Long may he reign? The future of the British monarchy
Amid worsening royal health scares and ongoing family turmoil, Lucy Evans examines whether the monarchy still has a future.
Queen Elizabeth II, often hailed as the nation’s grandmother, has long been a symbol of stability, Britishness and royalty, having become synonymous with the institution of monarchy itself. With quite literally a whole nation invested in her well-being, last month’s health scare made headlines across the country.
October saw the Queen cancelling a visit to Northern Ireland due to an overnight stay in hospital, according to The Guardian. The story goes on to say that “doctors told her that she should rest for a couple of days at Windsor Castle” and that the Queen “reluctantly heeded the advice of her doctors”. This hospital visit has brought a recurring question to the forefront of the nation’s minds once again — what happens when the Queen dies?
46 per cent of Britons surveyed want Charles to abdicate when he becomes king “
The logistical procedure following the Queen’s death is one mostly well-known and documented. Detailed plans for ‘Operation London Bridge’ were leaked to POLITICO and include “10 days of meticulous arrangements” for public mourning services, as told by Tatler. Whilst we know the logistics and procedure of what will happen when the longest reigning monarch dies, there is considerably more uncertainty over what will happen when her successor takes the throne. After nearly 70 years as heir apparent, Prince Charles will become the nation’s next monarch when the Queen passes, taking effect immediately upon her death. But while Charles is the Queen’s natural successor, there have long been discussions about whether he will keep the title and continue as Britain’s king, or should instead abdicate the throne to leave William in his position.
This ongoing tension between the automatic succession of Charles to the throne and a possible decision to abdicate is marked by the charged undercurrent of the controversies that have scarred Charles’ past, most notably his tumultuous marriage and divorce of the late Princess Diana. His relationship with Diana has for many entirely poisoned his image- more than 20 years after her death Diana is still referred to as the ‘people’s princess’, whilst Charles is often seen as the villain in her story who cheated on and neglected her. The clear division in public opinion on Charles and his future position as king can be seen through a poll carried out by BMG Research for The Independent which found that 46 per cent of Britons surveyed want Charles to abdicate when he becomes king, leaving William to take to the throne.
This discourse on Charles’ possible abdication and controversies works its way into student conversation too, despite the stereotype that these conversations primarily happen outside of the younger generation. One student has said that the combination of Diana’s status as the ‘people’s princess’ and “the negative depiction of Charles in contemporary popular culture — such as Netflix’s The Crown — has created a general distrust of the prince that is most likely to continue into his reign as king”.
The Queen’s reign has been a symbol of stability
The anxieties around Charles’ past controversies have had a real resurgence due to the massive success of that show, the fourth season of which focuses intensively on Diana and Charles’ relationship. The List stated that “in June of 2020, there were still 38% of the population who felt that Charles would make a good king. After season four of the Netflix series dropped in November, these numbers dropped by 6%”. The unfavourable depiction of Charles in this immensely popular and influential show seems to have impacted the prince’s popularity significantly, with the spectre of the martyred ‘people’s princess’ once again looming over the royal family.
This public opinion and controversial past leave one obvious question: will a prince that leaves the nation divided in opinion be the model of stability and unity that the people need following the pandemic and that the monarchy needs following the death of the Queen? It is clear that past controversies still influence public opinion on Charles to this day, which might have an impact on his reign if he chooses not to abdicate. The Queen’s reign has been a symbol of stability and has, generally, been well-liked by the public. The Queen’s popularity is at 72 per cent according to YouGov, 27 points higher than her eldest son, which could spell trouble down the line.
Charles’ divided public opinion now might influence his popularity as a monarch and could jeopardise the image of stability that has been vital to the success of his mother’s reign. And even that may be just a sideshow compared to the existential question of the monarchy’s very survival: with the Firm hit by controversy after controversy in recent years, including the allegations made by Meghan and Harry of racism and callousness and Prince Andrew’s ongoing legal troubles, the monarchy faces an uncertain future. The passing of the Queen will, undoubtedly, cause a re-evaluation of the monarchy’s place in the public consciousness.
POLITICO questions whether “any future monarch will be able to provide the same steadying influence as the one whose hand has been on the tiller for more than half a century”. The Queen and her reign have almost become synonymous with the monarchy itself, with the majority of the population having never known another reigning monarch. Her absence could prompt a re-evaluation of the institution of monarchy itself, with the British public forced to disentangle their feelings about the popular and beloved Queen from their feelings about an institution many view as outdated and exploitative.
Charles might not be the figure of modernity and generational change that is needed
This issue of monarchy’s role within the lives and minds of the younger generation also helps explain the current discourse on Charles’ possible abdication of the throne. Clive Irving, in an interview with Vanity Fair, states “Charles has a serious problem. One problem is that he doesn’t look like an invigorating generational shift, does he?”. Irving makes a very relevant point: Charles might not be the figure of modernity and generational change that is needed if the monarchy is to survive the passing of the Queen. He goes on to say that “something that reinvigorates and sends a sense that they’ve understood the modern world” is needed.
This necessity for an energising personality that understands modernity is perhaps why the possibility of Charles’ abdication is so common within popular discourse. William arguably fits this personality more than Charles. Perhaps his approach to reigning might align more with the fresh take on ruling and royalty that the monarchy would need to survive into the future. Whether Charles will continue to reign as king, or if he will abdicate his throne after the passing of the Queen, remains to be seen. Regardless of what is in store for the future of the monarchy, it is certain that the death of the Queen will change the landscape of the institution forever.