The death of Queen Elizabeth II marked the end of an era for the monarchy in more ways than one. She was the last senior royal of a generation that will soon seem alien to modern monarchists.
In her 70 years on the throne, Elizabeth has only given one media interview which was limited to the subject of her coronation. She has never publicly expressed a firm opinion on any subject that could be considered political or controversial. She avoided any form of public intervention in how public institutions in the UK should be run.
In fact, the most controversial political moments of Elizabeth’s reign came from the indiscretion of others.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Queen ‘purred’ with delight when Scotland voted to remain in the UK in a 2014 independence referendum. The Sun newspaper speculated in 2016 that the Queen supported Brexit, which former Buckingham Palace communications director Sally Osman was quick to deny in an interview with CNN. earlier this week.
Compare that to the royal family now leading the monarchy into a new, more uncertain future. The eldest child of Elizabeth, now King Charles III, embarrassed the family when letters he wrote to former Prime Minister Tony Blair between 2004 and 2005 were published.
While the letters seemed innocuous enough – focusing on things like farmer subsidies and, amusingly, the merits of publishing private letters like these – the fact that the first in line to the throne was so happy to expressing political opinions to the Prime Minister alarmed those who supported the convention that the monarchy is apolitical.
Charles also controversially supported the use of public funds to provide homeopathy to the British state-funded National Health Service. NHS England said in 2017 that it would no longer fund homeopathy due to a “lack of evidence of its effectiveness not justifying the cost”.
As insignificant as Charles’ views on these matters may have seemed at the time, it bears remembering that for the entirety of her reign we knew virtually nothing of Elizabeth’s personal views, let alone the how she thought government funding should be distributed.
“The monarchy has enormous indirect power in that it can sway public opinion on an issue, which is arguably more important than lobbying ministers,” says Kate Williams, royal historian and professor of public engagement with history at British university. of Reading.
She points to the time when Elizabeth II said Scottish voters should ‘think carefully about the future’ while leaving a church service in Scotland ahead of the 2014 referendum. ‘Although this isolated comment was probably intended to be neutral, in the context of the referendum, both parties could claim that it was an endorsement of the rejection of independence,” adds Williams.
The seemingly incompatible mess of a monarch sharing opinions on such matters while remaining apolitical grows murkier as we generationally move away from the late queen.
The Prince and Princess of Wales were, like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, very public campaigners for mental health. William, who will take the throne after Charles, has spoken publicly about his own mental health struggles, particularly following the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.
William also used his platform to express himself against racism in footballstrongly implying at a time when there was huge controversy in the sport that he supported players taking the knee before games, an issue which caused a huge backlash for many football clubs in the UK.
And the now first-in-line has had a rocky relationship with the UK media, particularly the BBC following revelations that one of its reporters, Martin Bashir, used nefarious methods to secure an interview with his mother while she was extremely vulnerable following her divorce. of Charles.
Right now, support for the monarchy is high. We witnessed the outpouring of grief for the late Elizabeth and sympathy for the new king, taking on the role of his life while mourning his mother. But that doesn’t mean support will stay high forever.
Charles, in a BBC documentary filmed for his 70th birthday in 2018, promised he would not meddle in controversial matters once he became king. When specifically asked if his campaign would continue, he replied, “No, it won’t. I’m not that stupid.
He added: ‘I tried to make sure everything I did was political without a party, but I think it’s essential to remember that there is only room for one sovereign. at once, not two. So you cannot be the same as the Sovereign if you are the Prince of Wales or the Heir.
Nevertheless, the problem facing the king and his heir is that they cannot put these comments back in the bottle. And the fact that these opinions exist will inevitably affect their relationship with the public in the years to come, as we move away from the era of the inscrutable Elizabeth.
That said, republicanism has never been hugely popular in the UK. Even last week, at official events, protests were mostly confined to a small group of people, many of whom did little more than wave pieces of paper. A disproportionate police response, in which some protesters were arrested, led to media coverage and outcry, but did not shift the dial against the Royal Family significantly.
Elizabeth was a particularly popular monarch. Most public research on the matter shows that older monarchists believe his relative silence, compared to his successors, was dignified and preserved the integrity of the Crown.
Many of these traditional supporters, however, have always been skeptical of Charles and would prefer that he follow in his mother’s footsteps.
Conversely, the late Queen was popular with young monarchists despite her silence. It’s hard to identify precisely why, but it’s plausible that Elizabeth has always been on the throne and young people know nothing different.
However, what is also clear is that young monarchists approve of the Royal Family speaking out on issues that would previously have been seen as too controversial for the Queen.
“It’s entirely possible that the generation that thinks the Royals should keep their upper lip stiff and not talk about issues like women’s rights and mental health will die out,” said Joe Twyman, director of the political research organization Deltapoll.
“For people of a certain generation, the idea of bowing to your grandmother every time you see her just because she’s the queen seems insane,” he added, in reference to the row that followed Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey last year in which she described how surreal she sometimes found royal life.
This conflict in the precise role of the monarch is important because the institution lives or dies depending on whether the public thinks it is worth it or not.
It is likely that there will always be traditional monarchists who will defend its every action provided it does not evolve or modernize. They tend to be the most ardent when it comes to support.
However, this group will likely become a minority before William takes the throne. If Charles lives to be 99, as his father did, William will not become king until 2048. No credible social scientist could tell you with confidence what public attitudes will be towards anything d ‘here, whether it’s the royal family, climate change or racial equality.
The fact that the King and his heir have already said things on all these issues will significantly compromise their ability to remain neutral on such issues raised in the future, which, however serious, is expected of the Sovereign.
The fact is, their perceived opinions on any of these issues, even if based on past commentary, will continue to affect public opinion and therefore politics. If William’s low opinion of the BBC leads more Britons to believe public funding should be withdrawn in coming years, how will politicians respond to this pressure?
The monarchy has not had to address these issues for some time because, as long as Elizabeth was on the throne, the public view of the family and its role was largely stable.
That era is truly over. Now Charles and William must navigate less certain times, balancing old and new visions of who they are against the pressures of being an apolitical head of state. And, unlike Elizabeth, they will do so knowing that the popularity they rely on will be less guaranteed than it has been at any time during the longest-serving monarch’s 70-year reign.
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