Younger readers might be unaware but there was a time when the royal family was deeply unpopular, hated even. During the 1990s their standing plummeted, amid divorces and affairs, reaching its nadir in 1997 with the death of Diana. The institution was seen as outdated — an anachronism in the modern world and something that would surely die out.
Yet since then it has enjoyed something of a miraculous turn-around, helped no doubt by a talented PR team, but also reflecting its unifying appeal. British republicanism has once again faded into a niche interest.
This is not just some instinctive forelock-tucking on behalf of the British; there are huge, tangible benefits to having a constitutional monarchy, compared to often unstable republics in which winners take all.
There is also the argument that, as Britain becomes more diverse and faith in shared institutions and political norms fade, we’ll need the royals more than ever. Yet I’d be prepared to forecast that in the coming years the royal family will face huge problems – existential problems.
If you look at the most recent popularity polls, you can see two immediate issues.
Overall Royal favourability since March:
— YouGov (@YouGov) October 28, 2020
Firstly, Andrew, who is currently on -73 popularity, which makes him about as well-loved and admired as the coronavirus. The scandal involving the Duke of York is likely to drag on, by which time who knows what will be revealed about his behaviour.
Somewhat more popular is Meghan and her husband Harry, who in his recent public appearances increasingly looks like he’s in a hostage video, being forced to talk about structural racism and white supremacy. The pair seem incapable of understanding how badly their sanctimonious preaching is received — how it looks like the proclaiming of moral superiority, by those already blessed with the biggest privileges in life, health, wealth and looks. As a team they are a liability; if their marriage ever ran into problems it could potentially become as damaging as the Charles and Diana split, but magnified by the poison of identity politics.
And while the 94-year-old Queen remains popular, her successor is much less so, and the future of the institution depends on the stalwarts William and Kate. As of two years ago, young people were less in favour of the royals, but not hugely so.
Ultimately, the Meghan and Harry issue exposes a deeper, more serious problem for the institution; as modern countries become more diverse in values, with a variation in lifestyles, beliefs and morals among the population, and increased polarisation, how does a figurehead family continue to represent us?
The constitutional monarchy was created to represent what we would now call “British values”, which, like many concepts, was only coined as it ceased to exist; first it was Protestantism, then a sort of secularised version of Protestantism and a sense of Britishness that was hugely boosted by the fight for national survival in 1940.
But as the generations born in the aftermath of that event begin to be replaced by those raised in the age of divided values, the Windsors may increasingly appear like just another regular family with their mixture of strained relationships, dramas and the occasional dodgy uncle.