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The monarchy in context

How has it survived?

Artillery Row

The question of whether the monarchy could survive became an issue of greater prominence in the early 2020s. The background had been laid, however, in the 1960s, when there was a significant breach in the continuity of both society and political culture. 

A decline of formality in all respects was increasingly apparent, whilst the visual identifiers of class, position and status were mocked, abandoned and became less common. Respect for the monarchy, the Church of England, Parliament, the legal system, the military, the nation’s past, unwavering support for the union of Scotland, for the landed Protestant ascendancy in Northern Ireland and for much else, including the rural railways destroyed after the Beeching Report, were all eroded. This erosion occurred in response to a widespread mood for change expressed in terms of shifts in the understanding of gender, youth, class, place, nation and race. 

At the same time, the monarchy was no simple passive counter. A major part of the Queen’s effort was the idea that the Commonwealth could be a lasting and successful sequel to the Empire, with their nations all equal. There was some success for the Commonwealth for a while, not only in Britain where I can remember several visits to the Commonwealth Institute, but also across much of the former empire as a new international identity was defined. Indeed the Commonwealth became a way to maintain links and to align the Non-Aligned World with the West in the shape of Britain.

However, it proved difficult to sustain this achievement. Few Britons, beside Elizabeth II, took much interest in the Commonwealth from the late 1980s. As a force for identity, it succumbed to the reality of different concerns and roles. These included Britain’s trans-Atlantic links and its European role as a member of the European Economic Community, later European Union, from 1973 to 2019. The closing of the Commonwealth Institute in London was more widely symptomatic. Originally established by royal charter in 1887 as the Imperial Institute, its name was changed to the Commonwealth Institute in 1958. Following its sale in 2007, it became the home of the Design Museum in 2016. Similarly, after a very brief and unsuccessful history, the newly-established British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol closed in 2009.

Such an account provides a bleak background for the continuation of monarchy, making it appear an aspect of the past that has somehow temporarily avoided the bullet of time. This process can then be explained in terms of conservatism, the “false consciousness” of much of the public and, separately, the personal popularity of the Queen. From this perspective, the writing is on the wall for monarchy. There is discussion as to whether Charles III, whom the Queen before her death ensured would already be head of the Commonwealth, will be the last monarch. Public speculation in modern times about the future of the monarchy has never been so sustained.

It is apparently safer with a hereditary system than a superficially elective one

Two caveats can at once be offered. First, commentators have earlier noted considerable change that made much or all of the ancien régime appear dated, if not redundant. Democracy, industrialisation, large-scale urbanisation and Modernism can all be considered in that light. The relevance of George V to the 1920s of electricity and the motorcar can also be questioned. Yet monarchy had translated well to the practicalities of the possible, as with George V’s radio broadcasts, appearance at football matches and visits to people’s homes. With respect to democracy as measured by the extensions to the franchise in 1918 and 1928 to include all men and women aged 21 or above, instead of its leading to republicanism or Communism, the Conservative or Conservative-dominated ministries held power for most of the period 1918–2022, whilst Labour ministries were scarcely radical, let alone republican.

Monarchy could move to the modern. This was seen by a host of gestures and moments during Elizabeth II’s reign. They took very varied forms, as befitted her activities and responsibilities. The royal walkabout began in Coventry in 1970. From 1993 parts of Buckingham Palace were opened to tourists. The Jubilee tours from 1977 revealed great popularity. In 1987, she amended the statutes of the most distinguished of British chivalric orders, the Order of the Garter, to permit the admission of women on terms equal to those of the Knights Companion of the Order. In 2002, the celebration of her Golden Jubilee brought carnival dancers and gospel singers into the Mall. In 2001, the Queen visited the EastEnders set, whilst Charles III featured in an episode of Coronation Street in 2000 and of EastEnders in 2022. The 2012 Diamond Jubilee was folded in with the London Olympics, but there were 9,500 road closures to permit street parties.

For the Platinum Jubilee in 2022, the Local Government Association predicted more than 16,000 approved street parties, including 475 in Hertfordshire, but about 15 million people taking part in neighbourhood events, including eight million in street parties. The Jubilee saw a number of activities close to the Crown, from a 124-gun salute from the Tower of London and a service of thanksgiving for the Queen’s reign at St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Epsom Derby.

The entire occasion served as a reminder of the role of the monarchy in collective identity. It offered an opportunity for the British to consider who they were supposed to be and what they once were. It also was a major factor in tourism. Without monarchy, there was not the pomp and circumstance joining all these elements.

In the European case, monarchy has been shown to be compatible with the idea of the irresistibility of the democratic impulse. The reign-not-rule model is to the fore, with seemingly little fear of a Putinesque figure emerging. It is apparently safer that way with a hereditary system than with a superficially elective one.

The survival of monarchy then is a classic instance of the nature of history. It invites discussion in terms of the fundamental contrast between interpretations that see change as arising due to crisis and those that emphasise adaptability. The latter is very much part of the self-image of the monarchy and, indeed, an aspect of an understanding of monarchy in a society that is inherently changing, not least due to its embrace of multicultural ideology and practice. Monarchy has to adapt to this. Alternatively, the emphasis on crisis would focus on the culture wars of the early 21st century and argue that the contention and controversies involved make such adaptability more difficult, if not impossible.

A presidency could represent the continuation of monarchy in another form

The response to imminent change at the top in the early 2020s played through this issue. There were questions of how Charles would be able to match the difficulties posed by his mother’s legacy of quiet service and, separately, public expectations about the monarchy now and in the future. In particular, the directness of Charles as Prince of Wales, and his strong commitment to environmental and legacy issues, may be less easy to accept and manage once he is king, not least as it serves as a major contrast to Elizabeth II’s circumspection. In 2022, he caused controversy with his views on the expulsion of illegal immigrants. The constitutional relationship between Crown and Parliament requires a sense of tradition, decorum and practical politics.

Conversely, Charles’s environmental concerns may make him appear particularly relevant, along with his commitment to being a “monarch of all faiths”. There are choices to be made, and these also reflect a theme frequently seen, of how the personalities of monarchs make them effective or ineffective rulers and contribute to the evolution of the monarchy. The Prince’s Trust has played a very major role in philanthropy, just as the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme remains crucial to a broad concept of education. Other major commitments included that of the highly effective Princess Anne to the Save the Children Fund.

In his Telegraph interview of June 2022, Gordon Brown, a former Prime Minister, remarked:

My advice to the monarchy … is not to be seen all the time in aristocratic settings, but to meet people where they are in all the different communities of the country. And the danger for any privileged group of people who have got status and power in this country, is that they’re remote from the people they represent.

Royals have sometimes appeared to have difficulties in matching public moods. There was, for example, the questioning of Prince Andrew’s personal life — notably his grave lack of judgement over his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. Very differently, there was controversy that surrounded the alleged royal response to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan. The latter came to the fore as the issue appeared to undercut suggestions of modernity and openness to multiculturalism. In practice, there has been a greater degree of scepticism in Britain than in America towards the Sussexes, as with a critical Hilary Rose in the Times on 19 May 2022 imagining the Duchess telling Netflix:

We have to keep slagging off the entire royal family to keep ourselves in the public eye … Our goal was always to make a modern royal family … 

The resentments manifested by the Sussexes appear to many to be narcissistic and self-important.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) have so far had a far less bumpy ride from the media because they are generally regarded as selfless and conscientious. Their tour to the West Indies in 2022 was treated as a failure, due to datedness of scenes like taking the salute from an open land rover, but the scale of the opposition they encountered was exaggerated. Moreover, it is natural that independent countries there should envisage a republican future. In a 1999 referendum, Australia rejected by about 55 to 45 per cent removing the Queen as head of state, but a new republican government under an open republican was elected in 2022.

Birth of Elizabeth II:

“I have a feeling the child will be Queen of England and perhaps the last sovereign.”

Diary of “Chips” Channon, 21 April 1926


There were three main questions in 2022 about the British monarchy. First, would it survive; secondly, in what form; and thirdly, what role would it have outside Britain? There was also the question of how far Britain, let alone the United Kingdom, could continue to operate. In particular the prospect of once independent Scotland maintaining monarchical links was increasingly problematic. Even more with the future of monarchy in Northern Ireland, as the possibility of the reunification of Ireland gathered pace there following elections in Northern Ireland in 2022.

Monarchy appeared redundant to many. That was not so much a comment on Prince Charles, who has earned more respect in recent years, as a product of the profound respect and deep affection felt for Queen Elizabeth. The latter poses a formidable challenge to Charles. Yet the reign of Edward VII, following that of Victoria, shows that it is still possible to make a significant contribution in this context.

Those who thought monarchy redundant remained a clear minority — one that was restricted by the difficulty of agreeing on any specific replacement. In some respects, a presidency would represent the continuation of monarchy in another form. Moreover, the history of monarchy suggested an ability to regenerate the institution and its work that holds out hope for the future — both for the monarchy and for Britain.

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