The 2016 Brexit referendum put the United Kingdom through a constitutional ordeal for which it was unprepared. The years before the referendum were a period of much complacency. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act sailed into law in 2011 without anyone apparently having understood the constitutional consequences. When parliament debated holding the referendum, the reality that EU membership was a UK constitutional matter and that such questions raise divisive identity issues was scarcely articulated.
Recent events reveal fractures in a similar complacency about the monarchy. The Queen’s long reign and the extraordinary respect and affection she commands have allowed a politics largely free from conflict about the monarchy’s place in the constitution or in the UK’s existence as a multinational state. Even though strong republican sentiments have persisted among a minority, they have only rarely looked like being politically consequential. But, over the next decade or so, existential questions about the monarchy will have to be answered.
The British monarchy depends on certain conditions, none of which are at all easy to maintain. It is part of a constitution that is, as the Queen herself once said, “puzzling” and “always will be”.
The Crown is part of that enigma. Its formal and ceremonial role in the constitution has to be accepted as a constraint by parliament and citizens, and appreciated for its substantive emptiness. The prorogation crisis last September showed the obvious dangers in blurring the line between the monarch’s passive role and democratic politics. By asking the Queen to perform an act that would inevitably be subject to legal challenge, the Prime Minister condemned her to act politically. That the High Court of Justice for England and Wales, an appellate panel of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom could not agree on the legality of the use of royal powers, or the relevance of Boris Johnson’s motives, demonstrated how hard consensus is on constitutional matters involving the Crown, once a political crisis requires them to be scrutinised.
Another episode last autumn was perhaps even more revealing. In a BBC documentary to promote his memoirs, David Cameron divulged that during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign he had asked the Queen if she could raise an eyebrow “even, you know, a quarter of an inch”. Cameron made it appear that the Queen’s subsequent remark that before voting people should “think very carefully about the future” came at his prompting. Not only had he sought to use her politically to thwart independence, he had now given the Queen’s remark a political meaning that, at the time, it had fallen just short of reaching.
The monarchy is unquestionably British, even as its ceremonies and titles overtly acknowledge pre-British history. In a Union under secessionist pressure, the monarchy is potentially the strongest remaining symbol of British nationhood, and even the SNP leadership does not want to terminate the Union of the Crowns.
But there is also clear republican sentiment in Scotland, within and beyond the SNP. As SNP leader Alex Salmond expressed strong support for the monarchy. But after the Queen relieved Prince Andrew of his duties in November, Nicola Sturgeon suggested that there should be a debate about the monarchy’s long-term future. Any ongoing political contest about Scottish independence will put pressure on the institution.
The Royal Family has to uphold an ideal of duty, eschew acquisitiveness, and live out for public witness the seasons of life from birth to death. In the opening episode of the Netflix drama series The Crown a dying George VI takes the young Duke of Edinburgh shooting. The king tells his son-in-law that loving his wife will be his essential, lifelong duty and that “there may be no greater act of patriotism or love”. Philip says he understands. The king is not reassured. “Do you boy? Do you really?” he pleads. Philip can only answer that he believes he does. The self-restraint required to be a member of the royal family certainly appears to have been in short supply in recent years. Perhaps the frankest moment in Prince Andrew’s BBC Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis was when he said that he could not regret his association with Jeffrey Epstein because it had yielded opportunities that had proved “very useful”.
But merely stiffening the attitudes of its individual members won’t be sufficient for the monarchy to survive. Enough citizens have to believe that the family’s sacrifice of self-realisation to duty is valuable to the country, and that with it can come very considerable material privileges. This condition too must be in some doubt. Much of the support expressed for Harry and Meghan, as they exit royal obligations, appears to reflect a view that duty is not to be admired, but is repressive and morally compromising.
Monarchy exists to unite, but it now also divides. It upholds a particular and increasingly contested idea of Britain and Britishness. Above all, it is a religious institution. Each reign begins and ends with a religious service. The monarch is “anointed” and “consecrated” with “holy oil” by an archbishop. This ceremony ties the monarchy to an established Church belonging to one part of a multinational state that is now both much more multi-religious and more secular than it was at the 1953 coronation.
Elizabeth II’s Christian faith has sustained her through her many trials. For nearly seven decades, she has provided the answer to the question of why the UK has a monarchy, as her father did during the Second World War. Without them, the question will return.
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out