Calls to abolish the British monarchy are not new. As a 1,000-year-old institution that still carries significant influence, the monarchy is familiar with calls for abolition. But support for full abolition or even reform of the monarchy in the post-war era has been fleeting. The question of republicanism or even reform has no significant presence in political discourse. In the 2019 party leaders’ debate, when asked whether the institution of the monarchy was still fit for purpose, Boris Johnson said that “the institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach”.
However, recent events have opened the debate to levels that appear more serious than ever before, affecting central figures in the monarchy and revealing what many now argue is its true nature. Revelations regarding Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey have allowed the debate over abolition to come to the fore of political discourse.
But, while numerous faults within the monarchy have been revealed and speculated upon, support for it still remains high. In a recent YouGov poll conducted in February, only 22% supported abolition with 62% in support of the monarchy; in the wake of Harry and Meghan’s interview these figures did not change. Despite many predictions of the institution’s demise and anger over the recent Oprah interview, the monarchy may still stand strong and weather the current storm.
These revelations came at a time of considerable political upheaval in the UK. The constitutional crisis precipitated by Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic only raise further questions about democracy in the UK and the monarch’s implicit links to our Parliament and Government.
The monarchy is entrenched not only in the UK’s political system but in its culture and society
From political symbolism to cultural and global status, the monarchy still plays a huge role in British public life and affairs. The monarch is our head of state and has numerous other roles. Talk of abolition, therefore, could change the face of politics in the UK irreversibly as well as that of our media landscape. But the case for abolition is complicated; the monarchy is entrenched not only in the UK’s political system but in its culture and society.
For citizens in the UK and across the world, the British monarchy has been a consistent feature in pop culture and the media. Despite the erosion of many of its real political powers and the royal prerogative powers now only maintaining a symbolic and theoretical existence, the royals still have immense socio-cultural standing. The popularity of Netflix show, The Crown, is testament to this. Their prominence in our media and the constant ‘drama’ around them has created a reality TV aura around the monarchy which, as Guardian journalist Jonathan Friedland notes, is one of their biggest assets; they entertain us.
Yet, the spotlight on the royal family and the heavy scrutiny they receive by the media has sparked numerous scandals and questions over their authority and status. It has also been dangerous for the royal family themselves.
The Harry and Meghan interview sparked fresh calls for abolition predicated on the more novel argument that it is a racist institution built on British imperialism, distanced from the public and even dangerously toxic for its own members. The pressure of being a royal and the true nature of working for ‘The Firm’ was revealed by Meghan, who talked about her own suicidal feelings, making the public aware of the indifference and toxicity of the institution.
The interview was not republican, and Harry and Meghan did not condemn the Queen or call for abolition. But the interview has fanned the flames of republican debate. The idea that the monarchy is beyond reproach has been rattled by the interview. Also the royal family has already been compromised by revelations concerning Prince Andrew and his perceived safety from the law due to his status.
Arguments that the royal family are distanced from the public, obsolete for our democracy and unrepresentative of UK citizens are now rife despite the ongoing popularity of retaining the royal family in opinion polls. It is a very polarised matter where the voices of monarchists have tended to be louder than those of republicans, until now perhaps.
The monarchy has also become linked to more unsavory, yet just as important, concepts of the UK
There are many reasons why the royals are perceived as important to the UK. 1.9 billion people watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding in 2018 and millions across the globe are fans of the royal brand. The royals bring notoriety to the UK in a world where there are now just 26 monarchies. As such, the royals have an important role in foreign policy, diplomacy, and soft power. Rolling out the red carpet and giving foreign heads of state the royal treatment has been used by numerous Prime Ministers to woo various states. The commonplace exhibition of royal power and prestige certainly cements them as a consistent feature of our cultural landscape and cultural exports.
Alongside Shakespeare, tea, and cockney accents the royal family are inextricably linked to the conception of the UK. Therefore the complexity of abolition in qualitative terms cannot be understated. But recently, the concept of the monarchy has also become linked to more unsavoury, yet just as important, concepts of the UK such as being colonial power built on the back of racism and exploitation.
The 21st century and the postwar era of the commonwealth has been marked by the age of the royal celebrity and the growth of our royal family as an immensely influential brand. This goes hand in hand with the monarchies cultural power and wealth.
This carries significant benefits for the UK but for members of the royal family, despite their wealth and luxury, there are clear problems. The media hounding of Diana and now Meghan, coupled with the already harsh treatment of seven-year-old Prince George, reveals the unpleasant nature of being in the media circus and the royal spotlight.
In a recent interview, Novara Media correspondent Ash Sarkar proclaimed the idea of abolishing the monarchy to save the royal family. The treatment the family has received and the recent revelations made by Meghan Markle reveal the unsustainable nature of the monarchy’s role in an increasingly intensive and ruthless media landscape. The popularity of the royal family may, therefore, be the monarchies downfall.
[Abolishing the monarchy] might mean sacrificing a unique selling point of the UK
Getting his family away from the toxicity of the UK press and ‘The Firm’ was cited by Harry as a critical reason for the move to California. This more human argument for the abolition of the monarchy may play increasingly into current mental health and identity politics discourse, and historic examples such as the death of Diana may only serve to reinforce it.
But the monarchy is entrenched not only in our politics but in numerous institutions and cultural sites. While this does not make abolition impossible, it makes the matter complicated.
Within the British political system, the monarch plays an important symbolic and ceremonial role but does carry significant theoretical power. The monarch is also a national icon and public face for the country. This value may not only make it difficult for a more conventional head of state to replace the monarch, but it might mean sacrificing a unique selling point of the UK.
The inextricable links the monarch has to various elements of the UK – as head of the commonwealth, head of state, head of the Church of England – make the case for abolition confusing. Republicans’ fundamental aims are for the monarch’s abolition as head of state. But the Queen is head of state for 14 countries so even if the UK abolished the monarchy, states like Canada might not. Whether the monarch would remain as head of the commonwealth and the Church of England raises further questions too.
Are the royal family public servants, celebrities, or both?
At the centre of many, notably populist, calls for abolition is the wealth of the royal family. The monarchy represents a $28 billion empire made up of various lands and properties, such as the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. Yet, the monarchy still relies on taxpayer funding in the form of the sovereign grant. This blurred line between taxpayers and private finances raises more questions about the monarchy’s nature – are they public servants, celebrities, or both? It also means that if the monarchy were abolished the family itself would not face any hardship.
The monarchy is largely depoliticised therefore can transcend party politics; it can claim to represent the nation. The Harry and Meghan interview poses a big threat to this idea, as do recent revelations about the Queen’s vetting of parliamentary bills.
But the monarchy has weathered numerous scandals, it remains very popular. Support for Meghan and Harry was not mutually exclusive with calls for abolition. Survival into the 21st century has been an interesting feat for the royal family and one that cannot be overstated when compared to the historic unpopularity of monarchies abroad. In that sense, the sheer complexity and multi-faceted nature of the case for abolition and the fact that the royal family is by no means monolithic only weakens the possibility of future abolition.