For a thousand years, give or take, crowned heads have presided over the nations that make up the United Kingdom – but will it always be so? Once again, anti-monarchists are suggesting it might not after Queen Elizabeth II shuffles off this mortal coil.
For years, the republicans, as anti-royalists are known in the U.K., have understood that the queen, 94, after nearly seven decades on the throne, is overwhelmingly popular, despite rare missteps over the years. As long as she heads “The Firm,” a hereditary monarchy will stand.
But her 72-year-old son and heir, Prince Charles, is not as popular and he took hits in a recent YouGov poll: About 42% said they have a negative view of him, up from 36%. His favorability numbers have decreased from 57% to 49%. King Charles III has long seemed an iffy enough proposition for republicans to harbor hope of voting out the monarchy eventually.
Now they’ve been further emboldened by the shattering of the shiny royal façade by the queen’s grandson and Charles’ younger son, Prince Harry, and his biracial American wife, Duchess Meghan of Sussex.
The couple told Oprah Winfrey in an interview watched by millions around the world that they were so fed up with racism in the British media and his family, plus a lack of support from palace officials as Meghan fought suicidal depression, that they had to flee to America for independence and peace of mind.
“Did you leave the country because of racism?” Winfrey asked. “It was a large part of it,” Harry said.
Supporters of the royal conglomerate in the British tabloids were shocked and appalled: How could they say such things about Her Majesty’s family after her decades of duty and service?
“I don’t believe a word Meghan says,” Meghan detractor Piers Morgan announced, storming off the set of ITV’s “Good Morning Britain.” Soon, he was gone for good.
Supporters of Harry and Meghan, especially Britain’s young people of color, were not shocked and just as appalled: Historically, the monarchy was built on racism, colonialism and slavery, they pointed out. And they reject any attempt to question Meghan’s description of her own experience.
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For some, alarm bells are clanging. The crisis has “accelerated” the republican movement, says Anna Pasternak, a royal biographer who’s written about Princess Diana and Wallis Simpson, another American-born duchess who caused a ground-shaking royal crisis in the 1930s.
“The monarchy stands for imperialism, colonialism and an unelected elite body,” Pasternak says. “Hence, at times of familial petty bickering and airing monogrammed linen in public, there is understandably a surge in republican sentiment. It is hard to understate the current crisis.”
The situation has “fired the starting pistol” of rethinking whether the monarchy survives once the queen is gone, predicts Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, the 40-year-old campaign to persuade Brits to replace a royal head of state with an elected one, as in Ireland and other countries with parliamentary democracies.
“We’re now in the end game in the process of succession to Charles, and that changes an awful lot,” Smith says. “This (crisis) has helped to damage a lot of the royal mythology, and accusations of racism are toxic.”
It will be the first succession to take place in the spotlight of the internet, social media, 24-hour news and Netflix’s “The Crown” with its “warts and all” portrayal of royal mythology, Smith says. The link to the World War II-era associated with the inscrutable queen will be gone; what remains will be Charles, a man Brits know only too well after decades of his speaking out in a way she does not.
Sarah Gristwood, a historian, journalist, novelist and Tudor biographer, doesn’t believe the monarchy will end except in some smaller Commonwealth realms that no longer want a foreign head-of-state. In a system that depends on the monarchy as a unifier for a divided country, the interview revealed the House of Windsor divided against itself, and that leaves Charles in a tricky position, she says.
“Charles was damaged back in the ’90s by the ‘War of the Waleses,’ but in recent years he’s come to look much more convincing as a king-in-waiting,” Gristwood says. “But Harry’s words about him particularly seemed to suggest not enough had changed. And that really is a danger for the monarchy.”
It makes republicans’ job easier, Smith says. The queen has been a blank canvas but her son would likely be a jarring change.
“We know who he is and what he talks about, we know about his interference (in policy). Will most people want to put up with someone like that (as king)?”
Harry acknowledged his relationships with his father and his brother, Prince William, also a future king, were strained by his and Meghan’s unhappy 22 months as senior working royals.
“What Harry has just done in this interview is give all kinds of ammunition to those who may have doubts about Charles’ fitness as the sovereign,” says Elaine “Lainey” Lui, the Toronto-based co-founder of celebrity blog LaineyGossip.com. “If we’re questioning the fitness of a monarch, the entire monarchy is in jeopardy.”
As usual, Buckingham Palace zipped up lips. Its official statement on behalf of the queen was measured and brief: Harry and Meghan are “much loved.” Their allegations of racism were “concerning” and are being taken seriously, although “recollections may vary” about who said what to whom. But it was a family matter, and will be dealt with privately behind closed doors.
But of course the future of the monarchy is much more than just a family matter, and the anti-royalists see opportunity. Only about one-fifth of the British population have backed a republic, Smith says, but it’s inching up: A recent pre-interview poll found 25% support it.
Meanwhile, #abolishthemonarchy trended after the interview. Republic’s online petition to ensure “the Queen is Britain’s last monarch” has received more than 7,000 signatures, almost halfway to its goal of 15,000.
The republicans have “a new lease on life,” says Nicoletta Gullace, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, who studies British history. She says the interview has given anti-royalists “new oxygen” because many young people and people of color regard Harry and Meghan’s allegations of systemic racism as proof the monarchy no longer represents the values of the British people at home or in multicultural Commonwealth nations.
“The question is whether a public that still reveres the queen will be likely to tolerate the monarchy when it is led by Prince Charles and (his wife) Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall,” Gullace says.
We have heard this monarchy-is-doomed talk before amidst a royal “crisis,” the last time in 1997 after Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car wreck and the queen was accused by grief-stricken Brits of seeming indifferent and botching the initial royal response to the tragedy.
But the queen managed to recover her usually adept footing, preside over a sublime funeral for the lost Princess of Wales, and rally the country behind Diana’s young sons, William and Harry, and the rest of the family, despite the royals’ recent history of poisonous conflict with Diana. Soon, the queen’s high approval ratings returned, and remain to this day.
“Royal history indicates the monarchy has been able to survive a monarch who is personally unpopular if the institution remains strong,” says Carolyn Harris, an author and historian at the University of Toronto, who points to the Hanoverian kings of the 18th century, whose foibles and family conflicts make today’s seem tame.
She says there have always been shifts up and down in public opinion about the monarchy, and especially now when it’s so prominent in popular culture. “The monarchy is good at adapting and reinventing itself,” Harris says.
This time, however, alleged racism among the royal family is a new and toxic ingredient, in addition to alleged disregard for Meghan’s mental health worries. Younger Brits are said to have little tolerance for such allegations.
Jonathan Sacerdoti, a freelance journalist, royal commentator and co-founder of an anti-Semitism charity, Campaign Against Antisemitism, argues the racism accusation is unfair and that criticism of Meghan in the U.K. is motivated more by her outsider status as an untraditional royal bride.
“As well as being an American woman of color, Meghan was also a divorcée, an actress, and relatively outspoken politically,” Sacerdoti says. “These are all unusual characteristics for a royal spouse, and may have set some people against her without her (race) or nationality entering into it at all.”
Sacerdoti discounts the idea that the Harry and Meghan crisis poses an existential threat to the monarchy. As he and others point out, no mainstream British political party or politician supports replacing the monarchy with a republic.
“This latest controversy is certainly damaging and does dent the royal family’s reputation,” he says. “That’s no small concern, but doesn’t seem likely to end the monarchy completely. It might increase momentum for more modernization of the monarchy.”
The last time there was a vote in a major Commonwealth country about whether to jettison the monarchy – in Australia in 1999 – it failed in part because of reluctance to throw out a familiar mode of government and reconstruct a new one.
“I suspect the crown benefits also from the current widespread mistrust of politicians,” says Gristwood. “If the queen weren’t head of state, who would be? And how many of us would want them?”
Even The Guardian, Britain’s monarchy-skeptical newspaper, reports that republicans’ latest optimism about achieving their goals may be misplaced. Columnist Jonathan Freedland, a longtime republican, wrote last week that revelations of family dysfunction help explain some of the monarchy’s enduring appeal: It “provides a rolling soap opera, a perpetual source of gossip, human drama and distraction” featuring royal rifts and scandals.
“There’s a reason the monarchy has stood as long as it has,” Freedland wrote. “For all the Windsors’ glaring deficiencies, the odds remain stacked in their favor. Republicanism is a just cause – but, for now at least, it seems a lost one.”
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