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Book review: After Elizabeth: Can the monarchy save itself? by Ed Owens

07 June 2024

Jeremy Morris finds an argument about the monarchy to be circular

IS THE monarchy in crisis? The royal correspondent Ed Owens thinks so, and his eloquent book is dedicated to identifying the sources of its current woes and to charting what he thinks is a way out of them. Published in the wake of the King’s Coronation in May 2023, it presents itself as a critical friend. There is certainly both criticism and appreciation in equal measure here.

Owens surveys the recent history of the monarchy, tracing its self-conscious adaptation to the rise of democratic society in its apparent political neutrality, its careful cultivation of public image, and its cult of duty and usefulness, which is especially manifest in its charitable causes. Like many others, Owens sees George V as the saviour of the monarchy, with his diligence, sobriety, homeliness, and awareness of the uses of modern media.

Owens has a fairly poor view of George VI (“impotent leadership”), and when it comes to the late Queen, although he acknowledges her many strengths, he also dwells on the personal troubles that came upon the Royal Family from the 1990s on. Indeed, it is not difficult to make out a case that there is a crisis of some sort, when you aggregate recent woes (Prince Andrew, Harry and Meghan) with the scandals of actual political influence behind the scenes, with great wealth, and with the evidence of falling public support, especially among the young.

Owens aligns himself with this younger generation: he assumes that the King’s role will be — or, at least, should be — to slim down, cut back, and modernise the monarchy ruthlessly, before handing over promptly to his more popular son, the Prince of Wales.

Problems abound with this book, however. Its view of history is very “lite”, with practically nothing said to situate the modern monarchy in the long history of British constitutional evolution. No one would guess, from reading this book, that pretty much the whole trajectory of constitutional monarchy in Britain has to be traced — in order to be understood — from the central crisis of the British state in the 17th century, a series of events which continues to cast a long shadow over British political life. Little is said about religion, and what is said carries little conviction. He seems to think that the Church of England had an “uncompromising stance” on divorce before the 1990s. That will be news to many Church Times readers.

More seriously, though, there is a narrow functionalism running through this book, which consistently reads evidence of duty, compassion, and commitment as mere ciphers for the lust for power and domination. So, for example, he claims that, “given what we know about how the House of Windsor has historically searched out opportunities at the edges of the welfare state”, we can see these interventions “cynically” as ways of resisting criticism of the privileged by demonstrating “sympathy with the poor”.

This argument becomes, in the end, circular: whatever the Royal Family actually do (i.e. nothing, something, or much) can never be read as anything other than a reflection of their social privilege and control. No better way could be found of setting up an analysis that will lead, whatever the actual weight of the evidence, to the author’s conclusions.

In a way, given the nature of the analysis, it is quite surprising that Owens draws back from the bleakest assessment of the monarchy’s future. He plainly thinks that it does have a future, which lies in stripping away much of the wealth and pageantry, and reshaping a slimmed-down monarchy as a positive influence in democratic society. I think, myself, that the proposal that the monarch should become something like a democratic ombudsman is itself flawed. But it is at least a definite proposal, and — like much in this book, enjoyable and frustrating read as it is — has the merit of getting you to think about the subject.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Church of England’s National Adviser for Ecumenical Relations.

After Elizabeth: Can the monarchy save itself?
Ed Owens
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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