How long will the British Royal Family continue?
March 7, 2021 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I've never been interested in the British Royal Family, but I recently finished watching The Crown and am planning to watch tonight's interview with Prince Harry and Meghan. This has gotten me wondering why the Royal Family has lasted this long into the modern era, but that's actually not my question.

Since nothing lasts forever, it seems that one day they will be gone as an institution, even if that's a hundred or more years in the future. My question is, have people given thought to what it would take for that to happen? What sort of event or series of social changes would move public opinion enough to lead to the end of the monarchy?
posted by daikon to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Revolution or if the current line dies out, the British simply don't bother to call up an heir from a minor league cadet branch. I really don't see the current British regime making a conscious effort to get rid of the Royals.
posted by Stuka at 12:33 PM on March 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would reframe this question along the lines of what has to happen for it to end.

The Windsors are monarchs of not just the UK. Do you mean what has to happen for the monarchy to end in all those other countries as well?

In the UK itself, the monarchy is bound up in the legal framework that unites England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Abolishing the monarchy would mean all that would need to be rewritten. I expect that is a pretty big political football what with Scottish independence and the Northern Ireland situation heating up again.
posted by Fukiyama at 12:35 PM on March 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes many people have given a lot of thought to what it would take. Probably the most prominent in recent-ish times was Tony Benn - Common Sense. Republicanism in the UK has its supporters - I was raised and remain a staunch UK republican. (Note that this does not have anything to do with the US Republican Party.)

As you say you are unfamiliar with the British Royal Family, perhaps you don't know that we've abolished the monarcy before. In the 17th Century we had civil wars, executed Charles I and established the Commonwealth of England before the Stuart Restoration. Wikipedia gives an overview of this.
posted by boudicca at 1:05 PM on March 7, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Royal families don't, in general, just stop. Something dramatic happens. It would take a reversal on the order of what happened when England stopped being the pre-eminent naval power in the whole world and dramatically downsized its empire (or had its empire taken from it, depending). Real "change the course of world history" type stuff. The royal family of Lichenstein has survived the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon, and world wars and still holds a bunch of major palaces as well as their eponymous principality. You don't hear nearly as much about them because they seem to be able to keep their scandals under wraps. The Norwegian royal family is popular and unassuming, but they are filthy rich. Even if the UK royals were only the heads of the church of England, I would say they're not going anywhere.
posted by wnissen at 1:09 PM on March 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

The whole concept of "the Crown" exists as an abstraction of the monarchy in Canada. Does that need to be a Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (aka Windsor)? Nope. In Britain at least, the transition from Stuart to Hanover to S-C&G didn't affect the people at all. If Canada had to choose, they'd likely go with House Gretzky if the UK monarchy went down the pan.

Should it? Probably. Will it? Probably not for a while. Currently it's fairly convenient to keep, no-one's actually getting their heads cut off, and the European royal houses have traditionally been the nastiest bastards going. Unless someone with a really pointy sword shows up, they're staying until then.
posted by scruss at 1:11 PM on March 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

perhaps you don't know that we've abolished the monarcy before. In the 17th Century we had civil wars, executed Charles I and established the Commonwealth of England before the Stuart Restoration

...which was triggered by the attempt to install Oliver Cromwell's son as Protector, meaning essentially a reversion to a hereditary rulership within a decade of the execution of the last king.
posted by praemunire at 1:24 PM on March 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

The House of Savoy was founded around the year one thousand, supplied the last king of Italy until 1946, and is still embarrassing today
posted by bq at 1:25 PM on March 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

It really doesn't look like being a royal, or even king or queen, is that sweet of a deal if you're as educated, charismatic, and wealthy as the next generation of the royals in the UK. I think that if they were convinced that they weren't actually making the world a better place by doing the job they do, they might just quit and eliminate the monarchy (by whatever process makes sense).
posted by amtho at 1:26 PM on March 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The monarchy is closely bound to the (unwritten) constitution of the UK. It would not be a trivial change. Any deliberate effort to change it also has to contend with what it would change into, so it will have opponents even among people who oppose the monarchy.

I'd note that the monarchy has defenders who just plain think it's better than an elected head of state--it keeps that role ceremonial. That comes up in earnest occasionally in discussions on the blue (usually in the context of how messed up the US style elected head of state can get.)

One might think that a monarch overstepping their role would lead to the dissolution, but it's way more likely to just lead to deposing the current king or candidate and choosing someone else. In fact, Australia had a referendum to depose the monarchy after a governor-general overstepped his role--and it lost. Another possible precedent is to be a monarchy with no monarch--the constitutional order stays intact but a regent rules on behalf of a non-existent king. Similar to Horthy's legal status in Hungary in the interwar period or (if you prefer poli sci in LoTR form) the Stewards of Gondor.

I would predict that it would really take a crisis of confidence in the entire elite system to get rid of it, where people decided they needed to get rid of everything. Something on the order of the collapse of the 4th Republic in France, where it took a combination of external crisis (Algeria), widely recognized internal weaknesses, and strong support for a figure (de Gaulle) who was committed to dismantling the system.
posted by mark k at 1:39 PM on March 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

I wondered the same thing recently, and in my searching came across polling showing that approval for the monarchy strongly correlates with age. Not sure if this has always been the case (just like Republicans in the US have always tended to be older), but presumably if it ever became really unpopular, it could change. But it seems more likely the royals themselves will opt out before that happens.
posted by coffeecat at 1:42 PM on March 7, 2021

In other countries, monarchs have become much less relevant, having a ceremonial role. Sweden, for instance. In Japan, even the Emperor's god status is diminishing a bit. I think the British monarchy could go in that direction.

The British Royals are great at pageantry, gossip, scandal, and taking themselves incredibly seriously. They probably earn the country a great deal in tourism and tea towel sales. Probably less of a good deal for Canada, Oz, etc.

I am deeply opposed to the idea of royal lineage and all that. I quite like Queen Elizabeth version of the job, but I'm happy to be at a distance.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on March 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

In fact, Australia had a referendum to depose the monarchy after a governor-general overstepped his role--and it lost
Sort of—the referendum was called by a conservative, monarchist Prime Minister, decades after the 1975 Dismissal (and was mostly unrelated to it). It's true that the vote was lost; monarchists interpret it as a pro-monarchy vote, while everyone else interprets it as John Howard's canny splitting of the pro-Republic side into 'direct election' and 'by appointment' camps.

It raised an interesting question that nobody really has a final answer to, which is what happens if the UK were to get rid of its monarchy before Australia does, a thing that is not impossible. The Australian constitution refers to 'Her Majesty's heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom', but if those heirs were to be replaced by a democratically elected British President, or fascist British dictatorship, or federated anarcho-syndicalist workers' councils of Britain, or whatever—in other words, the Royals were not 'sovereign' in the UK any more—would Elizabeth's heirs still be 'royal' to Australia? Nobody knows.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:39 PM on March 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

The British monarchy is bigger than just the one family. It’s the focal point and tippy-top of a whole class system which is much larger than Brenda’s bunch. Those families have been entrenched for hundreds of years, and it all reinforces itself — its only purpose.

So to answer your question, what would it take to get rid of the monarchy, it becomes larger. What would it take to eliminate that whole class structure? Revolution, or more likely, a bad war.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:11 PM on March 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Wikipedia has a nice article on abolished monarchies, if you'd like some case studies of the times this has already happened.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:35 PM on March 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't know about the constitutional details, but I have a pet theory that, in Canada at least, it will be the appearance of King Charles III (or whatever name he takes) on the money which will cause the sort of "broken step" effect. Most of us have lived our entire lives completely within the reign of Queen E2, and the monarch is like old wallpaper. When the "room gets redecorated", I think a lot of people will wonder, who is this hoser and why is his face on the money? Why is there a picture of him on the ferries, and in the airports? I think it will be these material side effects of the new monarch more than the principle of monarchy which will be the leading edge of republicanism up here.

And, for better or worse, the public perception of a male sovereign may well differ from a female one - the former more threatening, perhaps?

The impending change of monarch is also guaranteed to set off a shitstorm in Quebec, and quite rightly too.
posted by Rumple at 9:56 PM on March 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

You might be interested in knowing that Britain does have a credible alternate royal family: the Jacobite Succession is explained here. As with many things in the UK's constitution, this involves going back to James VI of Scotland who became James I of England under the Union of Crowns that later begat the UK. The (protestant) Hanoverian house - which led to today's house of Windsor - was created as part of a pretty big stretch in family succession compared to the (catholic) Jacobite line. If the Jacobite line of succession were to be adopted then the current king would be the millennial dude * Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein. So - one way the Windsors could end as a royal family would be the reversion to this line: either from the UK or from an independent Scotland. This is in no way likely; but has happened before in the royal succession.

(*By 'dude', I mean 'serene highness prince')
posted by rongorongo at 10:16 PM on March 7, 2021

As others have said, trying to unpick the Monarchy from the non-codified UK Constitution would be difficult. It's not simply a question of using find and replace to swop in a President, for example. The benefits of removing the Monarchy would need to outweigh the costs of doing so. (Including questions regarding the Commonwealth, the Crown Dependencies, etc. How would it affect the Queen's role as Duke of Normandy in the Channel Islands for example?)

There would also have to be a government who is willing to take the risk of replacing the Monarchy, something that they will only do if they are convinced that they can do so without losing power. (Either as a direct result of being responsible for it, or as a consequence of whatever changes are made to the power structure.) Unless something major happens, this may be even more of a sticking point than the first.
posted by scorbet at 12:52 AM on March 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Since nothing lasts forever, it seems that one day they will be gone as an institution, even if that's a hundred or more years in the future.

I think this is a false assumption behind your question. It doesn't seem like this, especially to British people. They are incredibly popular. Brexit has been a good thing for the monarchy. Republicanism is not a debate the press engage with in the UK. Even the alleged pedophilia of Prince Andrew (the son of the Queen) provoked only outrage concerning the prince, and hardly registered any disquiet on the institution of the monarchy itself.

Power propagates power. All the soap opera drama serves as an outlet for any disquiet, whilst the show goes on.
posted by einekleine at 4:39 AM on March 8, 2021

As others have said, trying to unpick the Monarchy from the non-codified UK Constitution would be difficult.

Ireland is perhaps the most interesting example here. Having gained self-rule in 1922, it was accorded 'Dominion' status in 1926 along with Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and NZ -- the 'white' countries of the Empire -- along with minority-white-ruled South Africa. These countries had (and mostly still have) a Governor-General appointed to handle the royal prerogative stuff.

At the end of 1936, de Valera took advantage of the abdication crisis to remove all references to the Governor-General and monarch in the Free State's constitution. That was followed by a couple of other acts and a new constitution in 1937 that abolished the G-G's office and created a president, but gave the state permission to delegate "external relations" (e.g. ambassadors and treaties) to the monarch of the United Kingdom. This set up a kludgy situation for the next 12 years where arguably Ireland was neither a republic nor a monarchy, or perhaps both at the same time depending on how you looked at it. After WW2, it became the explicit position of both the Irish government and opposition that Ireland was already a republic and had been since 1936, and the Republic of Ireland Act was passed in 1948 to "clarify" this status.

(It's similar to how judges in Canada and Australia have ruled that their countries became independent from the UK... well, it wasn't independent before date X and it was clearly independent on date Y, so it must have happened in-between.)

Anyway. That kind of prestidigitation requires a written constitution, which makes it easier for Canada / Australia etc. to replace the G-G with a president*, but isn't happening any time soon in the UK.

* The main questions there are the method of electing a president, and how to limit partisanship in both the ceremonial function of the head of state and the use of prerogative powers. Which brings us back to Ireland.
posted by holgate at 8:42 AM on March 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Monarchy, like so many human institutions (including most forms of government), is one of those things whose existence is a direct consequence of people's willingness to believe in it. In the modern world, this belief has two axes: belief that the person has the position they claim, and belief that the claimed position has any significance. The more they're willing to believe the second, the more they actually care about the first.

For example, there are a fair number of people who claim (some with strongish geneological evidence!) to be the Holy Roman Emperor. Nobody disputes this claim, really: if someone wants to be the heir to Holy Roman Emperor, who's to say they aren't? This is because absolutely no nation or people today owes fealty to the HRE, so there's absolutely no harm in recognizing (or at least not actively denying) a claim to be the heir of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Zombie monarchies of this sort, with a greater or lesser degree of official recognition, are all over. There are plenty of claimants to thrones that no longer exist, or thrones that exist but don't really mean much any more. It's only when you attach power or prerogatives to the throne that anyone cares (and of course, even minor duties typically mean there's enough oversight to limit things to only one credible claimant, which is why the king of Sweden above isn't just one among many people claiming with equal justification to be the king).

The British monarchy retains a Constitutional role, and in the normal affairs of government they'll always have that role barring a specific stripping them of it, but societies are built on expectations as much as on rules, and the expectation is that the British royals don't get involved with government. They're already very ceremonial, and they could become perceived as more irrelevant to a considerable degree without a single constitutional change. It's not impossible that, say, William's grandchildren will commute from Buckingham Palace to their day jobs, with occasional side jaunts to do their ceremonial duties, and that royalty is going to be a point of interest about them rather than the entirety of their identity.
posted by jackbishop at 9:09 AM on March 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It would take a revolution of one kind or another. As an institution is is popular enough, aware enough to only skirt near politics, and the work to unpick it is fiendishly difficult enough that it would take a very serious crisis or upheaval. Although plenty of people are republicans, they are not in a majority and the number of people who think it would be worth spending the time on are small indeed. (The House of Lords I could see being abolished, or all its hereditary peers removed.)

It would be much easier to get rid of if we had a codified constitution, because then there's at least a document to rewrite and other laws would need to be read in such a way that they were compatible with it. It's hard to think of any political party spending time on this though, without some kind of crisis - even if not as bad as one that would dislodge the monarchy.

It's not going to die out naturally, there are 100s of people (mostly German) in the line of succession, which is defined as the non-Catholic descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover (died in 1714). I think once you get through all the male-line descendants of George V (QEII's cousins and their children) you stop having people that are really thought of as being related to the royal family and who currently appear at Trooping of the Colour. But there are already 60 of them, with a reasonable expectation of many more on their way.

I imagine that, like most European royal families, it is likely to get smaller in terms of who does 'royal' for a living. As of the this century, there is already the expectation that unless your actual parent is or will be the monarch you need to have a regular aristocratic/rich person life using your own inheritance, husband's money, business or job depending on your luck.

Look at Belgium. They were invaded by the Germans in WW2, and the King stayed and was effectively accused of collaborating. They still have a monarchy - that King abdicated sometime after the war and they've been rocked by scandals since like everyone else. Once it has become an institution, it's surprisingly difficult to remove without proper upheaval.
posted by plonkee at 1:51 PM on March 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

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