The recent Platinum Jubilee has placed the British monarchy at the forefront of our minds. But the monarchy has been part of the status quo of Britain for hundreds of years. Every day we go to shops and pay in cash featuring the Queen’s face; we post letters in postboxes engraved with the royal cypher; we go into pubs named after various princes.
But what if we just stopped for a second and asked why? In a country that is facing growing levels of inequality, more and more people using food banks, a cost of living crisis, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, what does it mean for us to still be celebrating a hereditary monarchy?
We often talk about billionaire business owners hoarding the world’s wealth. According to Oxfam in 2020, the richest 2,153 billionaires in the world have more wealth than the poorest 4.6 billion people – 60 per cent of the world’s population. Yet we don’t often include the monarchy in those conversations, despite it being valued at somewhere around £22 billion. In fact, it is difficult to precisely estimate how much the monarchy is worth because there are so many addendums to figures, including that royal wills are kept hidden and the differences between the wealth personally owned by the royals and that held in trust for the nation on behalf of the Crown. Isn’t this in itself an issue, if there are no transparent figures about what the monarchy owns?
The monarchy also doesn’t operate all that differently from corporate firms. The Paradise Papers leak in 2017 revealed that millions of pounds from the Duchy of Lancaster, the Queen’s private estate, had been invested in an offshore portfolio in the Cayman Islands. Multinational corporations like Nike and Apple were found to be doing the same thing.
Meanwhile, Unite Hospitality, the union for workers in the hospitality industries, called out on Twitter an job advert for a Buckingham Palace housekeeper that pays £7.97 an hour with salary adjustment for accommodation, which is below the minimum wage. This exploitation shows how the rich depend on the labour of the lower classes to keep their own wealth and privilege.
We might be bombarded with mainstream press coverage of the royals doing charity work as a way to make them appear to be “giving something back”, but behind the scenes it doesn’t seem like they’re actually that different from global corporate firms.
Queen Elizabeth II remains head of state for other countries around the world, and some Caribbean nations are facing their own reckoning with the British monarchy. In November 2021, Barbados became the world’s newest republic after deciding to get rid of the monarchy. Recent royal tours of the Caribbean by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Wessex were met with mass protest, and Jamaica is the latest nation to signal its intentions to move towards a republic. There are also rumours that the new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, will be the person to get rid of monarchical ties for Australia.
Maybe it’s time for our own reckoning with these histories? The Queen called 1992 her annus horribilis because it was the year that three royal marriages collapsed and a fire destroyed over a hundred rooms in Windsor Castle. But the past few years have seemed to eclipse this, from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex calling out racism and sexism in the monarchy to Prince Andrew being accused of sexually abusing trafficked minors.
These stories have all contributed towards negative public commentary on monarchy. A recent YouGov poll found that 41 per cent of 18-24 year olds think Britain should have an elected head of state, and only 31 per cent would like to see the monarchy continue. This is a big increase from 2019, when 46 per cent of 18-24 year olds were in favour of the monarchy.
Much of the symbolism and emotional attachment to the monarchy seems to be associated with the Queen, who has come to represent a very particular form of nostalgia for a Britain (or, more accurately, an England) in the post-war years. But the Queen is 96 years old, and will soon be replaced by King Charles III: a man without such emotional attachments. Indeed, he is far from the most popular royal. Of course, Prince William and his family remain popular, and they are being increasingly foregrounded as part of the royal story. But it’s still worth asking: when will the age of monarchy be over?
Laura Clancy is a lecturer in media at Lancaster University and author of Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages its Image and our Money (Manchester University Press)
Photo: Prince Charles in Barbados, which got rid of the monarchy in November last year (Alamy)