Monarchy in the UK: the royal family’s uncertain future
Prince Charles, heir to the throne, will need to make big changes when Queen Elizabeth dies
London barriers decorated with a royal family version of the Top Trumps card game. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry on Saturday in Windsor Castle. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
The transatlantic soap opera surrounding Meghan Markle’s family has added a touch of drama to a royal wedding that has failed to excite most of the British public, according to a poll this week.
The YouGov survey, which was commissioned by the anti-monarchist group Republic, found that two out of three respondents were “not very interested” or “not interested at all” in the ceremony, while 60 per cent planned to have a normal weekend.
Prince Harry is the most popular member of the royal family, with an approval rating higher than the queen’s, but he is sixth in line to the throne, behind Prince Charles, Prince William and his three children, so his wedding is of no constitutional significance. It will have an economic impact, however, generating more than £1 billion in tourism, retail, fashion, merchandising and PR value for brands, according to accountancy firm Brand Finance.
The company, which specialises in intellectual property and publishes an annual assessment of the brand value of the monarchy, found that brands associated with Markle had already gained a significant boost since her engagement was announced last year.
“Meghan Markle is an accomplished actress in her own right, with a global popularity and a strong personal brand. It can be expected that, supported by her association with Brand Monarchy, she will become a powerful ambassador for British brands, especially in her native United States.
“Although we are observing only the beginnings of a ‘Meghan effect’, Ms Markle will quickly match or even surpass the Duchess of Cambridge in her incredible influence on the fashion industry,” said chief executive David Haigh.
Haigh estimates that the monarchy generates about £1.8 billion for the British economy each year, far outstripping the £300-350 million it costs the state. More than a quarter of a century after the queen’s “annus horribilis” of 1992, when Windsor Castle went on fire, Princess Diana’s tell-all book with Andrew Morton was published, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’s intimate “squidgygate” phone calls were broadcast, and Prince Andrew separated from his wife Sarah Ferguson, the monarchy enjoys solid popular support.
“When you talk to people rationally about whether the monarchy makes sense – should we have a monarchy or a republic, should we allow these hereditary people to have a say in the running of the country – when people are talking with their heads, they usually say, no not really. But I think emotionally people act in a different way. They think, oh it’s very nice isn’t it, it’s a great traditional thing and aren’t they nice people, a bit like East Enders. And then the heart kicks in,” Haigh says.
Harry and his brother William are more popular than their father and his siblings, especially among the under-40s but it is the queen who, at 92, remains the linchpin of the monarchy. Its supporters are already anxious about the future after she dies.
Detailed plans are already in place for the days after her death, including 12 days of public mourning leading up to a state funeral.
“I think it’s pretty much tied down. There are various military planning documents that spell out exactly how the funeral will take place. Clearly the BBC and other state broadcasters have preparations for what they do. Most of the plans are predicated on the idea of the queen’s health fading and the announcement of her death being made at a particular time of day, a very controlled way of doing it. That of course is blown sky high if there’s a leak on social media or something,” said one official involved in the planning.
“An interesting thing will be what the mood is about how long the BBC plays solemn music, do the newspapers have black edges, when do they start covering other stories. When do normal events start coming back onto the agenda.”
I think it’s impossible to overestimate the impact that the queen’s death will have
After 65 years on the throne, the queen’s reign has been so long that few Britons can remember any other head of state, and the official predicts that, despite her age, the response to her death will be one of deep shock.
“I think it’s impossible to overestimate the impact that the queen’s death will have, particularly in the rather febrile world that we live in at the moment. There’s so much uncertainty about Brexit, about international relations, our relationship with the United States, our economy, about our future as a country and our relationship with each other. And the one constant, the one thing that holds it all together is the queen,” he says.
“She’s just been so much part of everybody’s life for such a long time, she has maintained this sense of fairness, of honesty, of fair play, of an old Britain that perhaps thinks it’s slightly more important than it is. And I think with her gone, all that is blown out of the water and I think that will hit people almost immediately, that nothing will ever be the same again. I think there’ll be a great baring of souls and fear, in a sense of ‘what happens now?’”
The pageantry and deference surrounding the queen, which seems unremarkable in association with her, could feel more like an anachronism under a new monarch. Charles has recovered from his lowest point in the public’s affections after Diana’s death but he remains the most unpopular of the senior royals.
Unhappy union with Diana
This is in part a legacy of his unhappy union with Diana and his subsequent marriage to Camilla, but it also owes something to his record of seeking to influence politicians and his sometimes bad-tempered campaigns in favour of complementary medicine and against modern architecture.
The official involved in planning for the succession believes that Charles should make an early gesture towards reducing the scale of the monarchy, bringing it closer to those of Denmark and the Netherlands.
“If they’re seen to have too many fripperies, too many luxuries, too many private planes, too many palaces, too many numbing bits of protocol, then that’s where the problems will begin. If they’re sensible, then they’ll immediately trim things back.
“The complication is that a lot of it is theirs anyway, and there’s nothing very much that the state can do about it. In a sense, Charles’s Achilles’ heel is his reputation for being lavish, for taking the royal train, for chartering jets, for having six butlers when one would do and having someone to squeeze his toothpaste tube and cut the top off his egg. I think that’s what he’ll need to watch,” he says.
“It’s very easy to defend the current monarch and to trot out the line about what she means to Britain’s reputation, what she means for tourism, what she means for our sense of who we are. I think it will be harder to do that for a new monarch, and I think if Charles is sensible, he’ll quite quickly make a couple of gestures, perhaps giving up a palace, perhaps saying that Buckingham Palace is going to become an art gallery to house the royal collection and maybe a state guesthouse but no longer a residence.”
A poll last year found that two out of three Britons do not want Camilla to become queen but the official believes she will overcome any remaining hostility to her as they become more familiar with her.
“Camilla is in a way the best thing about Charles. She’s very straightforward, she’s down to earth, she likes a joke, she’s got that great, rasping smoker’s cough, she likes a drink. She’s in a sense the person who’s made Charles much less weird,” he says.
For Haigh, the biggest threat to the monarchy lies in the personal behaviour of members of the royal family. He fears that the fanfare surrounding Markle’s arrival into the royal family as an American divorcee of mixed racial heritage could sound hollow if, like so many recent royal marriages, Harry’s does not endure.
“All of the problems that have arisen around Prince Charles and Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and various minor royals, they all come down to their personal behaviour. Whether it’s being accused of taking money where they shouldn’t or giving favours where they shouldn’t or behaving in a bad way or having opinions which are too extreme, there are a lot of personal behavioural issues,” he says.
“Now I personally think it’s extremely unlikely that Meghan Markle will put a foot wrong. I think the real danger is that for some reason or another they don’t suit each other and eventually they fall out and split.
“The other real problem, which is now looming bigger and bigger every day that goes by, is her remarkably dysfunctional family. I must admit that I was really surprised that they completely excluded all her family.
“I think if she had invited her family to the wedding, she’d have a better chance of controlling what they do. Instead of which, they’re all going rogue as far as I can see. It’s bonkers.”