With Prince Philip now retired from his public role and Prince Harry set to marry an American actor in the spring, the royal family has entered 2018 in the midst of a period of change. Yet change is nothing new; the monarchy is constantly evolving. Bob Morris asks where does it now stand and what further changes may be expected? He also discusses the historical accuracy and cultural impact of the popular Netflix drama, ‘The Crown’.
As the monarchy enters 2018, unavoidable demographic effects are becoming more apparent. The Queen is now 91 and Prince Philip has announced his retirement from official duties at the age of 96. The Queen remains commendably diligent in her public duties, notching up nearly 300 engagements in 2017, although none of those took place abroad. There it is evident that the Prince of Wales (himself close now to 70) has increasingly taken up the burden, assisted principally by the Duke of York and the Princess Royal. As in recent years, the latter continues to be the busiest member of the family for domestic engagements.
There continue to be small, mostly low-voiced susurrations of speculation about whether the Queen will herself ‘retire’ in some way when, for example, she reaches her husband’s age; whether she will be succeeded by Prince William rather than by Prince Charles; whether the new king would remain Head of the Commonwealth; and at what point any of the fifteen Commonwealth states where the Queen remains monarch (known as the realms) will turn themselves into fully-fledged republics.
Much of this is simply idle chatter. With the support of her family, there is no doubt room available for the Queen to continue to adjust her routine to the physical realities of old age. Under present law, she could only fully ‘retire’ if the criteria for establishing a regency were satisfied. That is where – according to section 2 of the Regency Act 1937 – the sovereign is judged ‘by reason of infirmity of body or mind incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. Actual abdication – seemingly abhorrent to a family still influenced by the circumstances of Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 – would require a special act of parliament. In both cases the immediate heir would become either Regent or the sovereign. To prevent that in favour of Prince William would require parliamentary legislation for which it is doubtful any foreseeable government – let alone Prince William himself – would have any enthusiasm. As to the Commonwealth members, the relevant issues are for them to decide. The monarchy’s position has always been that it is for individual realms to decide their own futures.
If there is a remaining question, it is how far the inevitable effects of raised longevity should be anticipated by creating devices and procedures specifically designed to cope with it. Neither regency – a form of forced side-lining – nor abdication spring from a concern to respond to extreme old age. The Dutch monarchy – whose monarchs are not anointed in a religious ceremony – have for three generations relied on a type of therapeutic abdication to accommodate what is in practice retirement in their monarchs’ early seventies. The Emperor of Japan – who is 84 – has sought a similar arrangement. Archbishops of Canterbury now routinely retire, and even a pope has recently done so. Should some new form of dignified release be designed both to recognise and celebrate a life of service and to remove its burden?
Lavishly produced, cleverly dramatised and affectingly acted, the first two series of the Netflix drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II have adorned still relatively new forms of digitally delivered entertainment. No-one born after the early 1960s will have any personal memory of the fact that, until the Lord Chamberlain’s role dating from 1737 as censor of public plays was abolished in 1968, no live members of the royal family could be represented on the stage. The British film industry and the very small number of then available British TV channels effectively followed a similar practice.
Successful plays like Peter Morgan’s ‘The Audience’ (2013) or Mike Bartlett’s ‘King Charles III’ (2014) would have been impossible. It might also be doubtful in exactly what form Alan Bennet’s play ‘The Madness of King George III’ (1991) would have survived the censor’s attentions. There were no such sanctions or other restraints deployable for Peter Morgan’s film ‘The Queen’ (2006) which concentrated on events following the death of Princess Diana. These have all been very popular productions, though none yet as popular as the BBC TV documentary ‘The Royal Family’, which showed their domestic life over the course of 12 months. It was first screened on 21 June 1969 and viewed by an estimated 30 million people.
‘The Crown’ is not a documentary but a drama: it therefore follows dramatic rather than documentary rules. That is to say, it is imagined rather than factual and by no means always true. Hugo Vickers offered a guide to the main errors in a recent article in The Times. Libby Purves compared it to Coronation Street when it comes to making things up; a view shared by Sonia Sodha in the Guardian, who said, ‘It may be good fun, but it’s not always good history’. This has worried some commentators, who have been concerned in these days of ‘fake news’ that audiences will be unable to distinguish fact from drama, especially where they have not themselves lived through the events as they unfolded. Distortions have included – apart from routinely imagining dialogue – altering timings, inventing malice, implying bad behaviour without evidence, and so on. The wish to provide entertainment has been at the cost of distortion and sometimes an exploitive disregard for the people – especially those still living – depicted.
Even despite these features, what does come through strongly is the lack of privacy for the royal family, and the lack of freedoms which the rest of us take for granted. What seems a life of luxury can also be understood as a life sentence served in a gilded cage.
What does any of this mean for the monarchy? Up to and including the early Hanoverians, for example, the degree of now commonplace intrusive public interest would be unimaginable. The royal family’s representation in public life was to a great extent under their control. Royal marriages were private affairs, usually conducted in the early evening and often in a royal chapel. Public access was severely limited. George III is the first sovereign generally credited with inaugurating the wider sort of public roles nowadays characterised as the ‘welfare monarchy’.
Influenced no doubt by the great scenes of public acclamation in 1863 during the course of the marriage of Edward, the Prince of Wales, Bagehot in 1867 stressed of the monarchy ‘Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.’ Increasingly since 1867 the royal family and the public have struggled with the dilemma of how to simultaneously embrace and expect greater intrusion or exposure whilst retaining dignity and respect for the institution. In 1867 Britain may have been largely already a de facto republic but it certainly was no democracy. In 1969 the royal family wanted to show that it was a family like anyone else’s. It is a measure of its hesitation about how far to go that the 1969 documentary has not been repeated. After all, if one is ordinary, it is difficult also to be special.
‘The Crown’ and its variants before – and those that will certainly follow – have not changed public attitudes so much as reflected deeper changes in British society. Over the present reign, these have included a significant rise in the educated levels of the population, a further decline in deference to authority – not that people were especially cowed before – and a considerable dropping away and pluralisation of religious affiliation. More than half the population of Britain does not belong to any religious denomination, and about eight per cent of the population follows non-Christian religions. Whereas in the 1950s more than 30 per cent of the population thought that the sovereign was actually chosen by God, it is very unlikely now that such numbers would be approached to any degree.
Since the last coronation occurred nearly seventy years ago, few living would have witnessed the Eucharistic character of the coronation rite and only those in the Abbey saw the consecration of the Queen with holy oil – the one part of the proceedings that was withheld from the TV and film coverage. Bagehot set considerable store on what he called the ‘religious sanction’ of the monarchy: ‘It gives now a vast strength to the entire constitution, by enlisting on its behalf the credulous obedience of enormous masses…’ But Bagehot wrote when the crown still had real political powers and responsibilities which have evaporated for reasons previously explained by the Constitution Unit. The decline in these powers and responsibilities has been matched by a not wholly unrelated decline in the ‘religious sanction’. The Unit is currently researching the role of the accession and coronation oaths, consulting a wide range of experts on whether they need updating; it is hoped that the results will be published in the spring of this year.
The last sentences of the Unit report of June 2016 raised the issue of the royal family risking at least part absorption into celebrity culture. The recent engagement and forthcoming marriage in May of Prince Harry of Wales – who is fifth, soon to be sixth, in line to the throne – to the American actress Meghan Markle can be read as a further step in this direction. Some of the press headlines underscore such a process. On the other hand, it can also be read as part of a natural process of renewal and generational succession – above all in the context of a family’s life. As Bagehot put it, ‘A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind’. How the couple negotiate a world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ will impose tests for their marriage well beyond those experienced by most marriages. They will need to make shrewd choices to help ensure that the family avoids the ups and downs of mere celebrity and does not run out of clearly relevant and useful public roles.
About the author
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit. At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, and is currently working on research into the use and role of the coronation and accession oaths.