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Paul Vallely: Monarchy must continue to evolve

28 April 2023

It needs to honour the past and reimagine the future, says Paul Vallely

THE politics of coronation have begun. The royal family is undergoing a crisis of public legitimacy, the BBC’s Panorama programme said this week. It commissioned a poll which suggests that there has been a “downward drift” in the popularity of the royals, particularly among younger voters — more of whom would prefer an elected head of state to a monarch; or so the headlines had it.

The poll was part of a sensationalist package which included tendentious interviews, a partisan academic, and a campaigning republican. It posed preposterous leading questions, asking, for example, whether the King was “in touch, or out of touch” with the experiences of the ordinary public — and feigned surprise at the answer.

Omitted from the programme, but buried at the bottom of the BBC’s website, was the fact that the long-running British Social Attitudes survey has routinely found that people become more sympathetic to the monarchy as they get older. Which is presumably why, despite the highlighting of the views of Gen Z, the main poll showed that twice as many people wanted to keep the royals as those who wanted a republic.

A more balanced academic, such as Sir John Curtice, will tell you that, for decades, the monarchy has consistently been regarded as “very” or “quite” important by most people. The foundations of public consent for the royal family have appeared remarkably solid and stable.

There have, of course, been fluctuations. Royal reputations took a dip during the Queen’s annus horribilis of 1992, when three of her children divorced or separated. The cold public response of the royals to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, triggered more negative feelings. But popularity ratings rose with the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton; when the Queen visited Ireland and shook the hand of the former IRA man Martin McGuiness; and with her Diamond Jubilee. Now, King Charles has inherited the crown at a time when the rift with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, with its unpleasant overtones of racial insensitivity, remains raw.

Gen Z sympathises with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Moreover, like all young people at a stage in their lives where they are starting with a blank sheet of paper, Gen Z-ers want to come up with something more rational than monarchy. It’s only as they get older and wiser that they realise that they would be less likely to end up with a national treasure such as Alan Bennett or Sir David Attenborough as President of the United Kingdom. It is more likely that they would be landed with a people-pleasing populist popinjay such as Boris Johnson.

Britain today is very different from the society in which King Charles’s mother came to the throne. In 1952, Britain still had a global colonial empire, bomb sites, food rationing, wartime identity cards, military conscription, and the death penalty. Homosexuality was illegal, plays were censored, only five per cent of people were graduates, and Parliament was filled with hereditary peers. Over the decades, thanks to the quiet genius of our late Queen, our monarchy evolved, as did our society.

Our new King has the insight and intelligence to know that, to fit with the aspirations and expectations of a new century, the monarchy needs both to honour the past and reimagine the future. With God’s help, he will do it.

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