The British monarchy has a succession problem

LONDON — What will happen to the United Kingdom when the queen dies?

Car mechanic, broadcaster, stamp collector, fashion icon, the longest-serving monarch in the history of the United Kingdom — no one has a resume like Queen Elizabeth II’s. But even remarkable lives must someday end, as the death of her husband Prince Philip reminded the world last week. And with the queen turning 95 on April 21, planning for the transition is an increasingly pressing issue, for the royal family and for the union over which she presides. 

It’s clear that the U.K. is a country of Elizabethans (to steal a turn of phrase from Australia’s former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent republican). What’s less clear is whether it’s a country of monarchists. 

While the queen remains personally popular, a series of public relations disasters has tarnished the rest of the royal family. A recent poll found that more than 70 percent of people in Scotland, Wales and central England approved of the queen. Only 50 percent of respondents in Wales and central England approved of her heir, Prince Charles. In Scotland, support for Charles was just 41 percent.  

At question is not whether the U.K. will abolish the monarchy once Elizabeth dies. The institution itself continues to enjoy broad support, according to a poll from October. It’s whether — with the U.K. under unprecedented strain from Scottish separatism and the aftereffects of Brexit — any future monarch will be able to provide the same steadying influence as the one whose hand has been on the tiller for more than half a century.

One episode that highlights the potentially bumpy road ahead was the queen’s handling of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 request that she suspend parliament during the peak of the Brexit debate — a move then Speaker of the House John Bercow described as a “constitutional outrage.”  

The queen’s decision to grant Johnson’s request sparked fury among those opposing Brexit, dragging her into the political fray and causing some to call for a reform of Britain’s unwritten constitution — but she ultimately emerged from the so-called prorogation crisis unscathed.

It’s not clear her son would have been able to do the same. “One of the questions I’ve been posing is, if you play the prorogation crisis through the lens of Prince Charles, would the same level of trust have been there for the media and the public?” said Catherine Haddon, historian at the Institute for Government and constitutional expert. 

“They were thinking ‘Well, the queen will want to do the right thing,’” she said. “Whatever happens, she will not want to play politics.’” 

Holding the U.K. together — never mind the rest of the Commonwealth — while presenting oneself as an apolitical guarantor of the British political system will be a tough act to follow, said Haddon. There’s so much constitutionally “murky territory” for a modern monarch to wade through. Charles is bound to face huge challenges.  

“It’s not so much that I say for certain he won’t be able to do it,” she said. “I just say we need to be conscious of the question.” 

The tarnished crown

Planning for a death, particularly one that can destabilize a nation, is a delicate matter. That’s why deaths within the royal household have different code names. Elizabeth’s is Operation London Bridge. But there’s one thing over which even the most careful planners have no control: who comes next. 

The moment the queen dies, before anyone announces it or the flags reach half-mast, Charles will become king. He will instantly inherit the titles and lands, and become head of a royal family that is once again in turmoil. “The Firm” — as the sprawling royal institution operating behind the palace walls is sometimes called — is no stranger to tabloid controversy. But its members have spent the last few years brushing up against the third rails of the culture zeitgeist

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Charles’ son Prince Harry and his wife Meghan raised allegations of racism among the royal family. Meghan said that before her son Archie was born, there were “concerns and conversations” with one member of the family about his skin color. Harry later clarified that the comments had not come from the queen or her husband, setting off another round of speculation about the identity of the “racist royal.” 

Meanwhile, Charles’ younger brother Prince Andrew has continued to demonstrate that being royal does not necessarily mean being regal. He was sacked from public roles after being tied to Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender.

Former members of Andrew’s staff told POLITICO that British and U.S. diplomats had to seek advice on protocol from the palace regarding his engagement with some U.S. authorities on investigations into Epstein. Just 7 percent of Britons have a positive view of Andrew, falling to 4 percent in Scotland.  

And then there’s Netflix’s “The Crown.” The streaming service’s drama about the royals inaugurated a new wave of scrutiny of Charles’ breakup with his former wife Diana Spencer — the mother of Harry and Prince William, who is next in line for the throne. Though the series conflates timelines and events, it was for many younger viewers the first account of the event they engaged with.  

In PR terms, the show was “a fucking disaster,” a member of the royal family told POLITICO.

Mother and son

The controversies have not touched the queen, but they’re bound to make things more difficult for Charles, who will be subject to intense scrutiny from the moment he takes over. 

The Prince of Wales lacks his mother’s knack for staying above the political fray. Elizabeth aggressively cultivated a reputation for impartiality. Even when the union was at risk during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, she limited herself to saying that she hoped “people will think very carefully about the future.” 

By contrast, Charles’ views on matters as diverse as housing and climate change are widely known. The Guardian newspaper fought a decade-long legal battle to get hold of Charles’ famous “Spider memos” — so called for the prince’s telltale, spindly script — that revealed him to have lobbied the government on issues ranging from saving endangered fish to ordering military equipment for troops in Iraq, and urging badger culls to combat agricultural pathogens. 

Though he’s played it closer to the chest in recent years, the damage is probably done, said Haddon. “He’s been much more cautious at least in public of any semblance on having views on matters. But I’m not sure that the same level of trust exists there.” 

The queen’s diplomatic skills have also been put to good use inside Britain, in a way Charles may strain to emulate. “She understands the subtleties [of the union] better than anyone else,” said Haddon. “She’s very alive to the fact that she’s not one queen. In effect she’s four queens [of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland], and she operates more in that way.”  

Amid the tense 2014 Scottish referendum, nationalists supported keeping Elizabeth as “Queen of Scots,” even if the nation broke with the rest of the U.K. “Her Majesty The Queen will be head of state,” stated a draft plan for the Scottish state independence campaigns published at the time. (In addition to the U.K., the queen is the official head of state of 15 other countries, including Australia and Canada.)

TV dramas, public debate and opinion, and the media all suggest that while the queen’s longevity and conduct allow her a uniting role across the nations of the U.K., it’s less clear for Charles. Privately, Scottish National Party members of the Scottish and U.K. parliaments say their party is divided on the issue, with the queen’s death possibly offering a natural moment to switch their position toward republicanism. The Scottish Green Party has publicly stated that it would seek a democratically elected head of state. 

Office politic

At the queen’s death, Charles will also become head of the Commonwealth, a group of 54 nations that has its origins in the British Empire. Though the position is not hereditary, Commonwealth leaders declared in 2018, after a request from the queen, that the position would pass on to her son. But some have argued the Commonwealth would be better served by a rotating head among its members, reflecting the modern relationship the states have with one another as equals. 

“It was a missed opportunity for modernization that set alarm bells ringing about the future,” said a senior diplomat from a Commonwealth realm. 

The queen’s diplomatic skills may be most missed inside the palace, where she’s been mostly successful at keeping a lid on factionalism. The Firm is made up of three royal households: the queen’s Buckingham Palace, Charles’ Clarence House and William and his wife Kate’s operations at Kensington Palace. Each manages its own media operation and has its own staff, intensely loyal former diplomats and officials, many of whom spend large stretches of their career working for the same royal, a practice that encourages a bunker mentality, according to academics and royal household insiders.  

There’s disagreement among them over how to handle the transition, with Clarence House and Buckingham Palace favoring a more traditional transfer of power and Kensington Palace keen to present an image of a more modern monarchy. This would entail giving William a more prominent role.  

Charles is also “quite keen to reduce the size of the royal family,” by keeping very few family members on the payroll, according to Robert Hazell, a professor of government and the constitution at University College London. “The larger it is, the greater the risk that one goes off the rails,” said Hazell.  

Doing so could cause further tensions within the family. The day Charles takes the crown, a united front from The Firm may no longer exist. 

Soft regency

Concerns about the transition are serious enough to have raised talk of a so-called soft regency — a gentle way of suggesting that then-King Charles pass some of his public duties to William, whose young family and easier relationship with the press would bring popularity while still respecting the dynasty’s rules of continuity.  

A poll in October found Britons to be roughly evenly split as to whether Charles or William should take over from Elizabeth. But when they were asked which of the two would have the most influence over the future of the royal family, 65 percent of respondents picked the son, compared with just 10 percent for the father. 

Traditionally, a regency is what happens if a monarch is young or infirm, and cannot carry out all the functions demanded by a head of nation and head of state. Charles and William could divide their functions to create an unofficial version of this, Hazell contended. 

In such a scenario, Charles’ role, as head of state, could be relatively limited, Hazell said. By taking on only essential activities, such as the weekly audience with the prime minister and receiving ambassadors, the king could stay generally out of the public eye.

William could in the meantime serve as the de facto head of the country, a role in which the monarch has “to be seen to be believed,” according to Hazell. That would include taking on the duties detailed in the Court Circular, from foreign tours, to charity visits and opening major building projects and events.  

Household insiders suggested to POLITICO that arrangements like a soft regency have been discussed already, though views on how or whether it should be pursued are divided.

In other words, it would take two men to fill Elizabeth’s shoes. With people calling into question not just the monarchy, but the country that produced it, the royal family will be hoping that two heirs will be enough. 

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