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by Louise Wilson
28 February 2022
After the reign: What next for the Royal family?

After the reign: What next for the Royal family?

The Royal family has had a bad few weeks. Scotland Yard is investigating claims of a cash for honours deal between Prince Charles’ Foundation and a Saudi billionaire. Prince Andrew settled the sexual abuse lawsuit with accuser Virginia Giuffre for an undisclosed, multi-million sum. And then the Queen caught Covid.

The latter piece of news was another stark reminder that the UK is approaching the end of a remarkable period of stability. And alongside the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign will come questions about the role she performs and whether it is acceptable, in modern-day Britain, to have a head of state from one unelected and extremely privileged family.

Seventy years is an extraordinary tenure, regardless of any personal position on the monarchy. Most of us don’t know a United Kingdom without the Queen and indeed that has prevented any serious discussion about the role the Royal family has in public life. She is well liked across the whole of the UK; even in Scotland, where monarchy has long been served with a dose of scepticism, her favourability ratings are consistently above 70 per cent.

But positive opinion about the reigning monarch is about to change. Across the UK, Prince Charles’ favourability is 20 percentage points below Her Majesty. The situation is even worse in Scotland. An equal number of Scots have a negative opinion of Charles as have a positive one.

That won’t be helped by the latest headlines about a CBE awarded to Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire, who had donated £1.5m to charities Charles supported.

The Met has launched an investigation into allegations under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act, which makes it illegal to accept gifts in return for a title. Those inquiries are focused on Charles’ former valet, and former head of the Prince’s Foundation, Michael Fawcett.

Clarence House has insisted Charles had “no knowledge of the alleged offer of honours”. That may be the case, but public opinion is unlikely to treat him any kinder – especially because he has a history of using his influence in the political sphere, revealed via his ‘black spider’ memos.

Hugo Vickers, the royal biographer, is optimistic that Charles will live up to the new role when the time comes. Vickers told ITV: “When Charles becomes king, he will become a slightly different person. […] The answer really is that we will have to give the new king an enormous amount of support and hope that he has an interesting reign. He will come to the throne better qualified than any of his predecessors.”

But opinion on individuals aside, Charles’ elevation will lead to discussions about the monarchy more broadly. According to a survey conducted last May by YouGov, 61 per cent of Brits believe it should continue, while a quarter think it should be replaced by an elected head of state. In Scotland, only half of people want to keep the monarchy and a third would prefer to get rid of it.

While unlikely that a fresh white paper on independence would propose abolishing the monarchy… a referendum on becoming a republic in the years after is not so far-fetched

Interestingly, that same poll also found that more young people across the UK supported an elected head of state than the monarchy for the first time. Eir Nolsoe, a data journalist at YouGov, said this was a marked shift.

She said: “Attitudes among young people to the monarchy have changed substantially since 2019. YouGov data from a number of our 2021 polls on the monarchy so far shows that 41 per cent of 18-24 year olds now say Britain should have an elected head of state, while only 31 per cent would like to see the monarchy continue… Young Britons were still clearly in favour of the monarchy as recently as two years ago.”

While data is not available on how Scots’ opinions break down by age, it is probably fair to assume that support for abolishing the monarchy is even higher among young Scots.

The Royals, for their part, seem warmer on Scotland than Scotland is on them. The Queen spoke of her “deep affection” for the country when she opened the Scottish Parliament’s sixth session, and who can forget former Prime Minister David Cameron saying she had “purred down the line” after Scotland voted No in 2014.

That also led to concerns the Royals would intervene in a future referendum. The Queen was criticised by some on the Yes side after urging Scots to “think very carefully about the future” in September 2014. Officially, the Royals have to remain politically neutral but this statement was read by many as an attempt to shore up support for the Union – a rumour that was given extra weight when a journalist revealed Prince Andrew knew about the comments beforehand.

At the time of the referendum, a large majority of Scots supported the monarchy. The 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey specifically asked whether an independent Scotland “should keep the same King or Queen as England, or should it have its own President instead?” Two-thirds said Scotland should “definitely” or “probably” retain the monarchy, while just a third opted for a President.

This was reflected in the independence white paper which said Scotland would be a “constitutional monarchy” and “Her Majesty The Queen will be head of state”.

But it does seem public opinion in Scotland is shifting. While unlikely that a fresh white paper on independence would propose abolishing the monarchy – if only to reassure soft Unionist voters that tradition will still have a place in an independent Scotland – a referendum on becoming a republic in the years after is not so far-fetched.

Indeed, SNP MP Tommy Sheppard has made the case for such a vote. Sheppard, a republican, said the decision “would be entirely a matter for the people of Scotland and their political representatives”.

The SNP’s official policy is to retain the monarchy, but substantially change its funding. More recently, Nicola Sturgeon said there was “a debate to be had about the longer-term future of the monarchy” in the wake of the Prince Andrew scandal.

Officials later clarified the First Minister was referring to the size of the royal family rather than its existence, but generally Sturgeon is perceived to be less enamoured with the monarchy than her predecessor.

And while she has been full of praise for HRH recently – last week telling radio station LBC the Queen had “led by example on many occasions throughout the pandemic, from leading from the front getting her vaccinations to that very painful picture of her sitting alone at Prince Philip’s funeral” – the SNP has always struggled with the royal question.

Former depute leader and cabinet secretary Roseanna Cunningham never shook the nickname Republican Rose. MSP James Dornan even used a debate celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee as an opportunity to lay into the Royals.

He said: “No family should have the right to be treated as superior because of an accident of birth […] I read that the Queen is considering retiring next year, which makes perfect sense to me. However, at that point, the debate should not be, ‘Should we skip a generation because we don’t like Charles and Camilla and we like Will and Kate?”, but ‘Has the anachronism that is the royal family run its natural course, and is it time for a republic?’”

Others on the pro-independence side have taken staunch positions, too. Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie has described the monarchy as “an outdated, discredited and totally undemocratic institution.”

Meanwhile, a group of activists have set up campaign group Our Republic, who argue: “The people of Scotland deserve to vote for our head of state. No one should hold power through nothing more than the merit of their birth.”

Interestingly, that group is not only made up of independence campaigners. It includes pro-Union people too, highlighting views on the monarchy do not entirely go down constitutional lines.

Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba caused a stramash last year when she called for its abolition, following the news the Queen’s lawyers had intervened in Scottish Parliament processes to create an exemption within climate legislation. Villalba wrote: “It’s time we recognised the political role of the monarchy which serves its own self-interest at the cost of ordinary people, and now planet. Why not simply abolish the monarchy and all their arcane nonsense?”

The ongoing debate about Scottish independence has meant constitutional reform across the UK has been high up the agenda, but surprisingly little has been said about reforming one of the biggest and oldest institutions.

For many people, there is no better time than now to make the case for an elected head of state. The recent scandals that have rocked the royal family, particularly that surrounding Prince Andrew, has unveiled the true nature of their privilege. It has also raised questions about who is footing the bill to keep them.

That window of change could be very small, however. While Charles is a less popular figure than the Queen, Prince William enjoys almost the same level of support as his grandmother. Charles is 73; he’s unlikely to be on the throne long. A better-loved King William could reestablish the monarchy in the hearts and minds of British and Scottish citizens, and reaffirm the UK (and even an independent Scotland) as a constitutional monarchy.

Read the most recent article written by Louise Wilson - What is Scotland's place in the world after Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

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