It was announced this week that the Queen would not be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph at this year’s remembrance service, but would watch the ceremony alongside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, from a balcony at the Foreign Office. The wreath will be laid by her son and heir, Prince Charles. The Queen is now 91 and the Duke of Edinburgh is 96, and this is a sensible and understandable decision. The Duke of Edinburgh retired from all public duties earlier this year, and there has been a gradual rolling back of the Queen’s roles. Younger members of the royal family have taken on some of her more arduous duties, most notably overseas trips, with Prince Charles naturally taking her place at many of the more formal events, such as the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.
This is a natural development but it does, perhaps, raise questions about the long-term future of the monarchy. While it is to be hoped that the Queen lives a long and healthy life, Britain will have to adjust to an increasingly elderly monarch and someone else will inevitably ascend to the throne. How the public responds to these changes may have a long term impact on the monarchy.
Public support for the monarchy
There is little doubt that the British public are strongly committed to the monarchy. Opinion polls consistently indicate that less than one in five would like Britain to become a republic while around three quarters favour Britain remaining a monarchy. Moreover, support for the monarchy remains extraordinarily stable. Even at the time of the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when polls indicated some dissatisfaction with the Palace’s response, support for Britain remaining a monarchy held steady. As shown in the graph above, there is even some evidence that support for the monarchy has increased in recent years.
Moreover, when presented with the options for an alternative head of state, support for monarchy is even higher. In an Ipsos-Mori poll from 2016 which asked whether Britain should continue to have a King or Queen as head of state or an elected President, 86% supported retaining a monarch, while only 12% supported moving to an elected President.
It is also apparent that a large proportion of the public not only like the monarchy, but also think it is positively beneficial to Britain. Polling by Ipsos Mori between 1984 and 2002 indicated that while there was a fall in the proportion of people who thought Britain would be ‘worse off’ if it abolished the monarchy, this view was still held by more people than those who felt it would not make a difference. In more recent polling by YouGov from 2015, 68% of respondents agreed that the monarchy was ‘good for Britain’, while in Opinium polls from earlier this year, 70% thought Britain is perceived more positively abroad because of the monarchy, while 66% believed the monarchy benefitted the economy.
Personal approval ratings
It is, however, difficult to disaggregate public support for the monarchy from the personal approval enjoyed by the Queen. The Queen enjoys a level of personal support which exceeds that for the monarchy as an institution. In four polls, taken by Ipsos-Mori between 2006 and 2016, between 85 and 90% said they were satisfied with way the Queen was doing her job, with those expressing dissatisfaction in single figures, giving a net approval rating consistently over 80 points.
In contrast support for other members of the royal family is lower and also less stable. In the same Ipsos Mori poll from 2016, 71% were satisfied that Prince Charles was doing a good job, 15 points lower than satisfaction with the Queen, with 11% believing he was doing a bad job. This was nevertheless a considerable improvement on 1998 when Charles’ net approval rating dipped to 39 points. In September 2016, ICM asked a series of questions about how well or badly people felt different members of the royal family were doing in their current public role. In total 72% thought the Queen was doing a good job, with 47% agreeing she is doing a very good job. In contrast, only 47% felt that Prince Charles was doing a good job, and only 14% the he was doing a very good job, while a total of 15% thought he was doing a bad job.
A life sentence?
It is periodically mooted that the monarchy should skip a generation and pass over Charles, directly to his son, Prince William. Barring an untimely death this is highly unlikely, but support for the younger royals is higher than for the current heir to the throne. ICM found that 71% felt that William was doing a good job, and 67% that Harry is doing a good job in his current role. In 2016, Ipsos Mori gave Prince William a net approval rating of +73 compared to +60 for his father.
There is, however, little support for the Queen stepping down to make way for her son or grandson. In a poll taken to mark her 90th birthday in 2016, only one in five expressed support for the Queen abdicating, while 70% wanted her to remain on the throne for life. There was little more support when the same question was couched in terms of retirement rather than abdication, this was supported by 32%, while 61% still wanted the Queen to go on for life.
The public, however, appears somewhat more divided on whether Charles should forego his inheritance in favour of his son. In a series of polls on this question by Ipsos Mori, despite an obvious dip in 1997, the majority of the public consistently think that Charles should not give up his right to the throne in favour of William, but only by a relatively small margin, with between 47 and 64% believing Charles should not give up the throne.
The long-term future of the monarchy
The monarchy is undoubtedly secure as long as the Queen remains on the throne. If public support is a factor, the long-term future is, perhaps, less clear. Support for retaining the monarchy is significantly higher among those who are older. In Ipsos Mori’s latest poll on this issue, 84% of those over 55 supported retaining the monarchy, compared to 66% of 18-34 age group. This is still a significant majority, but amongst 18-24 year olds 47% favoured Britain becoming a republic while 43% wanted to retain the monarchy. There is little difference in support for the monarchy across England and Wales, but republicanism does appears to have more support in Scotland, with one in five favouring a republic compared to, for example, one in ten in the North of England.
The public also have some doubts about the long-term future of the monarchy. According to an Ipos Mori poll in 2012, while 90% expressed the belief that Britain would still have a monarchy in 10 years’ time, that had dropped by a third to 60% when asked if Britain would be a monarchy in 50 years and by over a half to 42% when people were asked to consider the next 100 years. Although in a similar poll for YouGov in 2015, 62% supported the view that the monarchy would still be around in 100 years.
What is more clear is that Charles is less popular, in some polls considerably less popular, than his mother. His sons’ generation enjoys greater support. This may be because they are young and attractive, producing children and appear relatively accessible. In terms of presenting a positive image of the monarchy, William and Harry are probably doing a good job. However, they will need to continue doing this for as very long time before William becomes King.
One reason why the Queen is so popular is that she has been on the throne for a very long time. Anyone under the age of 65 can remember no other monarch. The Queen was 25 when her father died and she ascended to the throne. She was recently married, had two young children and gave birth to two more after becoming Queen. This young family were every bit as interesting and appealing as the current generation of young royals. Since then the royal family has weathered some personal storms and the country, and its place in the world, has changed beyond all recognition, but the Queen has remained a remarkably stable fixture.
However, because she has reigned for so long, in the years ahead Britain will need to adapt to a very different monarch and monarchy. The Queen will age and may well retreat more fully from public life. Her successors will not sit on the throne for anywhere near as long. If the Queen lives as long as her mother, Charles will be 78 when he ascends to the throne. If he lives as long, William will be 68 when he becomes King, William’s son older still. Unless fate intervenes, for a long period Britain is likely to have a series elderly monarchs with relatively short reigns. Sustaining popular support for the monarchy in such circumstances may well be a challenge.
Ipsos Mori Royal Family/Monarchy trends index page.
YouGov Royal Family index page.