1992 was the most recent nadir for the Royal family. Elizabeth II described it as her annus horribilis. A fire at her residence of Windsor Castle, two divorces and a separation (that of Charles, Prince of Wales and his extremely popular but long-suffering wife Diana), meant that Britain’s first family seemed more like a soap opera than a regal and ruling dynasty. Since then, their popularity has recovered, though not without the occasional setback. 1997 saw the death of Diana, in a car crash in Paris, which refocused the Queen’s attention on the need for the monarchy to evolve to meet the modern demands of the British public. Accused of being aloof and arrogant, a more emotional bond with her subjects needed to be fostered. This was achieved by 2010 when over 36m people in the UK watched the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and the young couple were feted all over the country. Evolution was not a foreign concept to the British crown, though. The 20th century saw many countries switch from rule by a king, or emperor, to a republican system. Two cousins of George V were deposed during or in the aftermath of the First World War. The monarchies of Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy were abolished around the same period. Yet, the British one survived.
The British Monarchy Survives
Survival has always been the priority for the British crown. Apart from a brief flirtation in the 17th century, when Charles I made the fatal mistake of going against Parliament and asserting his divine right to rule, the UK, and before it the Kingdom of England, has always been ruled by a King or Queen. Since the Glorious Revolution, a coup d’état which replaced the Catholic James II with his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William III, the crown has slowly given up its power to Parliament. Indeed, Parliament has a record of inviting foreign rulers to take over the throne in Westminister when appropriate and using the little power and influence those potentates have to further cement the power of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The Bill of Rights, after the Glorious Revolution greatly reduced the Royal Prerogative, and the last monarch to withhold royal assent for a Parliamentary Bill was Queen Anne. When she died without issue, her third cousin, George I, was invited to take the throne, even though there were potential other claimants. William IV was the last monarch to dissolve Parliament arbitrarily. Queen Victoria was disappointed that she could not appoint the Prime Minister herself, instead having to bow to the wishes of Parliament, and the royal family gradually morphed into a British ‘model’ family, and the monarch became a popular figurehead. They survived because, as Walter Bagehot put it, the UK was already ‘a secret republic’.
As the 20th century dawned, and the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian, the royal family began to adapt to mass media and look to grow its popularity among the millions of regular British citizens. In 1917 George V, as his cousin Nicholas II was being removed from power in a popular uprising, changed the family name from the distinctly German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the more Albion Windsor. It was his son, George VI, whose actions during the Second World War, staying in Buckingham Palace as bombs rained on London, keeping to the same rationing regime as their subjects and the loss of his brother, the Duke of Kent, while he was on active service, made the nation see him as a point of unity. The crowds celebrating the Victory in Europe Day called for the King, a signal of his popularity.
Crowned in 1953, Elizabeth II has been the longest-reigning British monarch. Over sixty years there have obviously been waxings and wanings in popularity. Nowadays the Queen, far removed from partisan bickering in Parliament, is celebrated as a unifying figure, and as a symbol of the UK. Even though some question whether the monarchy is anachronistic or not, there is no substantial campaign in favour of making the UK a republic.
Will There Be a British Republic?
However, there have been proposals mooted that when once it comes time for Charles to take the throne, it would be a good time to ditch the old-fashioned system of constitutional monarchy. Part of this is the argument that royal family costs the British public too much, and should be abolished on that ground. This, however, does not stand up. The profits from the Crown Estates flow directly into the Treasury, as well as the money from royal warrants, bring in over £500m a year. The total cost of the monarchy, including the sovereign grant, security costs, and fees owed by the use of state buildings, amounted to only £292m. Even without intangible benefits the royal family brings to the UK economy and tourism, estimated at over £1bn, the crown provides more to the public purse than it costs. The amount needed to switch from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, such as the funding a president, updating legislation, issuing update currency, etc., would be substantial. As such, the utilitarian and pragmatic arguments all favour keeping the monarchy.
More idealistic arguments still stand up to some scrutiny. The fact is that the British people are not sovereign. Sovereignty is vested in Parliament, made up of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the Crown-in-Parliament. British citizens are subjects of the Crown, which goes against most modern democracies, which see power and the right to rule being enmeshed in the citizenry. They exercise that power through a constitution, which outlines how a state is to be ruled. However, there is no practical difference between that understanding of the role of the people and that of the UK system. There is seemingly no appetite for such a change among the British population, and by the very nature of them willingly continuing with the current constitutional model, shows that the current system is only a bit of political theatre. The royal family is firmly ensconced in its position.
Despite the recent ‘royal fatigue’, two-thirds of the country is not interested in the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, brought about by a media saturated with coverage of the Windsor family, the monarchy will survive. It will survive for the foreseeable future. It plays too large a part in British constitutional life, apart from its role in society. For much of the world, the Queen and the royal family are Britain. It has adapted to newspapers, radio, and television, and will do the same for the internet. It is a conservative and methodical institution, changing not too hastily but only after due consideration, but still, the Queen sends the occasional tweet. The monarchy has survived the upheavals of the 20th century, and countless upheavals in the preceding centuries, by constantly evolving. The 21st-century monarchy will be different from that which went before, but it will continue to do what it has always done: survive.
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