Could we ever have another English republic?
While republicanism currently remains an underground interest, there is a real risk it could grow once Charles assumes the throne
When I wrote a book called The Crown in Crisis, I thought that the title was referring to the abdication crisis of 1936. Judging by the events of the past week, it appears that I could have instead been alluding to current affairs which have plunged the Royal Family into a debacle that makes their other recent trials and tribulations seem almost irrelevant in comparison.
It began, of course, with Harry and Meghan giving Oprah Winfrey the most talked-about TV interview in years, in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex discussed racism, abuse, their personal security and, incongruously, the joys of keeping chickens. It has continued with Prince William making the on-camera statement that the Royals “are very much not a racist family”, and Piers Morgan quitting his show Good Morning Britain amid a refusal to apologise to Meghan for stating: “I don’t believe a word she said … I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report”, as he described her behaviour as “contemptible”.
Other than Prince William’s comment, the only public statement the Royal Family have made was a short one put out last Tuesday evening. Keen observers of both language and politics will have had a field day analysing the loaded terms in it. Beginning “the whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan”, it went on to say that “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning”. The first obvious disagreement with Harry and Meghan’s much-prized “truth” was the argument that, “Some recollections may vary”, even as the statement conceded, “they are taking it very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately”.
Very few other national institutions depend so greatly on the health a 94-year-old woman
The statement ended: “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.” It cannot just be me who thought on Michael Corleone’s words from The Godfather, delivered to his traitorous brother: “Fredo, you’re my older brother and I love you. But don’t take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” Yet it is entirely clear, for all the formal protestations of love, honour, duty and respect, which side the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have taken. They have headed to California, the land of sun, Spotify deals and Oprah Winfrey confessionals, and if they can cause terminal damage to the Royal Family in the process, then that is a fitting reprisal for the hurt and offence caused to them both over the years, as well as a karmic act of revenge for the insults offered to Harry’s mother Princess Diana.
It is taken as read that Britain will never become a republic unless something seismic occurs. This, I believe, is a comforting fantasy, rather than a reflection of the world as it currently stands. If one leaves aside the arguments of tradition and patriotism, and instead concentrates on the role of the Royal Family in the twenty-first century, then one is faced with a contradictory, amorphous institution; one seemingly riddled to its core with uncertainty about what is going to happen when its most popular member, the Queen, dies. Very few other national institutions depend so greatly on the health a 94-year-old woman.
While it has been discussed as to what will happen if Elizabeth becomes too infirm to continue her scaled-back duties, it is extremely doubtful that she will ever abdicate the throne. Her uncle Edward VIII made the whole idea of abdication an essentially impossible one for any monarch to contemplate for generations, and this, coupled with her lifelong dedication to duty, means that she will almost certainly remain sovereign until she dies.
The idea of duty when it comes to British royal responsibility is a hard one to grasp in 2021. There is something almost monastic, despite the enormous wealth and luxurious trappings, about belonging to a family that arouses unparalleled public interest while continuing to perform one’s functions without any overt display of individual bias or favour.
Yet, when the Queen finally dies, things will become very interesting. Then, republican elements within the country that have remained silent will feel emboldened by recent revelations to have their say, loudly attacking a racist, bigoted and deeply anachronistic institution with the fervour and righteousness of the true believers. What could be more appropriate for our febrile times, after all, than cancelling the monarchy?
A particular problem for royalists lies with the man who will presumably be king: Prince Charles. The British people know paradoxically more and less about Charles than about virtually any of their future rulers. His reputation just about survived his divorce from Princess Diana, and he and his advisers have since assiduously attempted to present him as a thoughtful, quasi-intellectual figure, with a Cambridge degree to boot and sincere interests in architecture, environmental issues and his charitable foundation, the Prince’s Trust.
His second marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles was skilfully stage-managed to avoid any of the controversy that it might have faced a generation before, and he remains relatively popular as a royal, even if his portrayal as a weak, vacillating adulterer in the most recent series of The Crown was a deeply unflattering one. A recent survey placed him below his mother, father, sister, sons and daughter-in-law Kate, but above Meghan, his brothers and assorted minor figures.
We have now become immune to the defenestration of our leaders on a regular basis
Yet there is an enormous sense of doubt as to what kind of king Charles will be. He is said to want to call himself George VII, thereby remove any association with his two predecessors: the only British ruler to have been executed and his son, the so-called “Merry Monarch”. However, he could decide to name himself Edward IX, and acknowledge the striking similarities between the two men. Both grew up emotionally isolated, detached from their parents, and felt that their younger brother was the favourite of the family. Both had a penchant for older, married women and pursued high-profile affairs with them, much to the unease and disapproval of their courtiers.
And, crucially, both saw themselves as innovators and disruptors, long before Harry and Meghan sought to change matters so dramatically. Charles has openly referred to himself as a “dissident prince”, who sought to use his standing to exert influence in his so-called “black spider memos”. As his former press secretary Mark Bolland put it:
[Charles] routinely meddled in political issues and wrote sometimes in extreme terms to ministers, MPs and others in positions of political power and influence … He was never party-political, but to argue that he was not political was difficult … I remember on many occasions seeing in these day files letters which, for example, denounced the elected leaders of other countries in extreme terms, and other such highly politically sensitive correspondence.
It remains unclear as to whether Charles has ever had any direct control over government or national issues. Even the Guardian, no friend to the monarchy, observed on the much-contested 2015 release of his letters to ministers that, “The letters show that behind that curtain, most of the time, Prince Charles behaves more as a bit of a bore on behalf of his good causes than as any sort of wannabe feudal tyrant.” It seems unlikely that he would attempt to bring the BBC – or its rival GB News – under royal control, for instance. But he will be the oldest (or “longest-serving”) Prince of Wales ever to become king, and one could be forgiven for thinking that, like his great-uncle, he will be keen to be a new ruler for a new era.
However, Charles knows that he is less popular than his eldest son and daughter-in-law, and that there will be substantial, if unspoken, pressure on him either to step down altogether in favour of William, or alternatively to be a benign but largely ineffectual figure while his son is entrusted with the modernisation or gradual diminution of the monarchy. Given how long he has waited to rule, neither of these options can seem especially appealing.
Instead, it is more likely that he will attempt to begin his reign energetically and actively, while hoping that he can build on the national goodwill his mother has engendered over the past eight decades. Should he succeed, then the monarchy will continue and whispers of republicanism will fall away. But if he fails, then there is the possibility that the so-called “men in grey suits” will be required to step in to save the monarchy.
Without a high-profile champion to promote it, republicanism remains an underground interest
It is unlikely that we would be as shaken as our grandparents and great-grandparents were in 1936 if such a thing were to happen. We have now become immune to the defenestration of our leaders on a regular basis, and Prince Andrew’s banishment from royal duty for his dual crimes of consorting with Jeffrey Epstein and humiliating himself in a Newsnight interview has prepared the world for the possibility that a similar event might occur once more. It is hard to think of the crime that Charles could commit that would result in public scandal on this level, but we live in a less deferential and more assertive age than Edward VIII did.
Just as Charles’s younger son has now decided to abandon the joyless grind of a life lived under perpetual scrutiny, so his father may yet decide that his final years could be more happily spent tending his garden than attempting to follow in his mother’s shadow. If he did become the second monarch in English history to abdicate, then all eyes would be on William, and the question would then be simple: could he be another George VI, bringing stability back to the institution of the monarchy, or is the idea of a republic so very distant?
The answer will determine the very institution’s future. Without a high-profile champion to support and promote it, republicanism remains an underground interest, and those with an interest in historical precedent might usefully point out that the only time that England did exist as a republic, between 1649 and 1660, still has its efficacy debated by historians today. Yet the monarchy will be reinvented, for better or worse, over the coming years, and the results of this reinvention remain a much more vital concern than the admittedly diverting soap opera of the Sussexes and their travails.
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