OhAnd there, at least, everyone can identify with King Charles. His cancer diagnosis this week is a traumatic time, not just for him but for his family. It also triggered an instinctive sympathy from the public, not least because of the monarch’s refreshing relative open-mindedness about his condition. All of this sparked a powerful media story, made even more compelling by the Prince Harry subplot, which will be part of our national life for months.
But do the events of this week really have institutional implications for the monarchy? The immediate reaction of many will be to say no. The British monarchy’s recent history of adaptation, under Queen Elizabeth II and now under Charles, also shows this. After all, “the business” is programmed to ensure continuity. Seamless adaptation is what the monarchy does. It starts again this week, but in the preferred language where the return to work becomes the “resumption of functions”. Few politicians have any interest in questioning any aspect of this issue.
Yet the king’s diagnosis remains a shared national shock. This reverberates more widely than if the victim were you or me. It was also very unexpected. Coming so soon after the end of Elizabeth II’s unprecedentedly long reign, it poses questions of governance that are unfamiliar to both rulers and ruled. The country is not used to being presided over by a withdrawn or sick sovereign. It got people thinking and talking. It is stupid to pretend otherwise, and even more stupid to disapprove of its discussion.
In hindsight, these reflections and discussions did not take place sufficiently upon the death of Elizabeth II. She had been there for so long that the transition to Charles happened in a sort of collective daze, disbelief that the fateful moment had finally arrived. As a result, the national debate in September 2022 has tended to focus primarily on the past and not the future. The new king was already a deeply familiar figure. This ensured as stable and unquestionable a transition as it is possible to imagine.
This week’s royal death announcement suddenly seems different. He asks us to take into account, in a manner that remains secondary in 2022, that this royal reign will be significantly shorter than the previous one. It whispers insistently to us that one day – perhaps years from now, but perhaps in a rather disconcerting future – the monarchy and its relationship with the nation will have to evolve again.
This is a bigger question than some would like to believe. You shouldn’t dodge it either. Skeptics should instead look at two opinion polls taken in January. Each reveals a British public whose belief in the monarchy is far more lukewarm and nuanced than one might imagine from watching this week’s news bulletins or reading the newspapers. They remind us in particular that Britain must take account of generational changes, both in public attitudes to the crown and among those who wear it.
The polls, conducted by Savanta and YouGov, produced strikingly similar results. In Savanta survey48% of adults say they would prefer Britain to have a monarchy, compared to 32% who prefer an elected head of state, and 20% say they don’t know. YouGov figures, in response to a similarly worded question, are 45% for the monarchy, 31% for an elected head of state and 24% who don’t know. Older voters are more adamantly monarchist in both polls. However, among younger voters there was a clear preference for replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state.
None of this should be taken to mean that Britons, even the youngest, are brimming with republican enthusiasm. They are not. Other poll questions about the monarchy also show less stark divisions. But two polls carried out in recent weeks show that, For the very first time According to the Republic campaign group, the monarchy does not have the support of the overall majority of the population, which should give pause to politicians and courtiers. So does the confirmation in both polls that young British adults are far less committed to the monarchy than their parents or grandparents were. And this generation gap seems to be widening.
There are also striking differences between certain regions of Britain. In the YouGov poll, there are more people in favor of an elected head of state, as opposed to a monarchy, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and London. It is, however, a reminder that the monarchy is one of the few British institutions that actively promotes a UK-wide sense of identity. King Charles seems to be particularly aware of this. Trade unionism comes naturally to him. But how true is this for his son Prince William, who grew up during the years when the UK’s ties were weakening?
In his new book Fractured Union, Professor Michael Kenny of the University of Cambridge analyzes three contrasting constitutional paths facing the UK: breakup, comprehensive reform and incremental evolution. Among these hypotheses, he asserts, the third is the most probable. But it’s not an easy option. As Kenny points out, the pragmatic evolutionary path also requires the constant management of national dissensus, not national consensus. This requires a great deal of care and sensitivity. Modern British politics has not been very good at this, to say the least.
The King’s Cancer serves as a reminder that a similar choice between abolition, reform, and evolution inevitably faces the monarchy. The British are divided, not united. The public appetite to open up and examine these issues may be low, especially when compared to other, more pressing issues. But even if the king returns to relative health, the problems will not disappear.
Martin Kettle is a columnist for the Guardian
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