The coronavirus presents the British monarchy with a set of unique short-term and long-term challenges. In this third and final article, written in connection with the release of The Family Firm, Dr Ed Owens reflects on the royal response to the Covid-19 crisis and the consequences of the pandemic for the crown as we look to the future.
Lesson 3: Keep calm and carry on?
First came the surreal Prince Andrew interview last November which acted as a timely reminder that wayward hangers on to the House of Windsor are more trouble than they’re worth. Foolishly flouting the age-old rule that royals should not deign to publicly address rumours regarding their private lives, the Duke of York found he was no match for BBC interviewer Emily Maitlis who, with forensic precision, exposed the prince’s shortcomings, including his extremely poor judgement of character.
Then came Megxit which was, and continues to be, a public relations disaster. One of the royal family’s greatest assets resigned from ‘the firm’, upping sticks and moving to America so that he and his wife could pursue their own aims unfettered by the constraints of court protocol. Feted only two years ago for the way they seemed to breathe new life into an ageing institution, Harry and Meghan’s outspoken response to subsequent negative press coverage has seen them become embroiled in a poisonous court battle with the tabloids which, with every new headline, threatens to cheapen ‘brand Windsor’. Again, perhaps there is a lesson here in knowing when and when not to open one’s mouth.
And now the remaining royals find themselves unable to carry out their day jobs properly because of a global pandemic which requires that they, along with the rest of Britain, cut off human contact and stay indoors in order to stop the spread of infection. Confinement and self-isolation pose a direct challenge to the way the monarchy goes about its daily business. Over 150 years, the crown has perfected a role for itself in British society which requires its royal representatives to be both active and accessible in the outside world. The problem the crown now faces is that the four principles that have guided its evolution as a public-facing institution are now threatened by Covid-19.
These four principles are as follows. First of all, the royals have undertaken a continuous programme of public appearances in order to articulate their sense of duty, patronage, and service. Secondly, the success of the Windsors’ survival strategy can be located in the way that Buckingham Palace has, in tandem with a compliant mass media, staged royal-centred moments of national celebration, commemoration, or reflection (weddings, coronations, jubilees, funerals, and special broadcast messages) in order to remind the public of the crown’s centrality to national life. Thirdly, the royals have shrewdly cultivated the emotions of the British people by presenting themselves as just another ‘ordinary’ family. And, by disengaging from the political decision-making process, the palace has ensured that the sovereign cannot be blamed for the failings of his or her politicians, thus to all intents and purposes making Britain’s constitutional monarch the impartial arbiter of the nation’s royal democracy.
The coronavirus has already undermined some of these principles and will continue to chip away at the foundations on which the monarchy’s modern role has been built. Why is this and what are the likely consequences of this international crisis for the crown?
At the moment, it is impossible for the royal family to follow the crown’s first guiding principle which, before the pandemic, saw them attending specially-organised public events on an almost daily basis to help promote the civic and philanthropic causes they support. Once restrictions on movement are lifted, we may see the younger members of the House of Windsor, or those who have built up some immunity as a result of exposure to the virus, like Prince Charles, return to work – that is, return to engagements in the outside world. These might be hospital visits, appearances at events to promote the work of a hard-hit charity sector, or carefully staged encounters with the bereaved. But these engagements are likely to be conducted at a safe distance and without the usual warm human contact in order to avoid potential transmission of the virus. Likewise, these engagements will not involve the most senior member of the royal family, Elizabeth II, who belongs to the most vulnerable age group in the British population.
Until a vaccine is developed and made widely available, we are unlikely to see a return to public life of that other royal stalwart of duty, Princess Anne, who has done much to justify the monarchy’s existence in terms of its service. It was during her great, great grandfather’s reign that royal public appearances took on their modern significance. George V realised that, given how so many of his subjects sacrificed so much during the first world war, it was imperative for the Windsors to be seen outwardly placing public service ahead of all else. This idea was lost on his heir and successor, Edward VIII, who chose love instead of duty, but it would necessarily underpin the subsequent reigns of George VI and the current queen.
For now, the royals have been reduced to ‘digital’ public engagements. Like many others, their work has gravitated online. For example, we can now see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recording video messages for social media and taking part in online interviews. These interactions have at times taken on an informal tone, with the duke honouring the recent fundraising achievement of 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore by describing the war veteran as an ‘absolute legend’. In a similar vein, since the lockdown began, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have posted online messages to voice their support for a wide range of causes and initiatives, from the Nightingale hospitals to Earth Day.
The question is: how long is this web-based interaction sustainable as the royals’ primary mode of engagement with the public? Social media posts only reach certain sections of the population and are significant mainly for their insignificant, ephemeral quality.
The continuation of the policy of social distancing beyond the initial confinement stage will also prevent the monarchy from enacting the second guiding principle which has, until now, underpinned its modern role. When we think of the royal family, our minds might turn to images of massed crowds cheering along the Mall and at the gates of Buckingham Palace. But we’re unlikely to see anything like this in 2020 and possibly for much longer. National royal ceremonies and public spectacles are impossible to stage in the age of Covid-19.
How, for example, if it came to it, would the coronation of a new king be conducted under present conditions? All of the pageantry, ritual, and show that courtiers have perfected over more than a century would have to be sidelined in favour of a much smaller, intimate affair which would in all likelihood fail to capture the majesty of monarchy.
The one type of royal-centred event that might continue to work to capture the attention of the population could be the well-timed royal broadcast. We saw on 5 April how the queen sought to sum up the national mood and offer a glimmer of hope in her message to the public which took as its theme how ‘we will meet again’.
I found the allusion to the famous Vera Lynn song cloying in the way it pandered to a national obsession with the second world war. However, I admit to feeling moved by the monarch’s message of reunion, particularly given how my wife and I are currently separated from family and friends back in the UK by the English Channel. Incidentally, my wife, who grew up in a republic, was less impressed, and suggested that the message smacked of PR artifice – which was in fact one of the main public criticisms recorded in response to the broadcast delivered by a 14-year-old Elizabeth in October 1940, just after the start of the Blitz. Naturally, this inconvenient detail of history was not discussed by the monarch when she alluded to her first ever radio message of almost 80 years ago.
Courtiers are busily preparing for next week’s VE Day anniversary – a bank holiday this year that was originally going to be staged to emphasise public unity around the symbolic focal point of the crown. However, gone are the large public gatherings, the jubilation, and what would have likely been a special balcony appearance. We have just learnt that the queen will address her people again on the evening of 8 May as her father did 75 years ago. The palace will know, however, that the experiment of a special broadcast message must not be repeated too many times for fear that the royal words of reassurance lose their meaning. Courtiers may yet have to bat off approaches from politicians or civil servants eager to see the monarch or members of her family vocally intervene once more in order to lend support to Britain’s response to the current crisis, as was indeed the case during the second world war.
In connection with the third guiding principle – the public image of the family monarchy – Kensington Palace’s Twitter account celebrated the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s youngest son’s second birthday by publishing his recent hand paintings, which used the same rainbow colours as other British children have been using to spread hope at this difficult time. In a similar vein, William, Kate and their children are among a number of royals to have stood outside their homes and, along with other families across the UK, clapped for the nation’s carers on a Thursday evening.
And yet these scenes of a Britain united from top to bottom in applause for the efforts of the NHS and care sector disguise another uncomfortable truth. While most UK families are restricted to small urban homes or flats, many of which are without gardens or outdoor space, the royals continue to live in commodious dwellings with every luxury still available to them. And herein lies a serious problem for the Windsors. As the new economic realities of the pandemic really start to bite, and we find ourselves much the poorer, if not without jobs altogether, royal privilege will likely go undiminished and the carefully constructed myth that the Windsors are just an ordinary family will rapidly start to fray at the edges.
Inequalities are likely to grow much wider before they are seriously addressed. We see these disparities already emerging with the schoolchildren who do and do not have access to the technological resources at home to stay engaged with their educations.
One of the reasons that explains the British public’s broad acceptance of monarchy under Elizabeth II is that her reign has been characterised by far-reaching social and economic advances for many. Barring the outbursts of discontent during the 1970s and 1980s, there hasn’t been any serious growth in political opposition to the status quo precisely because a majority of people’s lives seemed to be on an upward curve of improvement, that was until 2007–08 when this narrative first became unstuck.
Now the economic train of ‘progress’ has been derailed for a second time in 13 years and I anticipate a growth in public scrutiny and criticism of royal privilege, just as I anticipate a growth in scrutiny and criticism of other pockets of extreme wealth in society.
The Second World War was the last time the British experienced widespread hardship and then there was a recorded rise in public disapproval of the royals’ wealth and special status. Since 1945, sociologists and historians have suggested that the public have rationalised the inequalities that have continued to separate their existence from that of the Windsors along the lines that to be royal is to have a ‘rotten job’ because of its highly exposed nature and the ostensible life of ceaseless public activity. According to this logic, despite the many material advantages afforded royalty, everyday anonymity is preferable to what they have to put up with.
Since the 1930s, Buckingham Palace has doggedly promoted the idea that to be royal is to be inescapably burdened; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the notion that royal life is difficult has worn off on the public. However, given that some of the royal family will be temporarily ‘laid off’ and prevented from doing their day jobs because of the risks of leaving their castles and palaces, I’m not sure whether the old line of it’s a ‘rotten job’ will have much purchase on hearts and minds beyond 2020. And this is because the so-called burdens of being a 21st-century Windsor simply cannot compare to the financial suffering that lies ahead of millions (and perhaps even a majority) of Britons.
Finally, over the last two decades the royals have, with one or two exceptions, done quite a good job of keeping their distance from the political decision-making process. This is the essence of constitutional monarchy and it has witnessed the Windsors instead associate themselves with issues that have been deemed sufficiently apolitical (ie non-controversial like the rehabilitation or injured veterans, or the conservation of the environment), or that past governments have consistently failed to address, thus creating the opportunity for royalty to draw the issues into their philanthropic orbit. This has been the case with mental health and, more recently, with domestic violence.
The problem that courtiers now have to grapple with is that the UK’s response to Covid-19 has necessarily stretched the state’s economic reach and tested its use of resources in new ways. After the pandemic abates, it may be that problems like mental health and domestic violence (both of which have reportedly worsened under lockdown) become more sensitive as political topics and that the government is required to address them more directly in order to respond to public pressure. At this point it might become unconstitutional for the royals to continue to promote these issues, given that this could be construed as political advocacy. My guess is that the public will also be more accepting of state-led intervention in these areas and that this could, in turn, lead to a further diminishing of the patchwork of charities that currently seek to right these wrongs, along with a diminishing of the royal patronage that sponsors their activities.
To take another example: in trying to restore Britain’s economic wellbeing, should growth be pursued at any cost even if it means undoing some of the positive environmental work the UK has been moving towards? Royal advocacy of environmentalism could ultimately bring the monarchy into direct conflict with policies pursued by a government which failed to put a premium on a sustainable recovery.
These then are some of the short-term and long-term challenges that the monarchy and its allies face because of the current crisis. At the moment, the royals, like the public, are playing a waiting game to see what shape ‘de-confinement’ takes. There are, however, two things that are certain and which will likely shape how the House of Windsor adjusts to the future. First of all, it is increasingly evident that there will be no quick return to the ‘old’ normal. Rather, we must prepare for a ‘new’ normal, and the process of getting there will be slow and protracted. Thus, the royal family must not expect a return to the way things were. And secondly, the palace cannot rest on its laurels if it is to ride out the current storm.
As this article hopes to have demonstrated, the guiding principles that have determined the monarchy’s successful evolution up until 2020 are either currently lying redundant or under unprecedented strain brought about by Covid-19. History teaches us that the monarchy’s resilience at moments of crisis has been determined by how effectively it has adapted to change. Now is such a time, yet it remains to be seen whether the royal family are prepared to move into the post-pandemic world, or whether they simply try to carry on as before.
Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53’, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @DrEdOwens.