Funeral of a prince, and rifts in a ‘united’ kingdom

Funeral of a prince, and rifts in a ‘united’ kingdom

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With Queen Elizabeth turning 95 this week, the passing of her husband Prince Philip, whose funeral took place on Saturday, has highlighted the uncertain future not just of the UK royal family, but also the wider union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the post-Elizabethan age to come.

For more than seven decades, Elizabeth and Philip have represented remarkable figures of stability for many. When she assumed the throne, Winston Churchill was UK prime minister, Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union, Harry Truman was US president, and Mao Zedong was the Chinese Communist leader. The Korean War was still underway, the People’s Republic of China was only two years old, and the UK was just about to join the US and the Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons power. 

Today, the world is vastly different, with its population more than trebling and the UK having transitioned to “middle power” status. Much of the nation’s former empire is now part of the 54-member, 2.4 billion-population Commonwealth which the Queen and Prince Philip have done much to champion.

Amid the high esteem that she, Philip, and some other members of the royal family are now held, what is sometimes forgotten is that they have enjoyed bouts of significantly lower popularity. The 1990s were particularly troubled in this respect, with 1992 becoming what the Queen described as an “annus horribilis” when the marriages of three of her children, including her heir Charles, disintegrated, and Windsor Castle was nearly destroyed by fire. 

However, the public response to Philip’s passing underlines that, by and large, some three decades on from those high-profile problems, the royal family has largely recovered from the troubles of her reign. Less than a quarter of the UK population wants a republic and many believe that it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state. 

Already, despite the unifying force that the monarch exerts, the UK is increasingly divided on geographic lines, including growing post-Brexit pressure for a second Scottish independence referendum.

Andrew Hammond

Whether the royal family can continue to enjoy this popularity is uncertain, however, and this has implications not just for the institution’s future, but also for that of the UK itself.  It is not just the monarchy, but also the continued union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that could suffer from a potentially significantly less popular future UK head of state.  

Already, despite the unifying force that the monarch exerts, the UK is increasingly divided on geographic lines, including growing post-Brexit pressure for a second Scottish independence referendum. While the queen hopefully still has years of life ahead of her, and appears unlikely to abdicate, there are already concerns held by royalists and unionists about what the post-Elizabeth era may hold. 

The next in line to the throne, Charles, is of an age (72) when many people are retired, and is the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in UK history.  His own popularity is not as high as either his mother’s or that of his son, Prince William.

Indeed, it is the queen, Philip, William and Prince Harry who have helped power the royal popularity ratings in recent years. Aside from the queen and Philip, polls tend to show that William is regarded as having made the strongest contribution to the royal family, followed by his wife Kate, and Harry (although Harry’s popularity may now be threatened by the rift with his family).

While the queen is widely perceived as a force for stability, the role of the monarch has changed significantly during her reign. Key reforms she has helped oversee include ending the rule of male primogeniture on the throne, which means girls born to members of the royal family now have equal rights with boys in the succession to the throne; and ending the prohibition on her successors marrying a Catholic.

Another change concerns the monarch’s finances, which are now more transparent, with the queen paying income and capital gains tax and her official residences opened to the public to help pay for their upkeep.  Moreover, as of 2013, she no longer receives a fixed amount of money through the Civil List (as had her predecessors for about 250 years), and instead receives a portion of revenue from the Crown Estate property portfolio.

This trick of being a reformer, while being seen as a force for continuity and stability, is one that Charles would do well to learn as the royal family continues to evolve to meet the changing contours of the 21st century.  For while UK support for the monarchy is currently high, significant uncertainties remain about the post-Elizabeth period, and the skill and popularity Charles demonstrates as her successor will therefore have key implications not just for the institution he will head, but also the wider union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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