The Business Times

Prince Philip's death shines spotlight on future of UK

Published Fri, Apr 16, 2021 · 05:50 AM

THE death of Prince Philip has shone a spotlight on the uncertain future of not just the monarchy, but also the United Kingdom itself, with Queen Elizabeth II reaching 95 years of age next week. For it is not just the Royal Family, but also the continued union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which could suffer from a potentially less popular UK head of state in the future.

The public response to the Duke of Edinburgh's passing underlines that by and large, almost three decades on from the Royal Family's high-profile problems in the 1990s, the Queen and her immediate family have now largely recovered from the worst troubles of her reign as the longest serving UK monarch. And it is Prince Philip and Princes William and Harry who have recently helped power the ruling clan's popularity.

Aside from the Queen and Prince Philip, polls tend to show that Prince William is regarded as having made the strongest contribution, followed by Prince Harry and Prince William's wife Kate. The popularity of Prince Harry, however, may now be chequered by his and Megan Markle's break from his family and departure to live in California.

Yet, with the Queen's advancing age, attention is increasingly turning to the future of the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth represents a figure of significant continuity during a seven-decade period when the world has been transformed.

When she succeeded her father, King George VI, and assumed the throne, Winston Churchill was UK prime minister, Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union, Harry Truman was US president, and Mao Zedong was the Chinese Communist leader. Then the world's population was around 2.6 billion people; the Korean War was still underway; the People's Republic of China was only two years old; and the UK was just about to join the United States and Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons power.

Today, global population has tripled from 1952 to an estimated 7.6 billion; China is an emerging superpower, with the largest economy in the world on purchasing power parity terms; the Soviet Union has long ago disappeared from the geopolitical landscape; and the UK has transitioned to what some term as a "middle power" with its empire now dismantled - although some of these former colonial states and dominions remain in the 54 member country, 2.4 billion population Commonwealth which Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have done much to champion.

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While the Queen is widely perceived as a force for stability, the role of the UK monarch has changed significantly during this period. Among the key recent reforms she has helped oversee include ending the rule of male primogeniture on the throne - which means girls now born to members of the Royal Family have equal rights with boys in the succession to the throne; and ending the prohibition on her successors marrying a Catholic.

Another change concerns the monarch's finances which are now more transparent with the Queen paying income and capital gains tax, and her official residences opened to the public to help pay for their upkeep. Moreover, as of 2013, the monarch no longer receives a fixed amount of money through the Civil List (as had Queen Elizabeth's predecessors for some 250 years), and instead receives a portion of revenue from the Crown Estate property portfolio.

Amid the high esteem that the Queen and some other royals are currently held in, what is sometimes also forgotten is that she has enjoyed bouts of significantly lower popularity. The 1990s were particularly troubled, with 1992 becoming her self-described "annus horribilis" when the marriages of three of her children disintegrated, and Windsor Castle was nearly destroyed by fire. Her response to the 1997 death of Prince Charles's first wife, Princess Diana, was widely criticised at the time by the UK public.

GLOBAL FASCINATION

Nonetheless, the Queen and her immediate family have largely recovered from this period; and the extraordinary media focus on Prince Philip's remarkable, long life in recent days highlights the continuing global fascination with the UK monarchy. Today, less than a quarter of the UK population wants a republic, and many believe that it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state. This factor may become even more important in the future as the UK appears to be increasingly divided on geographic lines, especially given increased pressure post-Brexit for independence in Scotland and instability in Northern Ireland too.

The Queen is also widely admired internationally, fuelled by her visits to over 130 countries during her long reign. In an international poll in 2015, she came in the top five of most admired women in the world. A key question is whether or not the Queen, soon to be 95 years of age, might choose to abdicate before she dies, and also how the monarchy will fare in the post-Elizabeth II period. On the first question, speculation has been heightened following the abdications in 2013 of both Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Albert of Belgium.

Queen Elizabeth has already stepped back from duties requiring long-distance flights. However, there are no obvious signs yet that she will do anything but follow the example of her great-grandmother Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the previous holder of record longevity for a sitting UK monarch, who died in office.

On the second issue, Prince Charles - at 72 - is already at an age when many people are retired, and is the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in UK history. Moreover, his own personal popularity is neither as high as his mother's, nor that of his son, Prince William.

Indeed, some polls show that a significant body of the UK public would prefer the monarchy to skip a generation from Queen Elizabeth to Prince William upon the Queen's passing. This leaves open the significant possibility that the Royal Family could become less popular under Prince Charles' rule.

The skill that Prince Charles shows as Queen Elizabeth's successor could therefore have implications not just for the monarchy, but also the wider union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He will do well to learn the trick his mother has shown of being a reformer, while widely being seen as a force for stability, as the Royal Family continues to evolve to meet the changing contours of the 21st century.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

 

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