By George Shaw– Contributor
Compared to the other monarchies of Western Europe, many would argue that the brand of British Royalty is doing fairly well for itself: Bulgaria got rid of theirs in 1946, Croatia in 43’, Romania in 47’, and France famously unshackled herself in the late 18th century (with King Louis VIII making a brief return to the throne for a decade between 1814-24). After low approval ratings in the 1990s with the casting out and death of Princess Diana, the previous decade saw a spike in popularity and interest for the British Royal Family: the combination of the Olympic games and Diamond Jubilee in 2012 made them seem unassailable, only building on the success of the marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William the year before, many likening it to the “fairy-tale” betrothment of the Queens eldest son and “the people’s princess” 30 years before. Thus, the monarchy never seemed stronger, ingrained into the British cultural psyche, a constitutional necessity, and something that all could be proud of. However, the last few years have not been plain sailing for the majority of its members, with many posing questions over the longevity of the monarchy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, I shall explore the recent events that have rocked the ship, how the monarchy might change, and if it can survive at all.
The case of Phillip
The Duke of Edinburgh has always been a controversial figure. From claiming that British women ‘can’t cook’, to asking Tom Jones if he gargled with pebbles, the former Greek prince has always been a divergence from the Queen’s inscrutable demeanour; never wanting to actively cause dissent or harm to anyone he meets, his lack of any filter often being observed as a comical side note; some even arguing that it desterilizes the sometimes ‘too perfect visage’ of the monarchy. However, Phillip will be 99 this year (being the oldest ever member of the Royal Family), having retired from Royal duties two and a half years ago in 2017 after completing 22,219 solo engagements from 1952. Whilst the question of his sadly inevitable passing will of course be a sensitive issue for the family, the public and the press, an issue involving the Prince last year led to many raising questions about the lack of sanctions on the Royals for any mal doing; the event in question being the car crash outside of Sandringham last year. The crown prosecution service decided to take no further action over the Prince’s incident with another passenger, despite there being a 9-month old child in the car, with the Prince “voluntarily” handing over his licence and that supposedly being the end of it.
This does raise an important issue for the Royal Family going forward, however. Despite their constitutional significance, the Royals are still in a large sense private citizens (Phillip more so than the others due to his retirement from duties); citizens who should in theory be equal under the law, something that many argued was not exercised when the two women in the collision had to be hospitalised. Some lauded the Duke for apologising “in hand” to the other victims of the crash, but nothing else came from the incident, thus raising the question of the Royal Family’s accountability (a recurring theme as will be seen), as it is doubtful that any other citizen would be treated this way under the rule of law- and rightly so, most would argue, regardless of their support for the monarchy or not.
Thus, the anachronistic, cantankerous (and to some, rude), character of the Duke is perhaps the sign of an older generation who were perhaps seen as being able to transcend the law; an ideal that even monarchists such as myself find at the very least rather odd today. If the Monarchy wants to leap the hurdle into the next decade, then it must normalise itself with the citizens that it resides over- the above incident being a sign of that very problem.
The case of Andrew
Whilst the controversies surrounding the Duke of Edinburgh are emblematic of the wider problem of accountability, the recent revelations (or what some argue, confirmations) over the follies of his third child, hammer the issue home even further. Prince Andrews’ disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis brought an end to his royal duties; the Duke of York looking unlikely to step back into the limelight anytime soon, and the issue seems to have been put to bed with Jeffery Epstein already dead and with no further action being taken on the matter.
However, this does not mean the end of two wider issues at hand: the first being accountability which was explored above; the second of how the Royal Family deal with a streamlined personnel? That second point I shall answer later, as whilst the ability of the media to scrutinise the Royal’s remains as potent as it ever, its ability to realise and rectify its mistakes is a trickier issue. The FBI have released statements that Andrew has refused to answer requests of interviews and questions on Epstein, despite saying that he would be “willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency with their investigations if required”. Furthermore, despite accusations and some legal action by Virginia Giuffre, the Prince looks very much a shrouded, but still free citizen.
As with his father, the recent episodes surrounding the Duke of York are ones of accountability, and some would argue entitlement. Whilst the latter is hard to solve for the Royals in the coming decade, their ability to seemingly shirk the grasp of law and order is a tricky one: will public support remain for the monarchy if its members are vindicated from wrong doings for which others are incarcerated? One would doubt so, and whilst small hiccups for which the Duke of Edinburgh is known for might be viewed as mere buffoonery, the Epstein case is of a far greater magnitude; a case that could potentially be the start of a greater existential threat to the Monarchy as a whole. “Why should we fund acts of crime that go unpunished”? some might ask, and in a way, they have a point. The Monarchy and Royal Family have great constitutional significance for this country, emblematic of law, order and authority, but if this visage continues to be besmirched by the misbehaviour of a certain few, their survival in this decade can indeed be called into question
The case of Henry
Forgive me for the formalities, but despite their recent trials and tribulations, I still have respect for the monarchy as an institution and most of the individuals in it at present; hence I shall take the liberty to use their proper titles. Regardless, Prince Harry’s stepping back represents another challenge facing the monarchy for the “20s”- it is short of staff. The departures of the Dukes’ of York and Edinburgh (for drastically different reasons as mentioned), has led to the “streamlining” of the monarchy, forcing it to spread its remaining pawns across the board more efficiently- a recent example being Prince Charles’ standing (or rather sitting) in the place of his father at the state opening of Parliament. With the Sussex duo and Andrew bowing out in a fairly close time frame to each other, and the Queens’ 95th birthday shortly around the corner- the age commentators agree that the Queen is likely to retire from public engagements and so the monarchy must find a way to operate more efficiently with fewer members. The Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge, Wessex and Cornwall will be the only ones holding the mantle, and it is unlikely that the public will approve more funding for a smaller group of individuals.
However, the departure of ‘Harry and Meghan’ represents another, arguably larger problem for British Royals in the long term. Earlier this year, the couple announced that they would no longer be working members of the Royal Family, stepping back from the fray and dropping their titles. Whilst this has echoes of Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson (Markle is American and a divorcee), it also reduces the “exclusivity” and sense of duty surrounding the Royal Family: if you are born into such a position of privilege and standing, many would argue (including myself), that you have an obligation to serve, give back to the nation which you represent, and to help those who are less fortunate. I would not deny that Harry hasn’t done this- his time in the Army Air Corps and commitment to the Invictus Games speaks for itself- but his action has left the monarchy exposed. Some may be pondering, “well if two of that institutions’ most popular members can leave so easily, then what does that say about its strength as a whole? Is it easier to uproot than we thought?”. Paradoxically, the fact that the two are attempting to become private citizens and “normalise” themselves with other private citizens- in part achieving the problem I noted above- has been the very reason for this second threat to the monarchy’s survival flaring up at all.
The case of Elizabeth
And finally, we come to the woman who is the monarchy herself- the Queen. One must keep in mind that the Royal Family and the Monarchy are not the same thing: the latter being the body with political and constitutional clout; a remnant of history whose power- but not influence- has diminished over time. The Royal Family is in this sense far less important than the Monarchy; having no official influence over the running of the country, but it is often the entity which bears the brunt of most of the media attention- for example, Meghan Markle and Diana Spencer were never really part of the Monarchy, but key members of the Royal Family.
Then it is the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and the direct line of descent who are arguably “the Monarchy”, as well as being members of the Royal Family. Whilst the rise of the office of Prime-Minister in the early 18th century and the supinity of the Hanover Kings caused the political power of the monarchy to wither away, the sovereign still has a considerable amount of informal influence over the running of the country. One must remember that Elizabeth II has been on the throne since 1952 (the longest reign ever), meeting multiple heads of state from around the world as well as having a total of 14 Prime Ministers; it’s baffling to think that her first was Churchill! The Queen therefore has spades of experience in foreign affairs and domestic politics, many seeing her as an extremely experienced advisor especially to less experienced premiers or those in need of a push in the right direction.
The current Monarch is therefore extremely effective, possessing considerable knowledge in the running of the country, and almost never putting a foot wrong whilst doing it (which cannot be said for her husband). But what after the Queen passes away, or after she retires? The latter could be in the not too distant future, and those in line to take on the crown do not look as likely to inspire support for the monarchy or scream competency. The Prince of Wales is not a stupid man- he is after all a Cambridge graduate, but does that really count in this context? – and season 3 of Netflix’s recent show “The Crown” made many upon him in a different light. Here was a man who was stifled by the tradition and coldness of his surroundings, someone in desire of reform- which some saw as disruption- inspired by what his great-uncle, Edward VIII had done.
Thanks to maturing in years, the Prince has of course moved on from this, but his desire for change could destabilise the monarchy further, and coinciding with the events listed in previous sections, it leaves an open wound which some could exploit. In addition, the Prince is somewhat like his father, prone to becoming embroiled in controversy which the press are quick to seize upon. The Diana case is a notorious one, and I shall not discuss it here, but even less serious blunders such as the “black spider memos”- fairly harmless letters to key political figures- all undermine Charles’ position: he is often saddled with most of the blame for approval ratings as low as 60% for the monarchy in the 1990s. There is no immediate solution to these issues, as it is constitutional precedent that Charles will take over from his mother, and perhaps he will be able to carry on his mothers’ legacy, with trouble no longer being left in his wake. This does not pose an existential threat to the monarchy as a whole, but could undermine its authority if the Prince of Wales departs too much from the Queens’ legacy.
And what of his son? I shall not say much of Prince William here, Harry’s blander and more perfect brother, expect that the coming generations do not hold the same reverence for him as previous have done for the Queen. Like his father, there is nothing inherently wrong with the Duke of Cambridge, and whilst seeming perfectly competent, he does not inspire a sense of mystery or authority in the generation he will later reign over, meaning that if the monarchy is threatened by any of the more serious factors that I have listed, The Duke’s character (or lack of), will not do much to prevent it.
The Monarchy does not rule; it reigns. But whilst the former officially ended a long time ago, the latter is now also threatened. But it is not an explicit threat, and those are often the hardest to tackle, and once they become noticeable, it is often too late. The Monarchy and Royal Family have been sucker-punched by the events of the last few years after riding a wave of popularity in the first half of the last decade, and if they hope to continue to inspire a generation who are far less wedded to the idea of an unelected family whose lifestyle they have to continue fund, they must deal with and rise above the recent misfortunes that have come their way. The mistakes of Prince Andrew cannot be reversed, and neither can the decision of the soon no-longer to be Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but the best that the Monarchy can do is strengthen the bulwark against any dissenters who see its recent troubles as an opportunity to tear it down; to show the next generation that it does matter. Many can point to the past and future challenges of the monarchy that I have mentioned here, but only they can find the answers.