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Is the monarchy in trouble?

February 23rd, 2020

The British monarchy has its origins so far back in time, it’s easy to forget just how old it is. Its roots – in both Anglo-Saxon England and the ancient Kingdom of Alba – stretch back well over 1,000 years and it’s now comfortably into its third millennium. So, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s as stable and enduring as the rocks that form these islands themselves.

You’d be wrong. The monarchy – as an institution – is far more vulnerable than it might first appear. As the winds abate (for now) from the storms that blew through it over Prince Andrew in December and Megxit in January it’s time to contemplate its future.

If you review opinion polling for the last 30 years support for the monarchy has been remarkably stable. Republicanism has bounced up and down in the 15-25% box with monarchism itself between 65-80%. Ups and downs are more frequent than we think – there have been several crisis years in 1987, 1992, 1997, as well as 2019 – but support has quickly bounced back at Jubilees and Weddings. However, the Queen has been on the throne so long it isn’t clear how much is personal support for her rather than for the institution itself. The 1950s – when a change of reign last occurred – were a very long time ago.

Key to her success has been her understanding of the rules. The British public (by and large) support the monarchy because they value a non-partisan head of state that symbolically embodies our national story. The reflective amongst them also like the stability and continuity it provides as the centrepiece of our constitution. Prime Ministers – who might not always start as resolute royalists – are often swayed in office as they come to recognise the value of the monarchy as a diplomatic asset for the UK, as well as someone for the loneliest of officeholders to confide in.

However, avoiding politics doesn’t mean a monarch doesn’t need political skill. Queen Elizabeth is clearly a deeply conservative woman but has been good (phenomenally good) at maintaining tradition whilst trimming her sails into the winds of change throughout her reign. Key to this has been her supreme self-discipline and self-awareness of public opinion. She’s recognised the need to be as even-handed to Labour and Liberal politicians as to Conservatives, and has spent as much time soothing the ex-industrial regions of the UK and the inner cities as she has opening galas and fetes.

But this balancing act is getting harder and harder. The march of “identity politics” will make the monarchy no exemption. And what makes it particularly hard to navigate is that there is no easy line to tread – it’s about what you are as well as what you say or do. Barring a terrible tragedy, the line of succession guarantees that for at least the next 50 years we will have a series of monarchs with relatively short reigns all of which will be white, male, old, protestant and wealthy.

We’ve seen glimpses of how some of her heirs intend to handle this. Prince Harry hasn’t been shy of accusing the media of racism and sexism. And Prince William dealt a firm rebuke at the BAFTAs over its lack of diversity. Prince William became the subject of jokes from other celebrities for his trouble, including from one commentator that his statement represented the “biggest stone thrown from glassiest house”. More dangerously, in a marriage that was originally lauded as an act of inclusive modernisation, by putting race at its centre and then mismanaging the messaging Megxit could still yet actively turn a section of Britain’s population against the monarchy.

The risk for the Royals is that by embroiling themselves in this debate they will become part of it. And it’s a battle that cannot be won. In the current Labour leadership contest we’ve already had one contender put forward a referendum on the monarchy as part of his platform. Another – still in the race and arguably the most impressive so far – has self-declared as a sceptic. On the other side, you have radical Leavers arguing that the monarchy too is part of the politically-correct Establishment and, like the House of Lords, an obstacle to reform and the People’s Will.

The monarchy could easily become subject to a pincer movement from both sides and end up with a referendum on its future. This must be avoided at all costs. Whilst ‘Retain’ would be very likely to win – Britons are unlikely to agree on the alternative and support for the monarchy is still very robust in almost all areas of the country – its bedrock of support does represent a turbocharged Conservative vote (as James Kanagasooriam has written here). A referendum would establish a fissure in British life that would be unlikely to be healed ever again. A victory on 55% of the votes simply isn’t good enough for an institution that’s meant to unite the country.

So, is the Monarchy in trouble? Not yet, and all is not lost. The Queen has also overseen an unprecedented period of social, economic and cultural change over the last 67 years. Furthermore, over the next fifty, identity politics may abate as the UK becomes increasingly diverse – if so much of the population isn’t in a minority anymore then it’s harder to make the privileged argument by race.

But it shouldn’t be taken for granted. It wouldn’t take too many unforced errors for it to falter. Then, rather than being a rock of impermeable granite, we might find out the monarchy is actually more akin to a deceptively strong shale: looking to possess impressive integrity at first glance, but vulnerable to two or three sharp strikes that – taken together – would shatter the whole edifice.

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