It seems a reasonable question. This is, after all, Elizabeth II’s sixtieth year on the throne. The jubilee celebrations across the UK suggest that support for the monarchy is at least as strong as it was when Elizabeth II became Queen as a young woman in 1952.
This is odd for a number of reasons. The years of the first half of her reign so far (up to 1982) were fairly turbulent ones for the UK politically. Yet as the celebrations for Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding in 1981 demonstrate, the nation’s enthusiasm for the royals remained entirely undimmed.
The three decades since have been arguably less tumultuous for the nation, yet for the royals they have undoubtedly been more so. A trio of royal divorces, the mishandling of the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997 and the Paul Burrell Affair all caused the House of Windsor much grief at the time.
But none have done any lasting damage. Today the position of Queen Elizabeth II remains utterly unchallenged. Republican feeling in the UK hover s consistently around the 20% mark in opinion polls and has done since the 1960s. Empire and belief in God have both faded, but support for the monarchy hasn’t. Why is this?
There are several reasons why republican sentiment has never really caught on. For one thing, anti-royalists too often resort to the “money” argument. In fact, the estimated profits from tourism the royals provide undeniably more than makes up for any cost. Tourism is one of the UK’s largest industries and while, yes, very few tourists will literally see the Queen in person, and many tourists come for entirely different reasons, the appeal of having a sitting monarch undoubtedly attracts many to British shores. London was the second most visited city in the world in 2011. It’s doubtful this was down to the weather.
Then there’s the issue of who to replace her with. It’s true, many of her duties are effectively already carried out by the Prime Minster. But the thought of an elected politician becoming head of state (President Thatcher or Blair are usually given as examples) sends a shiver down many Britons spines.
Finally, there’s the fact that the Queen has done the job very well. It is doubtful, had she been mad like George III, had shunned her duties for decades like Victoria or had a speech impediment like her own father that she would have fared so well in the TV age.
But what of the future? What if she becomes incapacitated as she grows older, turns senile or publicly awkward? What if Charles demonstrates a clear political bias when he becomes King? Many people speak already as if they want or expect the crown to jump from Elizabeth II to William V. Yet, unless he is struck by serious scandal or ill health, there is no reason at all to think Charles would relinquish his claim. The role of Charles III is one he has been waiting to play for his entire life. And nobody’s going to get to vote on the issue.
There are many possible scenarios. But ultimately, the long term prospects for the institution under William look as rosy as ever. The British monarchy seems just as likely to endure through the 21st century as it did the ten centuries before.