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What It Would Take for the UK to Turn Against the Royal Family

And what might happen to them if they were abolished.

by Aaron Drapkin
22 November 2019, 11:19am

Prince Andrew. Photo: Frank Sewell / Alamy Stock Photo

It's been a real car crash of a year for the Royal Family. Quite literally: in January, Prince Phillip broke a member of the public's wrist in a road collision that wrote off his Land Rover. Now, Prince Andrew is ending the decade tarnished by a disastrous Newsnight interview that left us with more questions than answers regarding his close relationship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

The time between these two events saw the media occupied with the growing rift between Prince William and Prince Harry, confirmed by the latter in an emotional documentary broadcast in October. The programme also featured an attack on the British press for their treatment of Meghan Markle. After several years littered with jubilees, weddings and royal births, 2019 has been a year to forget for Buckingham Palace.

Throwing themselves into the limelight hasn't done the Royals any favours. But what would it take for public opinion on the Palace to shift beyond repair?

Presently, quite a lot. Between 1984 and 2002, pollsters Ipsos reported that the vast majority of Brits believe we're better off with a monarchy than without one. Last year, YouGov confirmed this, reporting that seven out of ten people in the UK support the Monarchy.

That said, this doesn't tell the whole story. Another Ipsos poll that was rerun several times between 1990 and 2012 showed that an increasing number of people think the Monarchy will be abolished in the next century. They also found in a different poll that most people want the Monarchy to be modernised. Other surveys show monarchical support is in consistent decline among millennials and Gen Z.

How have scandals affected the Royals?

When it comes to public opinion on the Royals, the kingmakers are widely considered to be the tabloids. They determine whether an event in the lives of the Royals is considered a "scandal", as well as how scandalous it is. If they didn't report on it, we wouldn't know about it.

Before the 1940s, though, the papers did not see it proper to delve intrusively into the private lives of members of the Royal household. Historians Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy's book, Tabloid Century, details the "mesmeric hold the Monarchy had over the British press", citing the lack of coverage of Edward VIII's abdication of the throne to marry a two-time divorcee in 1936, pointing out the backlash they would receive from a fundamentally pro-monarchy populous.

By the late 1940s, however, the introduction of new media such as TV meant grandiose but ultimately passive write-ups about public figures no longer enticed readers. When the next scandal arose – Princess Margaret's 1953 romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend – the British press "drove the story forward rather than simply waiting for events to unfold".

This set the tone for the second half of the 20th century. Tabloid readers thoroughly enjoyed this new way of covering the Royal household. Healthy circulation figures encouraged frenzied reporting of the breakdown of both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew's marriages. Invasive accounts of their lives filled the print media of the 1990s, as did a young Prince Harry's weed-smoking and Nazi cosplay in the early-2000s.

But do tabloid publications have the power to construct a narrative that turns us against them forever? Dr Paul Lashmar, Head of the Journalism Department at City, University of London, believes it isn't a simple question to answer.

Despite the tabloids' influence, "there are always a few of these narratives in play at any one time", he explained. "And it is often the broadsheets or TV that set the agenda by revealing new information. The C4 Dispatches programmes on Epstein and Prince Andrew, the Maitlis interview with Prince Andrew – and it was a broadsheet that printed the highly embarrassingly picture of Prince Andrew and Epstein walking together in Central Park, following Epstein's conviction."

The chance of there ever being a scandal that turns the UK against the entire Royal family is pretty far-fetched. It's unlikely the public would see one member's personal disgrace as a collective indictment of the whole household, while a "group" scandal involving several Windsors is equally improbable. For members of the older generation, the Royals are engrained in what it means to be British. But for younger people, British identity bears no reference to the Palace – and until they outgrow the Royals, we've got a little while to wait for Royal abolishment.

What would happen to the Royal Family after it was abolished?

Historically, bloody revolutions are how monarchs tend to meet their demise. But military coups and civil wars aren't really our thing anymore. The Royals would most likely be legislated out of existence by Parliament or a referendum, or the family jumping before they're democratically pushed. They'd be used to that, too: India, Gambia, Guyana and Fiji have all ditched Queen Elizabeth in the last century. But these events provide little insight into what would happen on home turf.

We'd firstly have to sort out who gets the Palace's tangible assets. In 2017, Brand Finance estimated these to be worth £25.5 billion. Confusingly, "The Crown" is not technically public property, nor private property of the Royal Family. Despite the puzzling legalities around who owns what, if the history books are anything to go by, most of the assets would be funnelled directly to the state treasury, with the Windsors retaining only what is deemed to be their personal property – which still amounts to millions. Not a bad redundancy package.

Our currency would be due a switch up, but this happens anyway when a new monarch is crowned. Maybe famous Britons of history would replace a head of state on coins, like the ones that already appear on our notes? Who knows. The national anthem would inevitably be altered or scrapped completely. Nepal scrapped theirs in 2007, a year before the king was dethroned; a change in national tune could be the first sign that the nation's tune is changing.

There would certainly be some significant political positives. Laws could be passed quicker because bills would no longer need royal assent, which typically takes seven to ten working days. Furthermore, many republics have replaced their ruling monarch with a democratically elected or appointed president, who operates ceremoniously alongside a prime minister. Malta did this in 1974 when they abolished our monarchy, so maybe we'd do the same.

Perhaps the most important question of all is: what would we call ourselves? We can't be the United "Kingdom" without a king or queen. Would we become just United, or decide on a new name altogether? It's anyone's guess.

Whatever the answer, we know that UK turning against the Royals will most likely be an incredibly gradual process. But as the royalists die out and the tabloids live on, it could be sooner than we expect.

@aarondrapkin

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