Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, after their wedding, 2011

Dave Hogan · GP · Getty



through the street parties of East London on the day of the queen’s coronation in 1953, Michael Young and Edward Shils called the event ‘a great act of national communion’. It was, they wrote, meaningful as ‘a collective, not an individual experience’, different families knitted together as they had been on VE Day or during the Blitz. Congeniality was in the air, pickpockets were mysteriously inactive and there was a spirit of communion abhorrent to those with ‘the rationalistic bias of educated persons in the present century, particularly those of radical or liberal political disposition’



As Britain grows more unequal, the monarchy sees no fall in its popularity. Almost two in three Britons still think the country should still have one. Only 22% think it should be done away with. (Scotland disapproves most.) It is a contradiction: when times are tough, the royals provide the nation with a common escape. At the royal weddings of the last decade, a member of the general public has always been found to tell a TV crew that the nation needed a bit of a morale boost, something to raise its spirits. As Walter Bagehot wrote in his book

The English Constitution

(1867), the people yield to ‘the theatrical show of society,’ and ‘the climax of the play is the Queen.’

Queen Elizabeth II travels the country, dressed for visibility in apricot, wizard purple, chartreuse: 30% of the public say they have seen or met her. She considers cheering people up part of her job, albeit in a brisk and limited manner. ‘It’s rather nice to feel that one is a sort of sponge,’ Elizabeth summed up, after listening to her subjects in 1992


. The sponge is a metaphor of service suited to her ordinary image. Zadie Smith, in a piece for British


noted that ‘Mrs Windsor’ is well liked because of her ‘distinctly lower middle-class’ tastes — the corgis, the

Racing Post





One of her few remaining powers is bestowing honours, which seems cheerful and apolitical enough. ‘People need pats on the back,’ she notes. ‘It’s a very dingy world otherwise.’ Pats on the back are accompanied by royal support for charities, softly signalling a penchant for championing voluntarism over public services. Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the monarch is supposed to keep out of politics: her rights are, according to Bagehot, ‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn’. As a consequence, the topics royals choose for their causes, political as they are, contribute to what is seen as apolitical.

When Prince William advocates for topics attractive to millennials, such as mental health and climate change, these become an uncontroversial middle of the road, joining the same category as Cancer Research and the Red Cross. In October 2020, in the context of the conversations about slavery and empire catalysed by Black Lives Matter, the civilian formerly known as Prince Harry described his ‘awakening’ to the existence of systemic racism. The relatively more pioneering and emotive way Princess Diana approached charitable work — famously being photographed shaking hands with an HIV-positive hospital patient — was considered distasteful by elder royals.

Culture wars and accountability

The institution of the royal family is easily conscripted into the culture wars for political gain. Boris Johnson was accused by his opponents of ‘lying to the queen’ when he called on her to dissolve parliament to strengthen his hand during 2019’s Brexit disputes. Meanwhile, a refrain during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party was his insufficient deference to the monarch, his refusal to bow his head, sing the national anthem or know the time of her Christmas TV address taken as a lack of patriotism. The royals’ curious immunity from accountability is also a political matter — Boris Johnson has laughed off the idea of assisting the US authorities in accessing Prince Andrew following accusations in the Epstein case, reservations he does not harbour when it comes to Julian Assange.

Britain’s patriotic narrative, which often centres on being the little island that stood up to and vanquished the Germans in the second world war, is complicated by the manifold links between the royals and Nazism — beyond a shared belief in hierarchies of lineage. Prince Philip’s sisters, who lived in Germany, were firmly embedded in the Nazi party (one named her child Adolf). After Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII’s abdication to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, he was met at a munitions factory by Hitler himself, during a 1937 bought-and-paid-for trip to Nazi Germany. Photos show him at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, one of the royals’ most prized residences, teaching his nieces the Nazi salute. Later, from the Bahamas, he tried to convince the US to remain neutral in the second world war. Elizabeth’s grandfather’s cousin, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, another Hitler supporter, attended the English king’s funeral dressed as a stormtrooper.

The longest-serving monarch embodies a kind of timelessness. Through punk, Suez and the slow dismantling of empire, she has changed only at the pace of aging. These days she wears fake fur, not the real kind. But mostly, she is frozen history. She appears in emergencies, to reassure her people, as she did at the start of the first coronavirus lockdown in March, when she gave an address, her expression fixed, evoking Vera Lynn’s wartime song: ‘We’ll meet again.’

Continuity is a value appealing to monarchists. In

Reflections on the Revolution in France

(1790), Edmund Burke compared the French revolutionary ‘clan of the enlightened’ with his own countrymen’s disposition. ‘Such cabals have not existed in England. The whole has emanated from the simplicity of our national character,’ he wrote, ignoring the political turmoil of the previous century, which had seen the execution of Charles I. ‘We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists ... It has been the misfortune (not, as these gentlemen think it, the glory) of this age, that everything is to be discussed, as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation, than enjoyment.’

‘A noble hieroglyphic’

One example of such regard for tradition is the continued existence of a murky area of law known as the ‘royal prerogative’, whereby the executive (the government) can exercise the ‘ancient prerogatives of the Crown’, allowing it to act without legislation. In this context, political theorist Harold Laski wrote, ‘the Crown is a noble hieroglyphic’


that serves to mystify responsibility and stands in for any number of fallible officials. Past attempts to reform these laws under New Labour concluded, ‘Our constitution has developed organically over many centuries and change should not be proposed for change’s sake’



Historian David Cannadine has argued that the continuity the rituals we see today (which date back to the 19th century) try to establish with the distant past ‘is largely illusory’


. The more extravagant traditions were invented in order to compensate for the weakening power of the royal family as it was forced to relinquish its empire. In that case, even more spectacular traditions may be needed in coming years, as the monarchy faces a series of challenges. Prince Charles — who famously writes letters petitioning the government about architecture, climate change and social deprivation — lacks his mother’s restrained qualities. Only the sixth most popular royal, his approval rating is a modest 47%. With Elizabeth, some fear, the monarchy may die.

Conspiracy theories that she is already dead are reproduced as memes on Twitter and Reddit, a modern take on the gruesome obsession the British have long had with their monarch’s body as the personification of the state, whether syphilitic (Henry VIII), virginal (Elizabeth I) or gout-ridden (Queen Anne). ‘We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them,’ novelist Hilary Mantel wrote of the press’s obsession with William’s wife Kate’s physique



The monarchy is losing its lustre on the international stage, too. Several years ago, voices began to propose that after Elizabeth II, the Commonwealth’s leadership should rotate, others wanting a statesmanlike political figure, before the queen managed to impose her son as her successor. A reduced list of around two dozen countries will one day have to replace her image on their currency. Thirty-one out of 54 Commonwealth countries are now republics: last year, Barbados voted to remove the queen from her position as head of state. Australia held a referendum on this question in 1999; Jacinda Ardern has suggested New Zealand could follow; 44% Canadians support letting the British monarchy go (29% oppose it).

Even so, the power of ‘the Firm’, Prince Philip’s term for the corporate and legal machine that is the royal family, is well adapted to modern times. The House of Windsor’s brand is one of the strongest in the world. Since exiting to Los Angeles last year, Harry and Meghan have literally turned their royal status into a trademark, ‘Sussex Royal’, patented for use on everything from anoraks to mentoring schemes.

The Economist

comments that while Marx thought ‘capitalism would destroy every remnant of feudalism’, in reality, ‘far from undermining capitalism, the monarchy, in its British form, reinforced it’


. The queen, meanwhile, presents herself as apolitical, hard-working and self-sacrificing — virtues that wouldn’t be out of place in a startup entrepreneur: ‘Most people have a job and then they go home; in this existence the job and the life go together. I do somewhat begrudge some of the hours.’

Moreover, in the 20th century, through the rise of television and paparazzi, the royals became celebrities; in the 21st, the family is torn between those who surrender to divulging banal information on social media and those who persist in maintaining the mystery that guarantees their power. While the queen has never given a press interview, and the royal family is the only public body exempt from freedom of information requests, the monarchy has had to slip off its cloak of mystery a little since Princess Diana’s death in 1997. This was a pivotal moment in media, one of true ‘planetary psychodrama’ and ‘emotional globalisation’. The 24-hour news enabled by the Internet, the granular detail favoured by the tabloid press, and the prestige of legacy media combined to spark a perfect storm: ‘Diana left the limited and folkloric perimeter of celebrity and entered fully into the mainstream press.’ Her death was ‘the first episode of the new era of global information’.

Bowing to public pressure

‘Has the House of Windsor Got a Heart?’, ‘Show Us You Care’, ‘Where is our Queen? Where is our Flag?’, the headlines implored, when Buckingham Palace did not fly the union jack at half mast as was, the tabloids claimed, fitting to the death of a royal. That September, the queen bent to the public pressure and bared emotion. The global outpouring of grief — crowds, a funeral that was watched by an estimated half of the world’s population, flowers that encased, then buried, the Pont de l’Alma and the street outside Kensington Palace — demanded to find its reflection in the royals. Eventually, in her first live television broadcast in 38 years, the queen addressed the nation in a personal tone: ‘What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from the heart,’ she said, rocking slightly and using a line amended for her by Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, to make it more intimate.

The tabloids’ portrayal of the royal soap opera — the bulimic daughter-in-law, the adulterous son, the wayward lovechild — humanises a secretive organisation in the minds of the people. As Bagehot noted, ‘a


on the throne is an interesting idea ... a royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events.’ Indeed, the drama of family life is a distraction from the seemingly immovable power of a household whose special status entrenches a lack of democracy.

The Windsor family sits atop a culture wherein delicate codes of class, from butlers to speech etiquette, have become a national speciality. The ‘heritage’ industry, monetising the past and invented traditions, employs more people than the mining and fishing industries combined


. Behold a string of recent cultural exports:

The King’s Speech, The Queen

and Netflix’s

The Crown.

In each case the actor playing the monarch has been lavished with prestigious awards, as though playing a royal were more impossible and more important than playing any other human, and as though to lend an ambiguously meaningful institution yet more meaning.

The royal family costs the country £67m a year and avoids paying tax on some of its income through exemptions and offshoring


. Britain’s celebration of one aristocratic clan makes London a more appealing place for other tax avoiders to settle, driving up house prices and rents. The queen technically owns a sixth of the world’s land. In a recent Parliament discussion on offshore wind farming, the monarchy’s property portfolio, the Crown Estate, was referred to as ‘the landlord of the seabed’. The British government’s ban on evictions, a response to the coronavirus crisis, was lifted at the end of September, with 55,000 households left at risk of homelessness. The same week, reports came in that in these trying times, the Crown Estate would be bailed out by the taxpayer for losses on its rental properties on London’s Regent Street and around the country.

And yet, amid all the debates about sovereignty that have transformed the country in recent years, from Brexit to Scottish independence, the monarchy stays out of sight.