democratic values.

So, as the British people and the world mourn the passing of an iconic queen who touched so many lives through her calm and dignified example of what “majesty” can mean, we can all now hopefully appreciate what they mean when they say:


Ukrainian History – A Cat Flag Summary

On February 24, 2022, Russian military forces launched an all-out, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It probably shocked some of you that I didn’t make any comments about this war on Cat Flag at the time, especially since Putin’s stated reason for the invasion is entirely based on his view of history, a topic I am passionate about. Well, I actually did consider writing this post back then, but felt that doing so when the invasion had just started would be in poor taste, as though I were benefiting somehow from a tragedy.

Since then, some of you Cat Flaggers have expressed to me that you are genuinely interested in learning more about this topic. Also, I have been bothered by how often I have seen people in the Western media present Putin’s actions in the Russian context without any consideration for the Ukrainian perspective. Many here in the United States know absolutely nothing about Ukraine and its history, so many wouldn’t know enough to question Putin’s claim that Ukrainians are actually just Russians or his assertion that Ukraine has “always” been a part of Russia. So, I have decided to go ahead and tackle this topic.

Ukraine’s ancient roots

Pottery from the Yamna Culture (3300-2600 BC), picture by Evgeny Genkin

The land we now call Ukraine was historically contested by many peoples throughout history, owing to its mostly low, flat geography as part of the eastern European steppes. It was prime real estate for nomadic peoples and served as the easiest route to get from central Asia into the European continent.

We have evidence that people lived in this area at least as far back as 900,000 BC, and that farming was practiced here as early as 7,000 BC. Ancient Greeks established colonies along the Black Sea coast between 600 BC and 400 BC. These colonies traded with the Scythians who dominated the inland steppes. Later, the colonies formed the Bosporan Kingdom. It flourished for centuries, but would ultimately be conquered by the Roman Empire.

Ukraine played a vital role in Rome’s fall, as its geography made it essentially a barbarian highway. Tribe after tribe moved through it on their way to claim their piece of the Empire: Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Magyars. Despite all these invasions, the Greek settlements in the Crimean peninsula clung to life as part of what remained of Rome’s eastern imperial domain, better known today as the Byzantine Empire.

By the Middle Ages, the steppes were inhabited by a new people: the Slavs. This was a period where the Slavs were expanding across eastern Europe, becoming the ancestors of many nations and ethnic groups that exist today. However, we should be careful not to lump all these Slavs together and assume they were one single group. There were numerous Slavic tribes, with no fewer than six different tribes living in the area we now refer to as Ukraine. Also, the Slavs were not the only people who settled the steppes at this time; a Turkic tribe that had converted to Judaism, known as the Khazars, lived in the southeast, and the Byzantine Empire continued to maintain a presence along the southern coast.

This is when the Vikings enter the picture. Beginning in the mid-9th century, Scandinavians sailing down eastern Europe’s rivers began to conquer the Slavic tribes they encountered. These conquests created a new realm called the Kyivan Rus’. It extended across the vast steppes and woodlands on Europe’s frontier, encompassing what would eventually become modern Belarus, northern and central Ukraine, and the European part of Russia. Kyivan Rus’s rulers developed good relations with the Byzantine Empire and officially adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988 AD.

This is the start of Putin’s version of history. The city of Kyiv (called “Kiev” by Russia) may be the capital of Ukraine today, but back then, it was the capital of Kyivan Rus’. Russia sees itself as having grown from these roots. See, in the 13th century, the Mongols invaded and conquered Kyivan Rus’. The Mongol Empire stretched from Hungary in the west to China in the East, but like all empires, its grip on power gradually started to weaken. One of the Rus’ duchies, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, managed to break free from Mongol rule and gradually expanded its power and territory until it grew to become the Russian Empire.

This is similar to how modern France claims to have its roots in Charlemagne’s empire. Yet France isn’t trying to invade and take over Germany, even though Charlemagne’s capital was located in Aachen, Germany.

What Putin doesn’t acknowledge is that Ukraine’s history diverges from Russian history at the exact moment Moscow was starting to gain power. Two other medieval powers decided to take advantage of the crumbling of the Mongol Empire: the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Each carved out vast swathes of Ukraine for themselves. In 1385, the two were united under the rule of a common monarch, so their joint rule of the Ukrainian steppe was further solidified.

The Polish and Lithuanian rulers took away many rights and freedoms of the peasants, and tried to make them Catholic. This caused many to flee into the wild lands of the east, a frontier between the areas ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the south, those ruled by Moscow in the north, and those ruled by Poland and Lithuania in the east. This is where the name “Ukraine” comes from – ukraina is the Slavic word for “borderlands”. The people in these wild borderlands were called “Cossacks”, from a Turkic word meaning “free men”. They tried to preserve their independence, but they would end up becoming a pawn of their three more powerful neighbors. In the 18th century, they, along with most of the rest of Ukraine, were swallowed up by the ever-expanding Russian Empire.

Ukraine under Russian and Soviet rule

This photo of a starving girl was taken in Kharkiv in 1933, during the Holodomor

As we can see, Ukraine was NOT always part of Russia. By the time Russia asserted control over the whole region, the people who lived there who had ancestral connections to Kyivan Rus’ developed their own separate culture shaped by western influences, and plenty of people living in the region had no ties to the Rus’ at all.

Nevertheless, Russia’s tsars would try to force all of these people to become Russian. Beginning with the reign of Catherine the Great, the tsars would make it illegal to publish anything written in Ukrainian and ban students from speaking Ukrainian in schools. Ukrainians were called “Little Russians” by the tsarist authorities. The only place where Ukrainians were free from the tsars’ boots was in Galicia, a region under Austrian rule in the western highlands and Carpathian Mountains. Here, Ukrainian intellectuals living in Lviv were able to standardize the Ukrainian language and develop Ukrainian art, literature, and culture.

During the First World War, Ukrainians fought on both sides, serving in both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies. After the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar and brought the Bolsheviks to power, Russia sued for peace with the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. This treaty ceded vast territories to Germany, including Ukraine. However, Germany and Austria-Hungary were defeated by the Western Allies later that year. This resulted in a huge power vacuum where control of Ukraine was left in a bit of a free-for-all.

Ukrainian nationalists recognized and seized the opportunity that all this chaos presented, establishing independent regimes in both the formerly-Russian and formerly-Austrian regions. On January 22, 1919, both of these independent Ukrainian governments merged to form the new Ukrainian National Republic. However, the Ukrainian nationalists faced numerous obstacles, including a German attempt to impose their own puppet government, an uprising by anarchists, an attack on Kyiv by armies loyal to the deposed tsar, a military intervention by Poland, and the ever-growing threat of the Bolsheviks. Eventually, the Bolsheviks were able to seize power and established the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which joined the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.

This is where Putin’s version of history is just plain false. He claims that Ukraine was a made-up political entity carved from Russia by the Bolsheviks. He refuses to acknowledge that Ukraine already had its own national identity and tried to gain its independence. The Bolsheviks didn’t make up Ukraine; they created the Ukrainian SSR as an acknowledgement of the distinct Ukrainian identity, recognizing that refusing to do so would make it harder to rule.

Furthermore, Ukrainians would suffer tremendously under Soviet rule. Upon taking power, Joseph Stalin decreed that all farmland was to be organized into large, government-run collective farms. In Ukraine, where most of the population were poor subsistence farmers who depended on their small plots of land for survival, many peasants refused to cooperate. Soviet propaganda demonized these impoverished Ukrainian peasants as “kulaks” – portraying them as selfish, rich landowners who opposed the Communist revolution – while Soviet officials forced these people off their land and exiled 50,000 to Siberia. Tragically, when these new collective farms failed to produce large enough harvests, a massive famine broke out across Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and parts of southern Russia known as the Holodomor. As most of the produce that Ukrainian farms were able to grow was exported to foreign countries, Ukrainian towns and villages that Stalin didn’t like were blacklisted from receiving any food rations, and all Ukrainians were banned from leaving their country. In desperation, people resorted to eating pets, flowers, tree bark, and even each other. It has been estimated that 13% of all Ukrainians died of starvation during this famine.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR during World War II, some Ukrainians initially saw them as liberators. About 4,000 Ukrainian collaborators fought alongside the Germans, and thousands of Ukrainian Jews were massacred by the Nazis with help from their neighbors. However, it did not take long for most Ukrainians to realize that the Germans were no liberators. As millions of Ukrainians were brought to Germany as slave labor, partisan resistance militias rose up against the Germans. About 4.5 million Ukrainians fought in the Soviet Red Army against Germany.

According to Putin and his propaganda, modern Ukraine’s government is run by “neo-Nazis”. This is a truly vicious lie. After World War II, Soviet authorities squelched Ukrainian nationalism by accusing its supporters of being Nazis, with Soviet propaganda pointing to those Ukrainians who helped the Germans in the initial phase of the war and lumping all Ukrainian nationalists with them.

Ukraine would remain under Soviet rule throughout the Cold War. However, the spark that would ignite Ukrainian determination to secure their nation’s independence was the Chernobyl disaster. When the infamous nuclear power plant exploded, spewing dangerous radiation across Europe, Soviet authorities initially tried to cover the disaster up and pretend nothing was wrong. Even when they could no longer deny that something had gone wrong, the true scale of the disaster was hidden as long as possible. It was clear that the Soviet authorities cared more about protecting Moscow’s image than the actual safety and welfare of the ordinary people.

Ukraine asserts its independence

A Ukrainian patriotic demonstration. Photo by Spc. Samuel Mason, Oklahoma Army National Guard

The Constitution of the USSR contained an interesting clause: “Each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR.” Now, since the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship, the words in its constitution were meaningless… until the Kremlin’s grip on power started to falter. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the many nations that had been forced to endure Soviet rule for decades rediscovered that clause and decided to use it to gain independence. In August 1991, Ukraine declared its independence.

This created a bit of an international crisis. See, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the Soviet military stationed a sizeable portion of its nuclear arsenal there, not thinking anything of it at the time. Now that the Soviet military was no longer a thing and the new Ukrainian military inherited its assets on their new nation’s soil, this gave Ukraine the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal overnight. At the time, the international community refused to allow Ukraine to keep this nuclear arsenal as they didn’t trust the new government with them, the Ukrainian public wanted to be rid of a hated symbol of their oppression, and Ukraine lacked the technical know-how to use the weapons in any case. Thus, an agreement was reached whereby Ukraine would give up these nuclear weapons in return for guarantees from the major powers of the world (including Russia) to respect their independence and territorial integrity.

Well, the old adage says hindsight is 20/20.

At the time, the Ukrainian government was led by staunch allies of Russia. The new regime, like many in the post-Soviet world, was a democracy on paper but an authoritarian regime in practice. However, this started to change in 2004, when a pro-democracy reformer named Viktor Yushchenko ran for president. The Ukrainian election of 2004 proved to be one of the most dramatic in history, with a failed attempt to poison Yushchenko, a failed attempt to rig the election against him, and massive protests in Ukraine’s streets. Eventually, the “Orange Revolution” carried Yushchenko to victory.

This was to prove a short-lived victory. See, during the many years under Russian and Soviet rule, many Russians came to live in Ukraine, and about 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their native tongue. In addition, Putin has consistently insisted throughout his time in power that all the former Soviet states remain under Russia’s domination, and he has propped up puppet regimes in many of these countries. Ukraine was therefore doomed to face an ongoing political struggle between those who supported closer ties with Russia and those who supported closer ties with the West. In 2010, a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanyukovych, was narrowly elected. To reassure his opponents, he continued negotiations with the European Union to promote closer ties. However, he abruptly cut off these negotiations in 2013, and announced a new agreement with Russia instead. This decision proved to be his undoing.

Over the winter of 2013-2014, Ukraine was paralyzed by massive public protests in many of its major cities. Yanyukovych sent the police and military to crush the protests by force. Bloodshed only hardened the protestors’ determination, and on February 22, 2014, Yanyukovich fled the country. Ukraine’s parliament declared him to have abandoned his office and called for new elections. In the aftermath, it was revealed that during his time in office, Yanyukovich had embezzled $37 billion in taxpayer money to support a lavish and luxurious lifestyle for himself.

Putin, upset at the pro-Western Ukrainians for having overthrown his puppet, decided to punish the new, democratic Ukrainian regime by invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula and fomenting pro-Russian separatist rebellions along the eastern border in the Donbass region. This, in turn, made Ukraine’s new democratic government seek allies who could help it defend itself, so naturally, Ukraine sought to join NATO and the European Union. Putin can say that the West is trying to tear Ukraine away from Russia as often as he wants, but it is actually the Ukrainians who want nothing more to do with Russia and want to join the West.

Putin’s new war in Ukraine is nothing more than an attempt to reestablish Russian domination and control over a former dominion that only wants its own freedom, no matter what he may claim it is.

More than 6.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war, many of them families with small children. A further 400,000 children are estimated to be trapped in the combat zones. If you want to help, you can donate to the highly-rated nonprofit Save the Children here. They are actively working to rescue as many of these children as possible and provide them with food, water, and medical care.

What happens if the British Prime Minister Dies?

Boris Johnson image from Chatham House

The world is full of uncertainty, so it is always prudent to have a contingency plan in case of the unexpected. For any kind of organization, the most important contingency plan to have is a succession plan, so that the organization can continue to exist and operate even if key people within it are suddenly and permanently unable to perform their tasks.

This is why monarchy is the oldest form of government in recorded human history, and why it was, for millennia, the most popular political structure in the world, independently emerging in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. “When I die, my oldest son is in charge” is a very simple and intuitive succession plan. However, when the Founding Fathers of the United States explicitly rejected monarchy, that meant they had to come up with a new succession plan for the Constitution they were writing. Thus, Article II not only created the office of President of the United States, but also created the Vice President, who is elected at the same time and takes over if something happens to the President. Good thing, too, as there have been nine times in U.S. history that the Vice President has had to step up and take over as President. What’s more, Congress has created a contingency plan for the contingency plan, passing a law listing who takes over if both the President and Vice President die or are otherwise unable to serve, creating a clear line of succession that is 17 names long.

Now, the United Kingdom is a monarchy, of course; it’s right in the name. United KINGDOM. So when the Queen eventually passes from this world, her eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, will immediately become the new king. His eldest son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will then become the new Prince of Wales and next in line to the throne. The line of succession to the British throne is quite clear, and like in the United States, there is a long list of people in that line, ensuring that come what may, SOMEONE is there to take the Crown even in the most unthinkable of circumstances.

But what about the Prime Minister?

As I write this, the world is gripped by a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease dubbed by the World Health Organization as “COVID-19”, popularly referred to as “coronavirus“. The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized and put in intensive care after contracting the virus. As of this writing, his condition has significantly improved, with his spokesperson stating he is now “able to do short walks between periods of rest”.

This scare has brought up an interesting question: what, exactly, happens if a Prime Minister dies in office? This is a question that the United Kingdom hasn’t had to face in living memory, as the last Prime Minister who died in office was Lord Palmerston in 1865. The answer isn’t exactly simple, either, and to understand it, we have to first understand the exact role the Prime Minister plays in the British political system.

The United Kingdom, unlike the United States or most other countries around the world, doesn’t actually have a formal, codified constitution. Instead, the British political system is the result of nearly 1,000 years of gradual evolution. Its “constitution”, as it were, would be a good subject for a future Cat Flag post, but for now, suffice it to say that it is based on centuries of laws, court rulings, scholarly texts considered to be “authoritative”, and plain old tradition.

The title of “Prime Minister” was originally a slang term for the minister who assumed the main leadership role on official policy within the British government, usually the First Lord of the Treasury. Indeed, as recently as 1829, the Home Secretary at the time said “nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognize in an act of Parliament the existence of such an office [as Prime Minister]”. Yet that’s exactly what Parliament did less than a century later in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, in order for the country estate named by that law to become the Prime Minister’s official country retreat.

The Prime Minister, like the other ministers serving in the British government, serves the Queen as her adviser, administrator, and liaison with Parliament. He is chosen by her and serves so long as he keeps her and Parliament happy. He isn’t even all that high-ranking; in the British order of precedence, the Prime Minister ranks 17th, behind the Archbishop of York.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu image by Iamwisesun

This guy outranks the Prime Minister.

Yet, in the great contradiction that is British politics, the Prime Minister is the one who actually runs the government of the United Kingdom. He is the boss of the British civil service, the most senior politician in Parliament, the leader of the political party in power (more on that in a moment), the architect of the British government’s foreign and domestic policy, and the public face of British politics.

The job of Prime Minister is just about the only one where you can tell your boss what to do and she does it. While the Queen could appoint whomever she likes to important political offices, she always appoints the person the Prime Minister wants in that role. The Queen summons and dismisses Parliament when he “advises” her to do so. The Queen signs treaties with foreign nations, but the Prime Minister is the one who dictates how the negotiations are to be handled to the Foreign Minister. The Queen is the Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and is the one who declares war, but the Minister of Defense, who manages the day-to-day running of the military and sets defense policy, reports to the Prime Minister.

So, how is the Prime Minister chosen? Again, the Queen could pick whomever she wants, but she always bases her decision on the outcome of the most recent Parliamentary election.

The House of Commons, the democratically elected part of the Parliament, is made up of 650 Members of Parliament or “MP’s” who represent local districts. The leaders of the major British political parties are always MP’s from a “safe” district that always votes for that party, and if one party commands an outright majority of all the seats in the House of Commons, the Queen picks the leader of that party to be her Prime Minister. If, however, no one political party has won a majority, then the Queen picks the party leader who can show her that he or she can get the “confidence” of the majority, usually by forming a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties to squeak over that “majority” threshold.

In this way, the Prime Minister is sort-of democratically accountable. If the people don’t like a Prime Minister, they will be more likely to vote for the other party at the next election. Not only that, but a Prime Minister can be dismissed by the House of Commons if they pass a “vote of no confidence” in his or her government. If that happens, the Queen gives the House 14 days to sort itself out, either through the Prime Minister regaining the House’s confidence or through the main opposition party’s leader showing he or she has the House’s confidence. If neither of these things happen, she calls for a new election.

What about contingency plans, though? What if something happens to the Prime Minister?

Well, while we haven’t seen too many vacancies at 10 Downing Street caused by a Prime Minister’s death, we have seen quite a few caused by a resignation. David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister in 2016, and was succeeded by Theresa May. She stepped down last year, and that led to Boris Johnson taking the job.

Interestingly, all three of these Prime Ministers have been the head of the Conservative Party. Since the Conservatives have held the “confidence” of the House of Commons continuously during this time, the Queen automatically appointed the new leader of the party as the new Prime Minister in each of these instances. This meant the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister was, for all practical intents and purposes, decided by the Conservatives through their own, internal leadership election. As we will recall from a recent Cat Flag, political party membership is quite rare outside the United States, and so it was that in the summer of 2019 the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister of a nation of more than 67 million people was effectively decided by 139,318 voters.

At least in the case of a resignation, though, the current Prime Minister can stay in office for a few months while the party holds its election and decides on his or her replacement. Not so in the case of a death.

Yet there is no other procedure in the British political framework to replace a Prime Minister mid-term. There is no Vice-Prime Minister. There sometimes is a “Deputy Prime Minister”, but this is just an honorary title given to a minister in order to boost their prestige, often as a reward to the leader of a coalition party for supporting the Prime Minister’s party. Also, there isn’t currently a Deputy Prime Minister.

So, right now, while Boris Johnson recovers in the hospital, the next-most-senior minister, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, has taken over and is running the government as the United Kingdom deals with the pandemic emergency.

Dominic Raab image by Richard Townshend

Raab’s seniority is symbolized by the honorary title “First Secretary of State” indicating his status. Just as with “Deputy Prime Minister”, the title doesn’t inherently come with any responsibilities, as indicated by the fact that the official website of the United Kingdom’s government leaves the “Responsibilities” section on the page describing the office blank. Yet, it means that he is the second-highest-ranking minister, so it makes sense that he would step into this role so the government isn’t without a leader during a time of crisis.

It’s here where I’m going to start speculating. The world has changed since 1865, and no nation can go without proper leadership for an extended period of time, especially in a time of crisis. I think it is most likely that in this day and age, if a Prime Minister were to die in office, the Queen would probably name the First Secretary of State as a sort of interim Prime Minister until the majority party in the House of Commons can choose a new leader. However, if she were to do this, it would be the first time since the reign of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, that a British monarch had chosen a Prime Minister without consulting Parliament. Such a decision would probably be controversial.

However, it is possible that the case of the hospitalized Prime Minister might galvanize the British political system to finally put in place a proper contingency plan and set some rules as to what should happen in the case of a Prime Minister who dies in office.

Why is housing so expensive in California?

Los Angeles has more than 15,000 homeless residents living in their vehicles. In San Francisco, the median home price is $1.4 million, 59% of Silicon Valley tech workers can’t afford a place to live, and 88% of all households can’t afford to purchase a home. In San Diego, some have turned parking lots into de facto apartment complexes whose “residents” live out of their cars. Silicon Valley firm MainStreet has gone so far as to pay $10,000 for some employees to relocate out-of-state. Facebook is donating millions to build an apartment complex for teachers.  Apple has pledged to spend $2.5 billion to do what it can to alleviate the housing crisis.

The cost of housing has steadily increased since 2012, according to Zillow, which at the time of this writing lists the median California home price as $550,800. Four of the top five most expensive metro areas for housing are in California. Indeed, the cost of housing in California is one of the main reasons cited by people who either have left the state altogether or are considering doing so. Indeed, about half of Californian voters have considered moving out of state. Not surprising when Californians spend more than half their income on housing.

Except, that doesn’t actually make sense. In 2018, 700,000 people left California. This marks the eighth year in a row that the number of Californians moving away has increased, an the 15th that the state has experienced a net population loss. A basic understanding of supply and demand would make one think California’s housing prices should be going down, not up.

For comparison, neighboring Arizona’s median housing price is half of California’s. Now, you may say, that’s Arizona, a land of arid deserts with 100+ degree weather for much of the year. Yet Oregon, another state on the beautiful and temperate West Coast, is still far cheaper than California for housing. On the East Coast, meanwhile, states like South Carolina are cheaper even than Arizona.

So, why is California’s housing so expensive?

Because California hasn’t built enough houses.

I mean, on the surface, that seems like an obvious answer. If demand is decreasing, but prices are still rising, it logically follows that the demand must still be far higher than the supply. California’s high housing costs are a simple result of there being too many people trying to buy or rent places to live in California. Mystery solved!

Except, that immediately leads to a follow-up question: why hasn’t California built enough homes?

There are a few reasons. For starters, building in California is difficult. Look at a map of the state, and you will see a rugged terrain of mountains and coastlines that aren’t exactly amenable to tons of construction.

California map from the USGS

Not only that, but California is a known for its earthquakes, presenting architects and engineers with an expensive challenge to make structures that will be safe when the ground shakes. Then there’s the wildfires, some of which have recently destroyed once-thriving communities. News headlines like this raise safety concerns about letting new developments sprawl into areas that could be vulnerable to fires, such as forested hills and mountains.

Another factor is the labor pool. The housing crisis is something of a self-reinforcing vicious cycle. The types of skilled and unskilled labor that are required for a healthy construction industry don’t generally pay enough to afford the cost of housing in California, and that means a shortage of construction workers and higher labor costs for construction projects. This, in turn, makes it harder to build affordable housing.

Even with these factors taken into account, there is still another key reason that housing in this state is so expensive that popped up again and again in the sources I found when researching this topic: the state and local governments.

Let’s say you want to build a brand-new affordable housing complex in some California community. First, you better do your research: California has extensive land-use regulations that have increased in number year after year for decades, making it far harder to even get a land-use permit. Next, you have to have your proposal reviewed by a myriad of government agencies and bureaucracies, each of which can place additional restrictions you have to abide by in order to get permission to build (making your project more expensive). This process can take months, by the way.

Oh, and let’s not forget that you are building in CALIFORNIA, a state that has a long history of taking environmentalism seriously. Any new building project has to have its environmental impact assessed, a process that can literally take years.

Did I mention that you have to pay fees at every stage of this process? Many of these fees are not exactly easy to learn about in advance, either, with hidden fees bringing up the total you would have to pay up to 18% of the cost of your project in some jurisdictions.

Then, you have to get the final approval from the city council or county board of supervisors. These local politicians are under immense pressure from NIMBY voters (short for “Not In My BackYard”), most of whom already own property in the community and like having high housing prices as it makes their own homes more valuable. They will probably give long-winded speeches about how your development could “change the character” of their community. Pressure from these voters have already pushed quite a few communities to adopt laws that explicitly restrict housing growth.

Now, a few observant Cat Flaggers may be wondering, “Won’t the high housing costs cause these people to have to pay skyrocketing property taxes?” Well, no, thanks to a 1978 ballot initiative passed by California voters known as Prop 13. This law caps the property taxes that can be assessed on housing. Basically, California bases property taxes on the value of a home at the time of purchase, and only allows a slight annual inflation increase. This means that Californians who have owned their home for decades are taxed far lower than the actual current market value of their property would indicate.

This law is incredibly popular among Californians, especially homeowners (for obvious reasons). Yet one big unintended side-effect is that it eliminates the incentive for local governments to approve residential developments. The city or county would earn far more revenue from approving a retail store.

Is it any wonder, then, that California’s housing is so expensive? It is remarkably difficult and expensive to even get a housing project past all the immense red tape that the state and local governments put up and all the objections of those who already have their own houses. Add onto this the higher cost of labor and the practical challenges of even building in California, and it seems a miracle that any housing is built here at all. A report in 2016 by McKinsey & Company says California needs 3.5 million new homes in the next six years to alleviate this crisis, yet the system is stacked against housing construction at every step. Meanwhile, California is now home to one out of four homeless Americans.

Thus, we can see that burdensome regulations, a voter-mandated tax policy, and the high cost of construction in California have left people stuck either scrambling and competing against each other to be able to find any housing at all, or giving up altogether and leaving for other states. Until all of these problems are addressed, this crisis will only continue.

2019: The Year the Public Domain Returns to the U.S.

A screenshot from “Safety Last!”, a 1923 film that is now in the public domain in the United States

It’s January 2019 at the time of this writing, and already the news media’s biggest headlines are about the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. In my opinion, it seems that the news for the last few years has been so laser-focused on the seemingly nonstop drama in Washington, D.C. that it has forgotten that there are other things happening in the world. For example, a really big news story slipped right under the news media’s radar when the clock ticked over to January 1st this year. For the first time in 20 years, the copyrights on American works were allowed to expire.

I have talked about copyright and the public domain here on Cat Flag before, but just to review: creative works such as books, paintings, photographs, films, music and sound recordings, video games, etc. are protected by copyright law so that people who put their time and energy into creating these works are able to recoup their expenses and make a living. This gives people an incentive to be creative, and a legal way to stop others from ripping them off by stealing (or “pirating”) their hard work. Anything that isn’t copyrighted is “public domain” and free for anyone to use as they please – things like folktales, classical literature, and historical artworks fall into this category.

For example, the legends surrounding King Arthur are all public domain.

This means that if you wanted to, say, make your own movie about King Arthur with a stylized, modern, urban flair where our legendary king is basically also Robin Hood somehow, well, that’s exactly what Guy Ritchie and Warner Bros. did. And all those original elements that they put into that movie are copyrighted.

The goal of copyright is to encourage creativity and fill the public domain with new ideas, so copyright is, by necessity, temporary. However, the length of time that works are under copyright has changed over time as copyright law has changed. The Copyright Act of 1976 laid the foundations of our modern copyright system. Previously, you had to register your copyright and renew it every few years, but now copyright protection begins automatically when your work is “fixed in a tangible medium”. It also held that works published before 1978 would automatically have their copyright terms extended to 75 years from first publication, except those that were already in the public domain. Furthermore, the law now would differentiate between works copyrighted by a single human being, whose copyrights would expire 50 years after their death, and those owned by corporations, whose copyrights would expire in 75 years.

Then in 1998, with Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act. This law extended everyone’s copyrights by an additional 20 years. Ostensibly, this law was passed to bring U.S. copyright law into harmony with the copyright laws of other countries, but the law’s many critics at the time called it the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” as the Disney corporation’s lobbyists were the ones pushing the hardest for the new law. Before the law was passed the copyrights on the first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie (1928), would have expired in 2003, and now they won’t expire until 2023. In effect, the law placed a 20-year freeze on new works entering the public domain.

Well, the freeze is over. Any work published in 1923 entered the public domain this year. Well, except for audio recordings, which are covered under a separate law and will remain copyrighted until 2022, though the sheet music for these songs are now public domain. Feel free to dance to the Charleston, America!

This leads to the question of what, exactly, is now in the public domain thanks to this change. It turns out, quite a lot!

Here’s Cecile B. DeMille’s original film The Ten Commandments:

Here’s the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim:


Here’s some adventure on the Oregon Trail from the western The Covered Wagon:

The first ever Broadway play by an African-American playwright, The Chip Woman’s Fortune, is also now in the public domain, so you can freely make your own stage production of it, or perhaps turn it into a novelization, or a movie!

The list of books that are now in the public domain includes Tarzan and the Golden Lion by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, New Hampshire by Robert Frost, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton, and even the first two volumes of Winston Churchill’s account of the First World War, The World Crisis. Those with an interest in cooking and historical recipes will be happy to know that Jessie Conrad’s A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House is now public domain as well. Feel free to share its recipes with all your friends!

Pigeons with Carrots

Split the roasted pigeons in halves and lay cut side down in a stone saucepan with half a claret glass of white wine, pepper and salt, with four carrots cut lengthwise, each into eight pieces then cut across.  Add a little meat juice.  Put enough water to just cover the pigeons.  Stew gently for three-quarters of an hour.  Thicken with a little flour and water and serve in the stone saucepan, or a deep dish.

Um…. moving on…

The book that I, personally, am the most excited about entering the public domain in the U.S. is The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. This is the second book featuring Christie’s famed fictional detective, Hercule Poirot. Beginning this year, the successive books in the Poirot series will begin entering the public domain, one by one. Under U.S. law, as affirmed by the courts in the case Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate that involved the copyright status of another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, characters that originate in public domain works are public domain as a result. That means you can make your own works featuring Holmes or Poirot, as long as you don’t use any elements that are specific to those books that are still under copyright.

At least, that’s the case in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Christie’s home country, all of her works will remain copyrighted until 2046. So, I guess if you want your Hercule Poirot video game to be sold across the pond, you will still have to pay royalties to Christie’s estate.

In the coming years, as more copyrights expire and more works enter the public domain, it will be very interesting to see what new and creative inspiration people will take from these works. I look forward to seeing what people come up with.

Having said that, the real test will be what happens to Mickey Mouse, who is slated to enter the public domain in 2023. Disney must have figured it won’t be able to ram another copyright extension act through Congress, so it has trademarked the character. Trademarks identify brands, logos, and other identifiers of corporations, so people can identify the source of their goods. Unlike copyrights, a trademark can theoretically last forever. Will the courts allow Disney to continue “owning” Mickey Mouse? Only time will tell.

Tick, tock, tick, tock!