As the Jubilee celebrations fade away and the bunting is taken down, the tables and chairs put back inside, and the last of the cake eaten, a new era will come upon us and the British monarchy. The Platinum Jubilee celebrations are the seeming crescendo to centuries of monarchy on these isles. It is unlikely we will come together as a country to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II again, apart from at her funeral. There is no questioning the legacy she has garnered over the course of her public life. She has single-handedly sustained the royal family through arguably the longest period of social reconfiguration ever seen in this country. One BBC article even named her ‘the Comforter-in Chief’.
Times are certainly changing regarding public opinion on the monarchy, as YouGov highlighted in a 2021 analysis titled ‘Young Britons are turning their backs on the monarchy’. The growing discontent depicted in the report of young people – primarily 18-24 year olds – with the monarchy represents a stark change to years past. Additionally, the entire country seems divided over Prince Charles’ imminent take over of the throne – as of the 28th April 2022 an equal 32% of people think he would do a bad or good job as King, with the rest undecided. Most dialogue regarding the future of the royal family seemingly centres around the ‘wait until the Queen is gone’ narrative. Many Republicans see her as the pinnacle of the monarchy: Graham Smith, speaking for the monarchy abolition campaign Republic, claimed “The Queen is the monarchy, the monarchy is the Queen and it’s the Queen who continues to sustain support for the monarchy.” A recent poll found support for the monarchy has declined by 13 points over the last decade.
The way in which Elizabeth has fulfilled her role as Queen – one who has, according to many, led a life of distinguished public service, and has performed her role dutifully, even as her Prime Minister partied on the same day she sat alone at her husband’s funeral – has led her to be presented as a somewhat welcome relief to the parade politics seemingly in vogue today. Indeed, any debate around the future of the monarchy requires the country to ask itself: Would I prefer Boris Johnson or the Queen as my head of state and representative to the world? The seeming abandonment of any remote sense of decency by our elected government has let the Queen stand out as a supposed role model, and the last bastion of integrity in public life.
However, whether this is entirely representative or a fair conclusion is contentious. Shielded by a loyal press that makes her seemingly invincible, the Queen has made numerous questionable decisions. The list is remarkable. For one, she has overseen negotiations to implement a clause in the Equality Act that exempt her from accountability for preventing race and sex discrimination. The Queen’s lawyers also secretly lobbied Scottish ministers to exempt her private land from legislation aimed at cutting carbon emissions – seemingly at odds with the initiatives of Charles and William. In 2010 she even attempted to use the state poverty fund to cover the cost of heating Buckingham Palace.
In fact, even the Royal family’s finances has been regarded as a ‘shady’ area. Documents recently revealed that the Queen lobbied for a law in 1970 to to conceal her “embarrassing” private wealth from the public. The estate of the monarchy is thought to be valued in the hundreds of millions – making it difficult to see why the taxpayer continues to foot the bill of much royal expenditure and security. One of the most controversial decisions in recent years has been the Queen’s decision to fund Prince Andrew’s legal bill after he was accused of sexual assault and agreement to contribute to the settlement sum – money that could be better used elsewhere in the public purse. The Queen’s yearly Sovereign Grant payment from the government was £85.9m for 2020/21 – the equivalent of £1.29 per person in the UK. The scandal around Prince Andrew has been an embarrassment for the monarchy, and the Queen’s eagerness to steer the legal case towards a settlement is perhaps emblematic of her approach to safeguarding the establishment’s public image – especially in the run up to the Jubilee. It was explicitly a clause of the settlement that Andrew’s accuser Virginia Giuffre is not allowed to talk about the case during the Jubilee year. While many believe the Queen’s position is symbolic, her actions prove otherwise, and she is actively involved in government.
Why the royal family is held in such an unjustifiably high regard, despite all these exposés, is an interesting question. The poisonous cultural wars that those who seek to divide the country and resist social progress are perpetuating in the country today have filtered their way into the royal debate. It is now ‘anti-British’ to be against the monarchy – senseless when negating the need to hold public figures, especially the head of state, to account. The reaction to the anti-monarchist organisation Republic’s billboard advertising campaign during the Jubilee has been divisive: one Conservative councillor called it “disgraceful”. Indeed, support from the monarchy, like other topics of contention, is split largely over demographic lines – 80% of Conservative voters and three-quarters of Britons aged 65 and older (74%) see the monarchy as being good for Britain, compared to 44% of Labour voters and just 24% of 18 to 24-year-olds. Jeremy Corbyn reaped the wrath of the conservative press when he chose not to sing the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. But he has a point. Is it right that our national anthem reveres nothing but our monarch? Is there not far more to our country than that?
The main reason the Queen is so beloved by her people is because her public image is so carefully curated and managed. The recent comedy skit of the Queen having tea with Paddington Bear is an example. The Queen is portrayed as a relatable, loveable old lady seeking to do good and make us laugh. Yet her private actions and dealings show that she acts cynically above the law. The choice of Paddington Bear was an unusual one as the bear is a refugee from Peru and arrived in London with a tag saying “please look after this bear”. This feels particularly ironic given the treatment of refugees in the UK today, our failure to look after each other, and the Queen’s apparent involvement in upholding discriminatory practice.
Prince Charles has been the longest heir apparent to the British throne in history. Consequently, he has had a lifetime to start public initiatives in a pioneering way. His work on projects concerning climate change have been greatly welcomed by many in the sector. A quick look at the initiatives page on his website shows he is involved in many social justice programmes such as Mosaic and A4S. While his role gives him the potential to do great things, the irony of his simultaneous position in the highest tier of aristocracy cannot be ignored. Perhaps the disillusionment with the royal family felt by many is in part due to this: as an old white rich man, is he really representative of the country today? Often it is only with economic privilege that one is able to live sustainably, as it is not always the cheapest option. Charles’ Duchy Originals Home Farm supposedly uses pioneering agricultural techniques to produce organic food in an eco-friendly way, but produce is reserved primarily for sale by Waitrose and Partners, and expensive. Given that the climate crisis necessitates mass change, true sustainability needs to mean sustainability for all, not just those that can afford it. This means that while trying to do good the monarchy can come across as out of touch, especially given their extraordinary financial circumstances. Charles has even dabbled in parliamentary intervention, like his mother, using a ‘secretive procedure’ to vet three parliamentary acts to prevent private residents on his estate from buying their own homes for decades.
Young royals are trying to be more in touch with the youth and at the forefront of this are William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Their taboo-breaking work around mental health has given the topic it welcome and needed exposure at a time when it is still a stigmatised issue. One only needs to glance at the press coverage surrounding Prince Louis at the Jubilee to see the public culture of admiration for this younger family. The contrasting treatment given to Harry and Meghan, on the other hand, suggests a continuing reluctance by the establishment to embrace a modern royal family; this should be seen as a source of national shame. It is telling that the conventional posh white family who conform to tradition – with their children dressed like they are from the 1950s – is well-received, but an interracial, only half aristocratic family were forced to break with the monarch and leave the country after being berated and harassed by people up and down the country, including the press and – allegedly – the rest of the royal family. The almost gleeful commentary of the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service announcing “Harry and Meghan are now very much second row royals” is evidence that this attitude is still pervasive today. The monarchy is inherently exclusionary; the royals can only preserve their high status by keeping it exclusive. And as of present there is seemingly no desire to engage with more diversity, and seemingly no room for an heir to be, for example, gay and accepted by the public. The idealistic view presented in the novel Red, White and Royal Blue of a queer relationship in the royal family will unfortunately remain fiction for the foreseeable, even as it is made into a film.
The Kensingtons’ recent royal tour of the Caribbean, labelled a disaster and tone-deaf, is perhaps the best example of how even those young royals are seemingly archaic – the monarchy seems to romanticise its colonial past in a disturbingly nostalgic manner. When Barbados became a republic last year, its Prime Minister described the move as a “seminal moment” which will see Barbados fully leave its colonial past behind. Prince Charles attended the ceremony and spoke of the “appalling atrocity of slavery” which he said “forever stains our history”,stopping short of a sought-after apology. The continued reluctance of the monarchy to take accountability for the institutional role it played in this atrocious exploitation is an embarrassment – especially when the Queen is still head of state in many countries where the descendants of victims continue to suffer as a result.
The debate surrounding the monarchy in the UK is emblematic of the wider issues with our government. The whole system of government in the UK is in dire need of reform. Is it right that a government elected by a minority can rule without any meaningful checks and balances? Is it right that some votes are weighted more than others (the Green Party received 2.7% of all votes cast but no seats)? Proportional representation may offer a solution, even if it potentially allows fringe extremism to gain an elected voice. But a more blatant issue is the House of Lords. Life peerages? Inherited titles? Its similarity with the monarchy is unquestionable, even in its very name – is it a coincidence the Queen’s speech is read there as opposed to in the House of Commons? Even the grandiose setting of parliament has been said to leave politicians seemingly out of touch with the people.
Any decision surrounding the monarchy must be a democratic decision. It is important that the people choose who rules them, not the other way round. Yet this premise is incompatible with the idea of monarchy and the divine right to rule. Navigating the reconciliation of the fundamentally undemocratic institution of the monarchy with more modern ideals poses a challenge. Unfortunately this has the capacity to divide the country into opposing factions – much like the Brexit vote. A rotating presidential head of state – even if only symbolic – would make possible fairer representation with our values presented abroad in a more appropriate and credible manner. Perhaps, to appease hardliners, the Monarchy could remain but only symbolically and not as heads of state; our government would no longer be ‘Her Majesty’s’ but rather ‘The People’s’.
Image credit: Unknown / Library and Archives Canada / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons