The Queen is dead... long live whoever is next

Only time will tell whether the British monarchy will continue slowly changing and adjusting itself according to circumstances beyond its control, or whether it will eventually be abolished completely

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has necessarily raised the question of the monarchical system in today’s world.

Although for me the idea of monarchy has untoward medieval implications, I must admit that Queen Elizabeth was an affable person who sought to remain loved by many and respected by all and sundry. She did so by managing to achieve a quasi-magical aura, practically during all her 70-year reign, by sticking to protocol and refraining from commenting on controversial issues.

The messy, bloody process of decolonisation continued into Elizabeth II’s reign. But many argue that she helped to reset the relationship with Commonwealth countries like Jamaica which became independent in 1962.

The queen was steadfastly silent on political matters throughout her reign and the content of her weekly audience with whoever was the prime minister remains private by convention. As a consequence, even the hint of a publicly expressed opinion had the potential to cause a huge fuss, as occurred in 2014 when she urged Scottish voters to ‘think very carefully’ about their choice in that year’s independence referendum.

She actually was in trouble once: when her strictly sticking to established protocol on the occasion of the death of Diana, her divorced daughter-in-law, was misinterpreted by the British people who were mourning the passing away of their favourite princess. For them the protocol did not make sense in the circumstances and the Queen had to bow to popular pressure and – for once – ditch protocol.

Britain must consider itself very lucky to have had such a genial monarch for 70 years that saw so many changes in the international arena including the dismantling of what once was the British Empire.

The British monarchy has actually been stripped of almost all its powers and is today less important for what it does than for how it makes people feel. The essential thing is what floats around in the ether: the sentiments and understandings about the head of state that help bind Britons together.

Today’s circumstances are completely different from those when Queen Elizabeth II ascended on the throne following the death of her father. The Britain that she has left is completely different from the Britain that crowned her seven decades years ago.

Her successor – now Charles III – is a very different personality and is still a closed box as far as his behaviour as king is concerned.

In his first address as king – the speech he had waited so long to make – Charles III acknowledged he will have to give up some of the things that have given him the most satisfaction. “My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities,” he said, a little more than 24 hours after his mother died at Balmoral Castle: “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.”

This was meant to reassure his subjects that he will be attempting not to depart from the style of steady, even-handed leadership his mother had personified. But this can turn out to be a difficult stance. Only time will tell, of course. The sentiments that make Britons look at their monarch positively are enormously strong now, but they seem likely to weaken in future.

Unlike the queen, who never let her views on controversial issues be known, Charles has often expressed his opinion on controversial political issues or social causes. He openly supported fox hunting and opposed ‘ugly’ modern architecture, but he also championed organic farming and advocated for action on climate change, well before these issues became much more conventional.

Whatever the way Charles III will conduct himself, the issue of the monarchy itself is bound to surface during his reign.

Writing in The Spectator, Matthew Parris put it this way: “there is a Charles who had those opinions and attachments – some of them to our liking, some of them, for some of us, possibly not – and whose perceptiveness and patent sincerity we’d been increasingly recognising: a Prince in many ways ahead of his time. To be king is different, I appreciate, but he will be the same man. Is it wrong, is it unconstitutional, to hope that, despite the terrible pressures he will soon be under, Charles will be able to remain true to himself?”

On the other hand, Dr Anna Whitelock, a reader in early modern history at Royal Holloway in London, thinks that support for the monarchy was linked to the Queen per se, and not to the institution itself. If she is correct, the British monarchy could be on its ‘last legs’ within ten years or so. She argues that important questions about the relevance of the monarchy in modern society have been held back out of respect for Elizabeth II’s long reign.

On the Queen’s ninetieth birthday, Dr. Whitelock, who was also the director of The London Centre for Public History, suggested that once the Queen is no longer on the throne, the British monarchy could be challenged in a way that it never has been before.

According to her, as the older generation die out, the question of the future of the monarchy will become even more pressing, and then potentially more critical voices will come to the fore, insisting that the monarchy – its purpose, what it’s about – will be questioned and challenged in a way that it hasn’t been before.

The idea of the monarchy passing some kind of power from one generation to another is today considered outlandish and practically unacceptable, let alone the claim for the ‘divine right of kings’. All over Europe the strength of monarchies has had to be diluted to the extent that monarchs are mere figureheads of no political importance. In the UK, the monarchy had the added role of being the gel keeping in place an extremely divided society.

But monarchy is rarely static, and over time the role of any monarchy has to adapt to events and to constitutional developments.

Only about a quarter of Britons are republicans. Young people are far less fervent in their support for the monarchy than others. A British Social Attitudes Survey found in 2021 that 14% of 18-34-year-olds said it was very important for the country to have one, compared with 44% of people aged 55 or older. But the British seem to become keener on royals as they age. It is worth remembering that middle-aged and old Britons once listened to anti-royal songs by the Sex Pistols, the Smiths and the Stone Roses.

Only time will tell whether the British monarchy will continue slowly changing and adjusting itself according to circumstances beyond its control, or whether it will eventually be abolished completely.