A question is gnawing in the minds of many amidst the two sets of pageantry unfolding for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth and King Charles III taking over as the new sovereign: what is the future of monarchy in a modern, multicultural, multi-religious Britain? There is an outpouring of grief over the passing away of the Queen at the individual and institutional levels: Prime Minister Liz Truss described her as “the rock on which modern Britain was built”, while tens of thousands of people have laid flowers with moving messages outside Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle. Such was the Queen’s stature and popularity that questions about the monarchy’s role in modern Britain, its future or campaigns to abolish it and replace the sovereign with an elected, democratic head of state did not gather much traction. The Queen scrupulously followed what was expected of her, while adapting monarchy to changes around her over the seven decades she reigned.
A constitutional monarch, once defined by Thomas Macaulay, is “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule”. The monarchy remains popular today. The majority of Britons have been consistently in favour of the monarchy continuing, but there has been a decline over the last decade, from a high of 75 per cent in favour of a monarchy in July 2012, to 62 per cent now. Campaigners for a republic and an elected head of state who felt repressed all these years due to admiration for the Queen believe their time has come, with future opinion polls likely to show dwindling support for the monarchy. There are already reports of people avoiding making their views about the future of monarchy known on social media for fear of pro-monarchy trolls, for fear of being branded disrespectful when the Queen has not yet been laid to rest.
Republic, the main campaign group calling for an elected head of state, believes anti-monarchy sentiments would decline around the Queen’s funeral, but expects a resurgence soon after, when a debate over the royal family’s future is likely to take off. Graham Smith, the group’s spokesman, says: “The Queen was the monarchy for most people and has been all our lives. Charles will not inherit that level of deference and respect, and this really does change the whole dynamic”. The group claims that soon after the announcement of the Queen passing away, it recorded a rise in support, with thousands of new followers signing up. “We’re also getting an influx of people signing up to us…If support (for the monarchy) was dropping anyway, it’s not going to go up,” Smith told The Guardian.
There have been demands in recent years that there should be at least some debate about the monarchy’s future, instead of avoiding it out of deference to the Queen. For long, it has been a unique situation: the lives of members of the royal family are reported and discussed at length in the news media, television serials and elsewhere, but there is hardly any focus on constitutional questions about how a monarchy should work in a modern democracy. For example, there have been questions about the sovereign’s ancient links with the church in a multi-religious, secular state that has seen dwindling number of people describing themselves as religious of any kind in recent years.
Those seeking a debate believe that the monarchy, built on a system of hereditary privilege, is an anachronism in the modern age. After the funeral and days of solemnity, parliament, they believe, should take the initiative by taking evidence from the public as well as from the royal family, on issues such as appropriate constitutional, political and military roles of the monarch; the regulation, financing and accountability of the monarchy; the size of the royal household maintained by the state; the laws of succession and the appropriate ceremonies for the inauguration of the new monarch, including their religious dimension, the coronation and the coronation oath.
The United Kingdom that King Charles III reigns over is different from the country at the beginning of his mother’s reign: In the early 1950s, Britain was still a global player, but by the end of her reign, there has been a downsizing at the international level, reminding many of the claim by former US secretary of state Dean Acheson that Britain lost its empire but had not found a role in the world. At the domestic level also, historian David Cannadine says there has been a ‘de-Victorianisation’ during the Queen’s reign: the traditional aristocracy still counted in the early 1950s, the middle classes were closely linked with the (then dwindling) empire, military and the civil service, and the working class was overwhelmingly employed in 19th century heavy industries such as coal mining – no longer. There have been major changes in the global and domestic contexts of the Queen’s reign from the beginning to the end.
Much, of course, will depend on how King Charles III steers the ship of monarchy in a country facing serious challenges within and internationally, with the economic implications of Brexit yet to unfold in real terms. Unlike the Queen, who kept her views on various issues to herself while quietly managing change, the views of King Charles III on a range of issues are known. He has often met ministers and campaigned on issues such as climate change, health policy, foxhunting, farming, grammar schools and human rights laws.
Will his position be calibrated now that he is the sovereign? He already hinted in his address to the nation: “My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. 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”. He is known to favour rebooting the monarchy with a slimmed-down presence, with less number of members of the royal family taking on roles on behalf of the state. One of his challenges will be how at 73 he engages the monarchy with a country whose population is much younger than he is.
The writer is a senior journalist based in London
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