Prominent changes and scandals in both the royal family and the UK threaten the modern validity of the monarchy
— 4 minute read — By Will Jones
Britain’s love affair with its royal family has been a permanent – and completely defining – aspect of its national culture. However, in the modernity of 21st century life, the monarchy is flailing in its influence. This historical institution is one that thrives in the context of a familiar, old-fashioned set of traditions and procedures that see minimal evolution over time. Thus, it appears strange that Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning British monarch, is the one overseeing the gradual fragmentation of interest in the royal family from her seat in Buckingham Palace… and Windsor Castle, and Sandringham, and Balmoral Castle.
It may be this incomprehensible lifestyle that has drawn Britons away from the monarchy. Whilst 20 percent of the UK population live in poverty, the royals occupy multiple palaces, castles and houses. Many would argue that it’s becoming harder to justify the public cost of funding the lifestyle of one family, albeit a culturally important one, when many are struggling to care for their own. Whilst abolishing or reforming the monarchy wouldn’t dissolve the class divide overnight, arguably the principle of breaking down the cemented privilege at the very top of society would be a visual sign that the UK is committed to a more progressive future.
The Royal Family do bring the nation together, though. Jubilees and royal weddings are a catalyst for community street parties and celebration. As a population, Britain often finds itself living vicariously through the monarchy, treating their personal family joy as that of the country’s. And this is not a problem. Occasionally, basking in national pride is an imperative feature of any successful democracy. If people didn’t care enough about their country, they would not go to the polls, let alone to war. If the royal family is essential to reinforcing this pride, then so be it.
The major problem lies with the fact that recent scandals and situations have threatened the viability of the royals in fortifying this national culture. Following their horrific treatment at the hands of the British press, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – decided to cease their royal duties and relocate to Los Angeles with their young son Archie. The announcement on 8th January 2020 shocked the British people who’d become accustomed to the idea that the monarchy fulfilled their extensive royal duties without question. Last month, the couple announced that they would not return to the royal family, simultaneously revealing that they were expecting their second child.
Harry and Meghan have made the most of their freedom away from the understandable constraints of being royalty. The former appeared on ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden’ last month and a widely publicised interview with Oprah Winfrey is set to air on 7th March. The couple have also signed deals with Netflix and Spotify to produce content for both platforms respectively. These relationships and media opportunities would not have been built and utilised if the couple had not distanced themselves from the throne.
Since separating themselves from the monarchy, the Duke and Duchess have set a new precedent for the future of the royal institution. By ceasing their duties (and thriving), they have proven that the royal family is not the be all and end all. If they were content with leaving their family behind, why should the British people hold on to them so dearly?
Prince Andrew’s involvement in the Jeffrey Epstein case has also generated problems for the monarchy. The now-deceased convicted paedophile was close friends with the prince, and the latter has, too, faced numerous allegations of sexual misconduct with young women. In a ‘tell-all’ interview with Emily Maitlis of BBC Newsnight, the Duke of York fumbled his way around the allegations and produced excuses that ultimately made the public more convinced that he’d done the things that were being claimed. Prince Andrew has been protected from any real investigation by his status – when it is his duty to serve the people of the Commonwealth, this should never be the way to use privilege. Once again, it drew people away from the crown. It’s often hard enough to justify the afforded privilege that the royal family have, it’s made much harder when they fail to set a moral example to the public.
Prior to Brexit, it would have been radical to even suggest that Britain committed to the constitutional upheaval of abolishing the monarchy. However, the unprecedented political change that has come with leaving the EU perhaps paves the way for a major structural shift throughout the UK. Scottish and Welsh independence are increasing in likelihood, whilst Irish unification also seems more plausible. The Brexit-induced NI Protocol has implemented border checks on many goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, putting businesses off of even trading with the latter and leading to shortages of some products. The union is not what it once was. If the crown isn’t ruling over a British state, is the monarchy surplus to requirements?
But perhaps this is the exact reason we need the royal family. Amidst disunity and hardship, the monarchy remains a beacon of an abnormal normality. Whilst the very concept of having one family who are funded by the taxpayer and granted these special ruling privileges is peculiar, it is a peculiarity that completely defines Britishness. The strength of this institution emanates from its strict and constant reference to royal traditions. Whether that be awarding knighthoods, state opening parliament, meeting with the prime minister, holding large-scale traditional weddings and births of international interest, opening new facilities or visiting Commonwealth countries, the royals are essential to the British image at home and abroad.
The future of the monarchy is thus a deeply interesting one. Whilst the argument for abolition needs more than a few changes or scandals to even remotely convince the British public, the call to reduce the pool of taxpayer-funded royals is perhaps one of validity. On the other hand, the country has had more than its fair share of constitutional upheaval and hardship in recent years; the monarchy is arguably the one thing that should be left to perform the same culturally important function that it has for centuries. If they are no longer able to perform this function, however, perhaps they will just be the final part to dip under the water of the sinking ship that is a (dis)United Kingdom.