A defining historical moment is coming soon. At the age of 95, Queen Elizabeth II cannot reign much longer. Looking back on our time, historians in years to come will surely couple Brexit and the succession of a new king as the events that mark the end of an era in the history of the nation, not just the history of the monarchy.
The Duke of Edinburgh has gone. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have retired to California. The Prince of Wales’s charity is under investigation by the Metropolitan Police and his brother Andrew has just paid a handsome settlement to forestall accusations of sexual assault. The Queen has now contracted Covid and, in the year of her platinum jubilee, the intimation of mortality can hardly come at a lower ebb for the House of Windsor.
The concept of the royal family works when the family is a happy and stable one. George III and Charlotte and their brood of children, Victoria and Albert at Osborne House, the stolid virtues of George V and Queen Mary, or George VI with his young princesses all embodied the idea of a national family that seems charming and apt. But a family on the edge of a breakdown is not such a grand idea.
This has happened before, but never in the age of maximum publicity. The sons of George III caroused their way through society. Edward VII started out at the gaming tables and went morally downwards from there. Edward VIII presaged his abdication with his youthful penchant for married women and American cocktails. The behaviour of the current crop of second-tier royals is not much worse than their predecessors. There is just more daylight let in on the magic these days.
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This light has revealed some terrible things. The Metropolitan Police is investigating claims that aides to the Prince of Wales offered to help Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, a Saudi businessman, with a knighthood in exchange for donations to a foundation set up by Charles. But it is his younger brother, Andrew, who has brought the family into disrepute. His out-of-court settlement with Virginia Giuffre (who had made serious allegations of sexual abuse against Andrew) at least avoids the media circus of a trial. But the damage is done.
There was some understandable indignation about whether public funds will be used to pay for the Duke of York’s settlement. Andrew receives a stipend from the Queen’s Duchy of Lancaster income. But, in a way, the money will derive from public funds no matter which pot is raided. The bill does not have to be paid directly from the civil list for this to be public money. As Phillip Hall showed 30 years ago in his book Royal Fortune: Tax, Money and the Monarchy, the wealth of the House of Windsor derives largely from the profit that Prince Albert made on the public purse when he professionalised the royal operation in the 1840s.
The House of Windsor’s princes illustrate a paradox of modern monarchy. If it is possible to capture an age in a sentence, this has been one in which power has seeped from institutions to individuals. The great democracy of public opinion is displayed daily on social media platforms. Yet monarchy cannot be popular in this sense. Its authority derives not from the people but from the right of birth.
The monarchy’s concession to the era of celebrity has been to promote the individual characters of the royal play. There is a danger in this strategy in that the institution is subordinated to the fleeting popularity of the individuals who hold office. This is fine when the top job is held by the Queen, who was cited by 45 per cent of respondents to a recent Ipsos Mori poll as their favourite royal. The monarchy has been fortunate with the monarch, but that cannot last forever. Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, is the sixth most popular royal.
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If the future of the monarchy now rests on it being popular – in the public relations sense rather than the philosophical sense – then it must be updated. The long wait of the would-be King Charles suggests some simple changes. Before the age of common longevity, there was little prospect of the heir to the throne wasting a whole lifetime waiting for the job, as Charles has been forced to do.
The first implication of this is that every member of the royal family who is not the sovereign ought to be in productive work. It’s no kind of life simply waiting for the generation above to pass on. Prince Charles has been waiting for 73 years already and it is absurd that his best years should have disappeared in his role as the heir to the throne. His eldest son, Prince William, is already close to 40.
There is no reason that the serving monarch should not stand down at the usual retirement age. Queen Elizabeth could have retired 30 years ago, just after the tenure of Mrs Thatcher, around the time that provides the drama for the upcoming season of Netflix’s The Crown. Prince Charles would have taken office in his early forties and served until retirement at the age of 65 in 2014. William would then have succeeded to the throne at the age of 31, with three decades of service ahead of him. His own son, Prince George, would then be primed to take over, all being well, at the age of 35. It would all fit so much better with the life cycle, and it would make the most of the available talent, such as it is.
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls