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COMMENTARY

Royal wedding brings new energy to monarchy

SATURDAY will see the wedding of Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle, a union combining UK royalty and US show business. The impending nuptials, which will be a massive, international media event, highlights the continuing global fascination with the British monarchy which has been boosted in recent years by Harry, 33, and his brother Prince William, 35.

More than two decades on from the royal family's high profile problems in the 1990s, including the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana (Harry's and William's parents), Queen Elizabeth II and her immediate family have now largely recovered from the worst troubles of her reign as the longest-serving UK monarch. And it is Harry and William who have helped power the ruling clan's popularity ratings in recent years.

Aside from the Queen and her husband Prince Philip themselves, a YouGov poll showed that William is regarded as having made the strongest contribution to the royal family with 78 per cent approval rating, followed by Harry (73 per cent), and William's wife Kate (73 per cent). The popularity of Harry, who is sixth in line to the throne, is now likely to be bolstered by his marriage to Markle.

The American actress and humanitarian campaigner is likely to make her mark with much of the UK public, unlike the last US citizen who married a UK royal. The relationship between Wallis Simpson (like Markle, a divorcée) and King Edward VIII ultimately led to the 1936 abdication crisis.

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The high-profile wedding, which will take place at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, will give the monarchy a new surge of energy, especially coinciding with the recent birth of Prince Louis, the third child of William and Kate.

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Moreover, given the parallels between Diana and Markle, it is possible that the latter might become very popular, in the UK and internationally, in her own right. Harry said upon his engagement that his mother and his soon-to-be bride "would be as thick as thieves" (indicating they have much in common), and Markle has now given up her career as an actress to focus on royal duties and wider humanitarian campaigning, in a way that may prove comparable to Diana in the 1980s and 1990s.

The renewed popular appeal of the royals has been buttressed by a modernised monarchy with many of the UK populace believing it has changed for the better.

Key recent reforms include ending the rule of male primogeniture on the throne, which means girls now born to members of the royal family have equal rights as boys in the succession to the throne; and ending the prohibition on Elizabeth's successors marrying a Catholic. Harry's engagement to Markle, who attended a Catholic school in California and is of mixed race, is only the latest chapter in this transformation process that brings it into line with that of wider changes in UK society at large.

Correspondingly, polls tend to show that less than a quarter of the UK population want a republic, with many people believing that it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state. This factor may become even more important, in the future, given that the nation appears to potentially becoming increasingly divided on geographic lines, especially given increased pressure for independence in Scotland.

On the face of it, the monarchy seems in good stead to prosper in the post-Elizabeth II period. The Queen, now 92 years old, might choose to abdicate before she dies, and has already stepped back from some duties, including those requiring long-distance flights.

But unlike Harry and William, their father Charles (the immediate heir to the throne) does not share their popularity. In the YouGov poll, Charles and second wife Camilla trailed well behind the Queen, Philip, Harry and William on 36 per cent and 18 per cent popularity, respectively.

The poll also found only a third of the UK populace believe Charles "has been beneficial for the royal family". This is down by nearly two-thirds compared to four years ago, underlining that a rockier road may lie ahead for the monarchy once the Queen dies.

Charles, at 69, is already at an age when many people are retired, and is the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in UK history. Some surveys show that a significant body of the UK public would prefer the monarchy to skip a generation to William upon the Queen's passing.

Taken overall, Saturday's royal wedding will boost the popularity of Harry and the wider ruling clan. But while the monarchy has largely recovered its public standing from the 1990s, significant uncertainties remain about the post-Elizabeth II period, especially given popular sentiment towards Charles, and this means the monarchy could yet face a rockier road ahead once she dies.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE Ideas at London School of Economics.