YOU KNOW WHAT we Brits say about buses, don’t you? “There’ll be another one along in a minute.”
Ancestral wisdom for us, and it’s still true today.
It’s also now true of prime ministers over here, but not of our monarchs, for which perhaps we should be thankful. The second Elizabethan age has finally given way to the Carolian, and we await, with a sense of nervous anticipation, to see how, if at all, our new head of state can live up to his predecessor’s legacy.
In the matter of durability it’s not very likely. He has ascended the throne at the age of seventy-four and would have to live to be one hundred and forty-five to equal his mother’s record as regnant monarch.
Can he ever match her aura of dignified royalty? Again, not likely. We are being asked to refocus our allegiance from a familiar but undeniably aloof and enigmatic figurehead, to one of the most closely inspected, rigorously revealed characters in our media ecosphere. In the matter of letting daylight in on magic, Charles has, comparatively speaking, lived his life on Brighton Beach, and his sheer familiarity will probably prevent him from ever carrying a convincing air of numinous power. We know all about his first marriage, his relations with his children, his conversations with plants, his organic biscuits, and even how much he is worth. £1.8 billion, for the record.
We can only make guesses about what is to come. There has been a longstanding rumour that the new king wants a ‘slimmed down’ monarchy, though it’s not entirely clear what that means. Perhaps we should just expect less cream in the desserts at state banquets. If the new king’s discontented son Harry has anything to do with it, we might get a ‘crashed down’ monarchy instead. Harry has set his face against inequality, but without displaying much understanding about what the word actually means. The major injustice in his world seems to be that his older brother got all the nice stuff while he had to make do with drink and drugs.
Speculation is currently rife but is not hazard-free. One sure way to clear the table of dinner guests is to float questions like “Tell me, how do you see the monarchy in twenty years?” or “What blend of tradition and modernity do you think makes an ideal royal family?” The frosted glass that surrounds so much of the monarchy makes clear vision about the future unappealingly difficult. If the royals themselves have a real plan, then they aren’t letting on. Senior insiders prefer to talk about how the present arrangements promote stability and continuity, both popular qualities we also appreciate in our bus services.
The papers here have been awash with polling, and the good news for the Windsors is that about two-thirds of the general population support the monarchy and are happy to see it continue. Slightly less good news is that about two-thirds of the general population also believe that the monarchy is in need of ‘reform’. We don’t know whether these are all the same people, leaving one-third of the nation as republicans, or whether there is a more complex breakdown based on shades of opinion.
Barring a revolution, either violently from below, or constitutionally from alongside by ambitious politicians, the monarchy might expire from lack of interest. If the royals don’t actually do anything that makes a difference, that people can notice, then what exactly is the point of it all?
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The most startling result revealed by the current polling mania is that a clear majority of 18-to-24-year-olds would abolish the monarchy. Why Britain’s youth is so antagonistic is not clear. Is it just an old versus young thing—that one old monarch has been replaced by another who seems much the same, with neither sporting visible tattoos or piercings, and both of whom clearly sit high up on the housing ladder?
But does it matter? Could it be that by the time millennials and Gen Z have grown up a bit they will come to see the attractions of having the nation embodied in a traditional nuclear family? Is time really on the side of privilege and dynastic succession? Whisper it gently, but our monarchs, like popes, can take a very long view of their prospects. They might not have the Vatican’s confidence of thinking in centuries, but they can certainly allow themselves to think in decades and lifetimes.
Meanwhile, the future never quite goes away, and constitutional issues remain highly pertinent in modern Britain, where the ruling Conservative Party has long ceased to do anything conservative, and seems intent on smashing up anything it can get its hands on.
It is possible to imagine a future political landscape in which a populist rightwing government finds itself opposed by a slightly awkward alliance between woke youth and a royal family that deploys emollient and inclusive language. The British royal family has never courted controversy and would be the natural opponent of any radical political programme of either the left or the right. In time, the sulky youth of 2023 might become much more monarchist if the royal family’s vision of stability and continuity looks less like Armageddon than the aggressive divisiveness of the current Tories. The long-sanctioned role that the monarchy can play in uniting and soothing the nation is much more firmly grounded than the skittish behaviour of politicians attempting to set us against each other.
However, in the short term, stability and continuity can have a distinctly mediaeval and undemocratic look to them. Over nine hundred years of family precedent and the umpteenth return to Westminster Abbey to put on a diamond hat surrounded by bedecked courtiers also rather works against the idea of a slimmed down monarchy. Trying to modernise an institution that has always relied upon mysterious divine forces to lend it authority is a task both delicate and enormous.
Can monarchical mystery long survive in the modern world when dynastic succession is always something of a lottery? Frogs have thousands of children and let them fight it out to find the strongest among them. Turkish sultans did something similar on a rather smaller scale, and while nothing quite so indelicate goes on in modern Britain, the progress of generations is an uncertain affair.
In the case of the present accession, we should remember that it is only the kindness of fate and lack of polo accidents that have granted us our sovereign lord King Charles, the third of that name. If any mischance had befallen him along the way, before he married at the comparatively late age of thirty-three, we would be about to crown our sovereign lord King Andrew, the first of that name. This, we must remind ourselves, is the Duke of York whose activities in the environs of convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein recently landed him on the Buckingham Palace naughty step.
Private sexual shenanigans among the blue-blooded have always been tolerated, but Andrew got himself into some very hot legal water from which, despite his high-toned denials, only a lifebelt made from a massive amount of money could extract him. An unkind wit even penned a small rhyme to record the event.
Oh, the grand old Duke of York He had ten million quid Which he gave it to a girl he’d never met For something that he never did
Close escapes and random accidents like this have always been among the best arguments for republicanism, and there is not a royal family or a dynasty anywhere that has not fallen foul of an unworthy successor at some time or other. But the current iteration of the long-running show that is the British royal family remains sanguine about the success of its own breeding programme. The children keep coming, and it is only the marriage programme that seems defective: while the late queen was happily coupled for a lifetime, three of her four children couldn’t sustain their marriages for even a decade, let alone seven.
But the line of succession is assured for at least two more generations. If King Charles and Prince William both live to around ninety, William’s eldest son George might expect to enjoy his own coronation somewhere around the year 2072, when he would be forty-nine years old. So the Buckingham Palace balcony will be fully supplied with wavers for the foreseeable future.
Now we have a far less mysterious figure at the centre of events, who is likely to be succeeded by yet more elderly male faces who can never recapture the aura of dutiful motherliness we once knew. The late Queen Elizabeth created her own moment, and it lasted a remarkably long time. Of such stuff is monarchy made, of ideals and example
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And what can stop them getting that far? Barring a revolution, either violently from below with the modern equivalent of pitchforks, or constitutionally from alongside by ambitious politicians, the monarchy might simply expire from lack of interest. If the royals don’t actually do anything that makes a difference, that people can notice and appreciate in their everyday lives, then what exactly is the point of it all?
A number of royal dominions—so-called Commonwealth realms—around the world have asked this question and have found the institution wanting. Jamaica is the latest, and Australia has been threatening to follow for a long time now. But the unkindest cut of all could come from Scotland.
The independence movement there, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), has traditionally committed itself to retaining the monarchy, a smart move to reassure less committed separatists that an independent Scotland would not be such an unfamiliar place. But the new SNP leader, Humza Yousaf, is an avowed republican, as is a substantial faction within his party. Were a referendum to deliver independence in the next few years, as Yousaf is dedicated to doing, the historic union of thrones, brought about by the Scottish king James VI (and I) in 1603, might finally be sundered. And what then of the bekilted image of Charles? The emergence of a Republic of Scotland, in the very backyard of royalty, would be a catastrophic blow to the legitimacy of the whole monarchical edifice.
How can the family fend off these threats? Can it make itself truly ‘relevant’, or more pointedly, how can it market itself to the nation it purportedly serves? Is there any objectively useful thing that a king can do for a four-nation United Kingdom? Can the House of Windsor propel itself in any direction upon the sea of history, or is it fated to drift like a jellyfish at the mercy of the tides?
Hitherto it has been extremely difficult for British people to imagine their historic traditions, national institutions or public life without the royal family at the very centre of all of them. The Crown appoints judges and prosecutes criminals, while the armed services and the police exercise authority on behalf of the monarch. The supreme legislative power in the country is ‘the Crown in Parliament’.
The line of succession is assured for at least two more generations. If King Charles and Prince William both live to around ninety, William’s eldest son George might expect to enjoy his own coronation somewhere around the year 2072, when he would be forty-nine years old. So the Buckingham Palace balcony will be fully supplied with wavers for the foreseeable future
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The British monarchy is one of those things that you couldn’t set up in the 21st century. Along with our railway network, the Church of England, the BBC, county cricket and Oxbridge colleges there would be too many obstacles to overcome, including modern sensitivities, vested interests, and enormous capital costs, not to mention incredulity.
There is a hint here that the time of monarchy is over. It may well be that the architecture of the previous, very long reign, and the extraordinary nature of its central character represented a high point that can never be replicated in terms of presentation, popularity and cultural context. Having such a respected figure in the background while the attractive younger family members gambolled in full view worked admirably well in terms of national acceptance and constitutional efficiency. But now we have a far less mysterious figure at the centre of events, who is likely to be succeeded by yet more elderly male faces who can never recapture the aura of dutiful motherliness we once knew.
The late Queen Elizabeth created her own moment, and it lasted a remarkably long time. Of such stuff is monarchy made, of ideals and example. She may have guaranteed the family line, but there are intangible things that cannot be passed on by inheritance or proximity. A degree of indifference and political inertia may preserve the British monarchy for now, but too much has changed that can never be recreated, and the future may become increasingly hostile.
The coronation will be remembered for its pomp and circumstance, but while the pomp will surely stay in the memory, the circumstance will, in the end, be more telling. We may never see the like again.