The day after the Meghan and Harry interview – how the crown is more precarious than many realise

8th March 2021

A recent post at this blog averred that while the Netflix show The Crown gets a lot of the historical detail wrong it probably gets one wider point right – that there is a constant sense of precariousness felt by the Queen in respect of the monarchy of the United Kingdom.

By ‘precarious’ I do not mean a fear that the whole shabang will suddenly crash down – but instead that there is an ongoing sense of insecurity and instability which may or may not lead to wider insecurities and instabilities, and that this needs management and vigilance.

One suspects that the Queen is highly conscious of the institution’s fundamental changeability – she was ten when her uncle was forced to abdicate by a bunch of politicians; when she was twelve Ireland elected their own president and when she was twenty-two Ireland was explicitly a republic; and as she grew up generally the British empire was converting into a commonwealth, as elsewhere other monarchies declined and fell.

Only with hindsight do we see the period after 1952 as one of continuity and durability in our constitutional history – it probably did not seem that it would necessarily go that way seventy years ago.


Of course: the monarchy of the United Kingdom is to a certain extent a special case.

Indeed – the very term ‘United Kingdom’ indicates that it is the monarchy that defines the current combined political identity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Few other countries make the very political form of their constitutional arrangements the term by which they are generally known – the obvious other example is the United States.

And as that previous post on this blog also averred, the crown is so deeply embedded in our constitutional arrangements – it is, for example, the conceptual basis of power for each of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – that to change everything over to a republic scarcely seems worth the time and effort.

(Though, of course, once upon a time, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union also scarcely seemed worth the time and effort – but it happened anyway.)

The crown also has its loud and intimidating defenders in the media – though that very loud intimidation may in turn be seen as an indication of insecurity.

Because of all these things, the institution of the monarchy is not likely to disappear in a political instance.



The institution of the monarchy is also not bound to stay in its present form either.

In the lifetime of the Queen herself, the monarchy has gone through profound changes – while projecting the comforting image of things staying much the same.

From king of Great Britain and Ireland and emperor of India, and elsewhere, to what we have now – via a forced abdication comparable in constitutional significance to the ejection of James II in 1688-9.

The monarchy has, since the year of the Queen’s birth in 1926, perhaps gone thorough more changes than in any ninety-five year period since 1701.

So to project the last ninety-five years of royal history forward is not to see more stability, but to expect more fundamental change – including maybe the departure of Northern Ireland and Scotland from the United Kingdom.

(Though no doubt the ‘United Kingdom’ will keep calling itself that, just as some gongs are still named the order of the British empire.)

In essence: the present – and, for us, familiar – arrangements of the monarchy of the United Kingdom are not fixed and eternal.

They have profoundly changed in the lifetime of the current monarch – and they can profoundly change further.


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39 thoughts on “The day after the Meghan and Harry interview – how the crown is more precarious than many realise”

  1. I think a lot of our attachment to “The Monarchy” is really a personal attachment to Her Maj.

    1. Yes.

      And that attachment is most common in the older generation.

      If the monarchy does survive the next 95 years, or even the next 95 months, it will have to reinvent itself again.

    2. An old lady who none of us knows; whose occasional appearances are limited, stage-managed and – generally – pointless; who represents and heads an anachronistic and unnecessary monolithic entity; who truly serves no useful purpose – why would anyone have such an attachment?

      Are we really not past this inculcated, deferential, forelock-tugging by now?

      1. I have to say I would rather have an apolitical figurehead than an elected figurehead who was not the choice of all. HM’s Covid-19 broadcast being in the hands of Gordon Brown or Theresa May?

      2. The British monarchy would do well to look to the Scandinavian royal houses’ comparative modesty. In an age where we are striving for more equality, in every sense, the British tax payers’ support of this over privileged family and its countless courtiers is nothing more than an anachronism.

      3. I think the Queen (and Charles) much better than that. A strong example of duty and reportedly kind and thoughtful to those she meets (e.g. David Nott) . I don’t go under the heading Monarchist but am not willy-nilly Republican either. Nor am I deferential or have a forelock.

  2. Sorry to be pedantic, but the Glorious Revolution was in 1688.
    It can’t be easy to maintain the right balance between the current powerlessness of the monarchy and the outward display of pomp and grandeur. Continental monarchies seem to have heavily diluted the latter, and that may help their long-term survival.
    For me a much bigger question than the future of the monarchy is the future of the tabloid press. It is disgusting; but that’s what makes it popular. Press regulation is abhorrent; but self-regulation is a farce. The relationship between Palace and tabloid press seems to be one of poisonous interdependency

          1. Indeed. I’m not actually fussed about it, but since it seemed there was a minor pedantry competition brewing, I thought I’d join in!

          2. If Scotland becomes independent maybe they’ll take note and do some renumbering.

          3. Isn’t she at present Queen Elizabeth, rather than Queen Elizabeth I? (I don’t recall that we’ve ever had Queen Victoria I.)

    1. The “Glorious Revolution” was an invasion by a foreigner, starting on 5 November 1688. It could be described as “an invasion by invitation”. This invasion played out in battles in Ireland; on the Boyne, at Enniskillen, at the siege of Derry, and at Aughrim. It most certainly was not a “bloodless revolution”.

  3. Personally I think they should bypass Charles and go straight to William. Charles will not be a popular king and Camilla will not be a popular consort, whatever label she is given. They should also step down the coronation and modify the oath so as to provide room for honourable retirement like so many other monarchies including most recently Japan (and the pope!).
    Nonsense like the headship of the CoE and the “Queen’s consent” must go, along with “Defender of the faith” – the title given to Henry 8 by a church he then went on to fall out with a few years and 2 popes later.

    1. ‘Camilla will not be a popular consort, whatever label she is given’. I disagree, if only because Camilla appears to have been accepted into the Royal Family (another example of how it has adapted to stay the same?), by the media (which is mainly in favour of the RF) and by the public (who probably don’t mind seeing her and Charles happy together). There’s no current party political leader who will argue for reforming the monarchy either (we saw what happened when a former leader admitted they didn’t watch the Queen’s Christmas speech). Charles could be ‘unpopular’ but nothing will be done unless it gets to what could be called the ‘Code Cromwell’ level of crisis or until Charles dies and William can finally take over.

    2. Who is the “they” in this scenario? The Prince of Wales does not seem inclined to abdicate voluntarily. Even if he did so, the abdication would not take legal effect until ratified by either legislation or government action in all 16 Commonwealth Realms. (Some countries would no doubt seize this opportunity to move towards becoming republics, just as the Irish Free State did in the 1930s).

      In any case, Boris Johnson does not strike me as a Stanley Baldwin figure, and there is no crisis comparable in constitutional significance to that provoked by Edward VIII’s desire to marry a divorcee whose ex-husband is alive (indeed, the Prince of Wales has already done exactly that).

    3. I do agree, but the financial consequences for Charles would require some thought. He is used to a very expensive lifestyle – which is another reason for moving straight to William.

      It would also force a rationalisation of royal patronages as there would be fewer working “royals” – and the current batch spend little time outside southern England. Do William and Catherine have any patronages in Scotland?

      Definitely time for a rethink before the handover…

  4. Thank you for an insightful and though-provoking piece. Your comments about the discrepancy between the possibly deceptive stability – incarnated in the person of HM the Queen – and the actual changes undergone in her lifetime are spot-on.
    We have in the past often changed the dynasty if the incumbents proved unsatisfactory. However, I doubt that in this day and age such a remedy would be acceptable, even assuming it were practicable. The danger that dissatisfaction with the monarchy as such crystallises into outright republicanism is surely therefore increased, given the absence of a historically practised alternative?

  5. Also worth mentioning the dismissal of the Australian government by Governor General
    Kerr in 1975, and the current GG vacancy in Canada. Viceroys also possibly shaky.

  6. I am not a monarchist and have no interest in the current shenanigans. But am reluctant to label myself a republican without understanding a better alternative to the current arrangements. I’d be interested to hear your views on a decent system to replace the monarchy and it’s constitutional powers and obligations. Maybe a step back to a monarchy on one of the European models would be a start?

  7. The Monarchy has outlived its usefulness, but what to replace it with? The whole political”project” requires overhauling including reform of an unelected Upper House.

    There is not much chance of that happening with the current Government and Official Opposition. Also, the USA system is one not to be followed.

    I doubt I will live to see any reform, being 67 years of age.

  8. In a speech in 1962, the former American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson said:

    Great Britain had lost an Empire but not yet found a role.

    The UK still hasn’t been able to find a meaningful role for itself.

  9. The Queen will be 95 next month. Her mother lived past 101, but her sister died aged 71, her father only 56, and no British person has yet lived to see their 116th birthday, as far as we know. So there will almost certainly be a constitutional “event” at some point in the next 21 years. And not just for the UK, but also the rest of the Commonwealth from Australia and Canada to Saint Lucia and Tuvalu.

    Charles is already 72 and could easily be in his 80s before said “event”. He also might live another 20 or 30 years (his father will be 100 in June). Or might not.

    Prince William is already 38, and so he might be in his 60s before he gets his turn. His eldest child is 7. And so the wheel turns.

    Once the heir has an heir, the spare becomes, well, surplus, as we have seen before with Anne, Andrew and Edward, and Margaret, and the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent. Victoria had 9 children, and 42 grandchildren. Most have to find their own way, and alongside the ones that live dedicated lives of public service, there will be ones that present problems of one sort or another.

    I can imagine the UK deciding to replace our largely apolitical and decorative monarch with a largely apolitical and decorative elected president, like Michael Higgins in Ireland. But I have every expectation that the monarchy will continue to reinvent itself, as it has every generation or so, although I doubt Charles will be quite as deft and charming an operator as his mother.

  10. I long for the formation of a new party, led and supported by young people, that accepts the loss of Scotland and NI and seeks to refashion England and Wales into a country fit for the 21st century, which accepts its reduced place in the world, with a truly representative voting system for the lower house and a reformed upper house, a clear constitution, fair tax system and no Ruritanian monarchy. And seeks to rejoin the EU. A big ask, but at least a realistic vision for the future. Meanwhile we will have to suffer the dregs of this ancien regime. Maybe in twenty years…

  11. What if we had a monarch who was to the Crown what Donald Trump has been to the US Presidency? That would be illuminating.

    1. The difference perhaps is that the US president is an executive head of state so he is his own PM. A Donald Trump would be frustrated as a constitutional monarch not being able to wield any of the power he is supposed to have in his own right.

    2. Edward VIII might have been something close to that, had he not been forced out early in his reign.

  12. The UNITED KINGDOM is a corporation.
    I would love to know more about whether the Queen has anything to do with it legally rather than just empty ceremony.

    My limited understanding is that the CEO of the corporation of the UK is currently Boris Johnson or is it the Queen?
    The CROWN is also a corporation, the Queen being the Trustee of it. Maybe the UK (corporation) is a subsidiary of the CROWN?

    Police officers, for example, swear to THE CROWN corporation, not to the individual sovereign flesh & blood monarch.

    I’d love to have further clarity
    Thank you in anticipation

  13. I wonder how much may depend on how the Opposition play this. Possibly torn between socially conservative former voters in the “Red wall” and younger voters inclined to Greens et al. But if the polling starts to point clearly one way…?

    Taking the current little difficulty, Sir Keir Starmer did at least refer to “allegations” this morning. I suspect others in his shadow cabinet will join those who believe the victims must be believed, and that their account is credible and true.

  14. I will never not be fascinated by the fact that, even today, there is no clear answer to the question “Who was the Head of State of Ireland between 1936 and 1949?”

  15. It’s worth remembering that the Heir to the Throne’s wife was hounded into mental illness, marital breakdown and, ultimately, hounded to her death with the press pack in hot pursuit.

    Nobody was prosecuted: nobody was reprimanded; nobody was subjected to any financial penalty; no effective statutory or voluntary limitations on such actions was devised – let alone applied – in response to these acts, and the hounds and the huntsmen profited handsomely.

    The target – Mrs Diana Windsor – was actually quite an important person as these things go, and rather popular.

    So her death, and the impunity of the hounds and the huntsmen, is a genuinely frightening demonstration of power.

    They can do it to anyone, and they know it – the name of Lucy Meadows springs to mind – and they might just do it to you.

    Or to me, and make a game of it by picking off people who matter to me, one at a time, before the pack descends in gleeful malice and finishes me off.

    Unaccountable power is frightening, and they have bared their teeth at a retired military officer and the actress he married.

    They know what the press can do – his mother was killed this way! – and military officers with combat experience are far better than you or I at assessing lethal risk: I do not doubt that his decision to renounce his formal roles and go into exile was sound, and I am expecting him to request political asylum in a civilised country where the rule of law can be applied to journalists.

  16. Ernest Gellner once said that ‘Just as the monarchy is valued above all for preventing the sacralisation of operational politics, so the church is valued for preventing sacralisation of anything else.’ That first functional requirement would arguably still be there beyond any day to day crises.

  17. Leaving aside the soap opera element of the Windsor family show, recent events have raised issues over the fitness for purpose of the monarchy in a constitutional sense.

    One of the traditional arguments in favour of a constitutional monarchy has been that it provides a safeguard against the abuse of power by politicians (in practical terms the Prime Minister). There was always the danger, the argument went, that one day a populist Prime Minister would attempt to act unlawfully or in a way that undermined fundamental constitutional conventions. At that point the constitutional monarch would ride to the rescue and protect the state.

    Which brings us to the events of the late summer of 2019. A Prime Minister resigns. The day before that resignation a new leader of her party is chosen. At the same time (whether connected or not) that party loses its notional majority in the Commons following an MP crossing the floor. The new party leader is appointed Prime minister (although there must be some doubt at least whether he can command a majority in the Commons). The issue is never tested since almost immediately the Commons recess for the summer. During the recess the newly appointed Prime minister advises the Queen to prorogue Parliament in circumstances that were highly controversial (to say the least).

    If ever there was a situation where the constitution might need protecting this must be it. A Prime minister who has not met the Commons or shown he can command a majority attempts to prevent Parliament sitting in circumstances that even his supporters must recognise were highly unusual to say the least. Is not this the moment when the monarch saves the day? Nothing extreme is needed – just a nudge ‘Thank you for your advice Prime minister. I note you have yet to show you can command a majority in the Commons. I will be happy to accede to your request but I must first ask that you demonstrate your ability to command such a majority by either obtaining a vote of confidence or the passing of a motion by the Commons approving prorogation’.

    Of course nothing of the sort happened and an unlawful prorogation was approved. If there has been a situation more appropriate for the monarchs intervention I cannot think of one (at least since 1910/11). Instead presumably to avoid political controversy the crown supinely bowed to the wishes of the Prime minister. If the institution (or the incumbent) are so frightened to do the job then they are not fit for purpose. It is I accept difficult for a hereditary monarch to act in a democracy when they have no political legitimacy derived from voters. But if that lack of democratic legitimacy emasculates them from acting in situations where they should act it is probably time for a serious discussion about their role.

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