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Life & Style

Can the British monarchy survive in its gilded cage?

Published April 20, 2023
King Charles III and the Queen Consort attend the Easter Mattins Service at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, Britain. Photo: Reuters
King Charles III and the Queen Consort attend the Easter Mattins Service at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, Britain. Photo: Reuters

LONDON: As Britain prepares to crown King Charles III in a ceremony with traditions dating back some 1,000 years, the monarchy confronts a question it has faced down the centuries: how does it survive in the modern world?

For the House of Windsor, that does not mean dealing with growing hostility from politicians or the public, for which there is little evidence, but rather their indifference and simply becoming negligible.

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And in a world where mobile phones are ubiquitous, brutal social media commentary is rampant, and the media’s voracious appetite for royal stories is insatiable, the greatest issue might be that the family themselves no longer fancy the job.

“One thing that Prince Harry has really reminded us, if we needed any, is just how incredibly painful it is to live in a cage in which you are constantly scrutinised,” royal author Tina Brown told Reuters.

“It’s a pretty terrible thing to contemplate that your own life is something that you have no control over and that ultimately, it’s just not going to change and you are going to be in a zoo forever.

While many other European monarchies have come and gone, or are far diminished in scale and importance, the British royal family has remained remarkably resilient.

Polls show the monarchy is supported by the majority of Britons, although that backing has slipped slightly since the death of Queen Elizabeth last September, and Charles does not enjoy quite the same overwhelming popularity of his mother.

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But surveys also constantly indicate the young are less bothered about the institution than older generations, and as Elizabeth herself once said, while it was hard for them to gauge public opinion, partly because of deference, “read it we must”.

Republic, a group that wants to abolish the monarchy, has pointed to a poll which showed a majority of people were not interested in the coronation.

“Most of us aren’t that interested, and most of us think the royals should pay,” its chief executive Graham Smith said.


“Relevance is absolutely crucial to the monarchy,” said Robert Hardman, a long-time royal correspondent and author of ‘Queen of our Times’.

“The big threat to the future of the House of Windsor is not mobs storming the gate, it’s not revolution, it’s becoming irrelevant. The queen always used to say we have to be seen to be believed.”

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But therein lies the catch for the royals. There has long been a symbiotic relationship between the press and the royals, with papers extensively covering their engagements such that barely a day passes without an appearance on the front page of a national newspaper.

But, in return, the royals are considered public property with an expectation that they play the press “game” in return for gilded lives in palaces.

“Monarchs and their families need the media just as the media need them,” Harshan Kumarasingham, senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Edinburgh.

“A monarchy exists in a very precarious existence where it can be at the centre of our adulation, but it can also be at the centre of our criticism and fears.”

In his memoir ‘Spare’, Netflix documentary series and TV interviews, Prince Harry, the king’s younger son, made it clear that such an life in a media goldfish bowl was not one he was prepared to put himself nor his U.S. wife Meghan and their children through any more.

He also accused his family or those working for them, notably elder brother and heir Prince William and his stepmother Camilla, now the queen consort, of colluding with the press to plant negative stories about him in order to enhance or protect their public image.

In his younger days, Harry made front page news when he was pictured wearing a Nazi uniform at a costume party, had run-ins with paparazzi outside nightclubs, and was later pictured naked while partying in Las Vegas.

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With everyone having cameras on their mobile phones, there will be even more risk of exposure for the three young children of Prince William who face having every minor misdemeanour, inappropriate comment, or embarrassing mistake captured on film.

“When people talk about the privileges, I would say that the difficulties and the and the imprisonment of it, far outweigh really the privileges,” Tina Brown said. “So I’m not sure whether one should expect that of modern people.”

However, whatever difficulties it has faced over the years, from wars, divorce, internal squabbles or even abdication, the monarchy has always shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity.

“It’s remarkable at adapting,” Laura Clancy, a media lecturer at Lancaster University who specialises in the royals. “They’ve shown that they know that they need to adapt to the modern world in order to keep existing.”

Whether they will want to is another matter.

“People rightly talk about the privilege and the money and the palaces and the Bentleys,” a former close aide of King Charles once told Reuters. “It is a privilege, but it carries a great burden. I would never wish that life on anyone.”

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