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21 April 2016

Happy birthday Your Majesty – but the end of the monarchy is near

While the British people don’t yet equate their instincts and values with the abolition of the monarchy there is a general shift towards republicanism of a very British kind.

By Graham Smith

Yes, ok – we’re all happy when it’s someone’s birthday. But isn’t the Queen’s 90th also a stark reminder that this is a party that has to come to an end? The morbid fact is that the monarchy revolves around births, deaths and marriages and so a 90th birthday is also a signal of imminent change, a new king is on the horizon. Sometime in the next ten or fifteen years – perhaps a little longer – Britain will face its first royal succession that anyone alive at the time will be able to remember. And it’ll be a succession like no other before it.

When the Queen took over from her father in 1952 we were just a couple of decades into the world of universal suffrage, deference was still strong and was buttressed by a deep sense of patriotism following the end of the war seven years earlier. Women were still treated in the main as a lower order to men, gay rights were unheard of and the age of the computer was only just taking its first tentative steps into the future. How different it will be when Charles succeeds to the throne – a world of social media, 24/7 commentary and instant-reaction public debate. We live in a world that is deeply sceptical of power and established institutions, where the people demand a voice and where any sense of entitlement, any whiff of pomposity is quickly mocked and punctured by the demands for a fairer society.

While the British people don’t yet equate their instincts and values with the abolition of the monarchy there is a general shift in public sentiment towards what can be broadly described as small-r republicanism of a very British kind. It is that simple notion that the voter knows best, that we should be asked our opinion, given the chance to kick those in power and demand to know more about what they’re up to. It is a sentiment more developed in other countries, but in the UK we are learning to see ourselves as citizens with rights and responsibilities, rather than subjects buffeted by the whims and agendas of those above us. Whether on the left or right people are resisting the dominant ideas of the established political class – and that can only mean trouble in the long run for the monarchy.

A royal succession will be a wakeup call – the first time we witness the inheritance of public office in action.  Voices will be raised against it on principle, others will sit up and start to ask impertinent questions that before now they hadn’t been roused to ask: why is Charles taking this job without so much as a public debate? What will he do with his new position? What influence is he having? How can he possibly claim to represent this dynamic, modern society? 

The questions get harder for the royals to answer. Questions about tax avoidance, abuse of public money and the use of the royal veto to insist on legal privileges and exemptions. The façade of regal probity will give way to expose the grubby self-serving royal household in all its detail. Yet for most it’ll be a more straightforward emotional reaction: “we like the Queen, but when she’s gone let’s get rid of them.” That’s a common sentiment, expressed just the other day by a radio phone-in caller. He started off saying how much he loved the Queen, how wonderful and hard-working she is. Then the tone changed: “I don’t care for the rest of them, when the Queen goes it’s time we got rid of the monarchy”. 

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Republicans will grow in number as the debate grows in volume – I have no doubt about that. But in the end the monarchy will fall because the monarch we have grown up with will have left us. What will remain is an unloved family occupying a secretive and unsustainable institution in a world that demands information and power.  

Graham Smith is Chief Executive of Republic