As the UK endures its own truly horrible year, monarchy historian Dr Ed Owens sees opportunities for the still struggling Windsors.
In a speech marking the 40th year since her accession to the throne, Elizabeth II described 1992 as her annus horribilis. In the 12 months prior to this, three of her children’s marriages broke down in full sight of the public and a fire tore through Windsor Castle, destroying several rooms along with many priceless antiquities.
The year stretching back to autumn 2019 (when, coincidentally, my book The Family Firm was published) could similarly be characterised as marking a low point for the crown. Last week, a YouGov poll judged that the queen’s personal popularity remains undimmed, but the same cannot be said of all of her family members after a series of high-profile royal flops and feuds. And, as well as short-term turbulence, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shift in the national mood present a number of more serious problems to the crown with no easy fix.
On the face of it, much has changed for the monarchy since last November in ways we couldn’t have imagined or anticipated. First came Prince Andrew’s unceremonious fall from grace because of a bungled interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, which centred on the royal’s friendship with paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Less than one year on, it’s rumoured that the duke of York is already planning his ‘comeback’, but the timing feels premature. The Epstein saga isn’t over. The disgraced financier’s former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, is awaiting trial on charges of enticement, sex trafficking and perjury, stemming from the wider investigation into Epstein and his associates.
Next was Megxit. One of the most popular members of the House of Windsor, Prince Harry, decided with his wife, Meghan, that they’d had enough of life as working royals and duly left the UK for North America, citing as their motivations a loss of personal liberty and an excess of public scrutiny. The release of a book which put across their version of events pointed to internal family discord, including a royal rift between brothers Harry and William.
Historically speaking, self-serving exposure of this kind of domestic spat has cheapened the public image of the monarchy and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sussexes have along with Prince Andrew experienced a sharp decrease in their popularity since the end of last year. This loss of support may help explain why Meghan initially sought a ‘summary judgement’ in her court battle with the Mail on Sunday, which would have enabled her to avoid a full trial in the glare of the media spotlight. This request was not granted and the case has instead been adjourned until autumn 2021. Should it have gone ahead as planned in January, it would have likely led to another welter of negative headlines at a time when public sympathy for privileged celebrities seems to be at an all-time low.
This brings us to Covid-19. While the pandemic has disproportionately affected the poorest and most vulnerable in society, it has also created challenges for the most powerful, the crown included. An institution that has come to rely on its representatives being active in the outside world – as patrons of charities and public organisations, and as figureheads of the UK on the international stage – has suddenly found its philanthropic role vastly expanded, with the royal family trying to acknowledge the efforts of caregivers and the sacrifices of the nation at large.
And yet, at the same time, the royals have been prevented from performing their public roles in the direct, human ways to which they’ve become accustomed (first, because of confinement, and subsequently because of restrictions on physical interaction). Elizabeth II’s age means she has to be particularly careful, and so her public engagements have been limited to Zoom calls and televised messages.
Indeed, a recent attempt to reintroduce the monarch to the ‘real’ world met with criticism as well as the usual enthusiasm. This was because she did not wear a mask or observe social distancing when she appeared alongside Prince William at the Porton Down defence laboratory. Although the queen’s health wasn’t put at risk – everyone she and her grandson met had returned negative tests for Covid-19 – media commentators demanded to know why the royal pair were exempt from the sanitary measures imposed on the rest of the population.
Reconfinement and the difficult winter that lies ahead of the UK will create more challenges for the monarchy as it seeks to tread an uncertain path between trying to set a good example by adhering to new behavioural norms, while also preserving the kind of intimate connections with sections of the public that have been key to the House of Windsor’s survival over the last century. The lack of transparency over the duke of Cambridge’s Covid-19 diagnosis back in April indicates that there are real uncertainties within the royal household over what it should tell the public. This PR failure is another instance where royal silence on a matter of importance has given rise to public distrust of the palace’s communication strategy.
Alongside the immediate issues of family breakdown and the pandemic, the last year has also highlighted a series of deeper-rooted problems that the royals will now need to face up to, many of which have surfaced because of the political, economic, and cultural shocks of the last 12 months. Perhaps the most notable of these are the lingering questions over the monarchy’s complicity in Britain’s imperial project in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The empire centred on the symbolic power of the crown, and earlier generations of British royalty derived wealth from the slave trade. However, the Windsors have done little to confront the troubling legacies of the nation’s colonial past. Racial inequality continues to blight society, and whereas royal outsiders Harry and Meghan have begun to speak out against these sorts of injustices, the rest of the royal family have remained stoically silent.
The need for some kind of reappraisal is urgent. For the first time, one of the 15 countries outside the UK where Elizabeth II is also sovereign has determined to remove her as head of state. To quote the government of Barbados, ‘the time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.’ Calls are also growing notably louderto rename the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in an effort to disentangle the UK’s honours system from its imperial origins. One of the main sources of pressure for change comes from the Black Lives Matter movement and, with the continuing rise of this global network, the monarchy must act to ensure it stays on the right side of history.
The tumultuous political events of the last decade have partly resulted from the UK’s regional divisions and class-based inequalities. Along with the caregivers and heroes of the pandemic who received awards as part of the queen’s birthday honours list was the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has shone a light on the child poverty that persists in Britain. Because of the pandemic, these problems will get worse before they get better, but we can expect many more questions to be asked about how inequality is tackled in the UK and how the country’s wealth – including that in the possession of the crown – is distributed.
It is also likely that previously ‘safe’, uncontroversial topics that the royals have campaigned on, for example mental health, will become increasingly politicised as the nation’s emotional wellbeing further deteriorates under a second lockdown and the government deems it necessary to introduce funding cuts to support services. If state funding for mental health becomes an increasingly contentious issue, the royals will need to abandon their advocacy in this area or risk behaving unconstitutionally by involving themselves in party politics.
Similar difficulties lie in wait for the House of Windsor when it comes to post-Brexit royal diplomacy. The UK’s rural community has long been on the receiving end of royal patronage. However, with the nation’s farmers up in arms over the prospect of future trade deals that could undercut British food standards (and prices), the monarchy may well find itself at odds with the agricultural community if it is forced to grease the wheels of international relations in ways that run counter to the latter’s interests.
It is because of the fractiousness of national life that we see the monarchy seeking instead to carve out a role for itself in a global context on topics where there already exists broad public consensus. The crown has chosen two pressing issues: climate change and the protection of the natural world.
Prince Charles has long been viewed as the environmentalist king-in-waiting, but it is the second-in-line to the throne, Prince William, who has launched the Earthshot prize to devise new ways to counter climate change. And, in a sign of how concerned the palace is with ensuring the next royal generation are associated with these issues, William’s three children recently took part in a filmed exchange with conservationist David Attenborough where he raised his concerns about the future of animal species in an increasingly unpredictable world.
The final deep-seated issue that the crown will at some point need to deal with is the growing polarisation of British politics and the coarsening of public debate. For too long, the monarchy has helped conceal the underlying differences which divide Britain behind a façade of national unity centred on the throne. The Windsors have also been poorly served by a coterie of fawning royal journalists all too ready to promote misleading narratives of popular royalist fervour and togetherness at the expense of reality.
The last decade has exposed the realities of discord and disunity and at times it has felt as though the country has never been angrier. Given its position above the political fray, the monarchy is uniquely placed to lead a process of national healing by launching a national programme intended to promote genuine shared understanding between Britain’s heterogenous communities.
Some will say that the royal family’s activities have been pointed in this direction for some time already. Clearly, though, these efforts have not gone far enough. The year 2020 has been a grim one for the crown and the nation as a whole – an annus horribilis indeed. But as well as highlighting the challenges that lie ahead of the monarchy and the British people, the events of the last 12 months have also created an opportunity which, if seized, could lead to better times for all.
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.