Britain in numbers

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September 13, 2022

Will the monarchy last?

Britain’s republican movement often enjoys the equivalent of mid-term parliament polling bounces, but it never endures.

By Ben Walker

What would it take for Britain to abandon its monarchy? Anger is unlikely to cut it – this isn’t a revolutionary country. Irritation at the new king on a more personal level? What about the lavishness of the royal household against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis? Or the association between the royal family and Britain’s colonial past?

I suspect none of these will help the republican movement to achieve success. Present republicans may be hopeful – many have, with great enthusiasm, been trying in recent days to conflate the Queen with the legacy of Empire. But to win over a majority of the public you can’t just preach to the choir. You have to change the minds of Britons who, for as long as they’ve lived, have been quiet supporters of the status quo.

Republicans might take heart from the fact that younger Britons are increasingly indifferent to the idea of the monarchy. In May this year slightly more 18- to 24-year-olds told YouGov that they were in favour of retaining the system than ditching it. The largest proportion, however, 36 per cent, were undecided.

Anti-royalists might see an opportunity to turn this indifference into support for an elected head of state. There have been numerous occasions, charted by public opinion surveys, when a scandal or event has moved entire generations towards scepticism of the monarchy. This isn't an entirely modern phenomenon either: in the mid to late 1800s, when Victoria retreated from public view following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, recorded republican activity intensified. Politicians were concerned the queen wasn’t proving herself relevant to the country, and so the country responded accordingly. Similar shifts in sentiment have been linked to the perceived delay in the response of the royal family to the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the accusations of racism towards Meghan Markle, and the scandal over Prince Andrew's friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

[See also: The death of the Queen marks the final break with imperial Britain]

Still, these flurries of anti-royalist sentiment have soon dissipated. None of these scandals has moved public opinion in any lasting way towards support for a republic. Over time, support for the Queen has endured. Similarly, while opinions of Charles soured in the late 90s and remained negative in the early 2000s, upon taking the throne he has, unsurprisingly, attracted overwhelming support.

The problem Britain’s republican movement has is that it regularly enjoys the equivalent of mid-term parliament polling bounces, rising briefly, but nothing more. It doesn't endure. Support always drifts back down as the news agenda moves on.

The thing about Britain’s monarchy is that its purpose, at least for the last 70 years, has been to serve its people, in sorts, as a human mirror. The success of the Queen was that she always had relevance to the country. She was a consistent presence, a backdrop to everyday life, providing a sense of stability. For older generations, she embodied the values of an earlier era. To the young, many could easily see their own grandparents in her. This is a sentiment we've seen expressed since her death last week. Whatever it was, enough Britons could see in her something familiar, through associations with people they knew or her representation of standards in public life.

It is an impressive feat that the Queen managed to remain relevant to the country for 70 years through dramatic changes in social, demographic and material circumstance. Charles will no doubt attempt the same, albeit in his own, more conservationist, kind of way. He clearly intends to run a tight ship and is determined to cut the active royal family down to size, so that embarrassing brothers and cousins do not derail the institution. And William, too, when his time comes, will mould himself, as he has already been doing, to fit the social attitudes of the time.

So long as this continues, the monarchy will endure.

[See also: Christopher Hitchens, from the archive: A man born to be king…]