In the court of public opinion, the monarchy has survived the Sussexes’ campaign thus far. Polling suggests the institution retains majority support and that more disapprove of Prince Harry’s campaign than sympathise with it. Republicanism is not surging. But this is an institution, a system and a culture crying out for some new thinking and reform. Only a fool would be complacent.
The Windsors are not the only unhappy family in modern Britain. But they are the only one required to embody the nation as a whole. They are holding up a bleak mirror to the nation’s and the world’s gaze, from which no one emerges with credit. It reflects badly on Britain’s institutions, from the monarchy to the media, and we all know it.
There is plenty of blame to go round. Prince Harry’s complaints are always indignant, even though their focus ebbs and flows. This week he appeared to deny his earlier accusations of royal family racism. There is, though, little point in taking sides in the family’s quarrels. Newspapers should be particularly cautious about taking a one-sided approach when the press has so often played such a destructive role in past royal stories.
Britain has worse problems than the monarchy. But the danger to the Windsors exists. It is real and it is growing. It comes at a transitional time for the monarchy, as our oldest ever new monarch prepares for a coronation that, at least in theory, ought to celebrate and help to unify the nation. That feels like an ambition too far, right now. Prince Harry’s campaign has renewed the relevance of Walter Bagehot’s famous warning about the dangers of letting daylight in upon magic.
The clearest solution would be the republican settlement we ultimately favour. In the meantime, however, an enormous chance is being missed to reshape Britain’s constitutional monarchy for the post-Elizabeth age. There is responsibility to share here too. King Charles and his inward-looking circle deserve some of it. The danger is that Britain’s 21st-century monarchy is being defined ad hoc by an elite consisting of a palace clique and an overly deferential governing culture.
Instead of wallowing in royal gossip or drooling over the supposed timelessness of coronation rituals, Britain needs to decide how a system of constitutional monarchy that retains public support can be made better and reformed. The size of the royal family should be reduced, its titles reined in, some of its palaces sold off, the honours system recast, the coronation rethought and the monarch’s role as head of any state other than the United Kingdom ended. Harry Windsor should be left to live his new life.
Civil society has failed to face these issues. There has been no parliamentary and scarcely any other civic examination of the modern role, powers and appropriate cost of the monarch and the royal family. Rare attempts to do so have instead been stamped on. But it is not too late to do better.