Watched by millions around the world, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated the enduring glamor of Britain’s hereditary order. As recession looms, however, and the pound sinks to its lowest in nearly four decades, it is time to ask: Can the monarchy reform fast and radically enough to adapt to an age of social and economic breakdown?
The modern era began with the decapitation of a king and its main ideologies — whether democracy, socialism, market capitalism, anti-colonialism or, most recently, populism — have centered around fairness and a distrust of entitled elites. The queen’s dignified presence helped an anachronistic institution postpone a long-overdue reckoning. But the unique privileges of her family — taxpayer-funded lavishness, no inheritance tax, immunity to prosecution — will increasingly come under hostile scrutiny.
Many monarchies around the world have already withered under that gaze. A self-proclaimed “Prince of Venice,” spotted in somber attendance at last week’s funeral, might arouse our curiosity. The reality is that Europe’s surviving kings and queens have faced adversity or extinction since World War I. When not exiled, they’ve had to reconcile themselves to their irrelevance amid a democratic revolution that expanded through crises and mass revolts. Eschewing all pretensions to “ruling,” they became powerless symbols of statehood. Today, titular monarchs are the rule rather than the exception.
Emasculation of monarchical power was more brutal and commonplace in decolonizing Asia and Africa. In India, saddled with more than 500 royals at independence in 1947, hereditary privileges were abruptly abolished in the late 1960s. It was arguably at the insistence of the United States that Japan retained its emperor after World War II. In Thailand, the greatest political outlier in this regard, a monarch successfully claimed semi-divine pedigree and status for decades; his successor, who lives mostly in Germany, now confronts unprecedented protests against his once unassailable office.
Reform, of course, is the watchword of those who seek to perpetuate a near-perfect embodiment of unearned privilege. Europe’s remaining maharajas have tried to adjust their style to the egalitarian ethos of their societies. Some have succeeded. The King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, has managed to retain his office partly by blending his family into the equality-conscious Swedish bourgeoisie. In a significant concession to democratic sensibilities, he relieved five of his grandchildren of official royal duties in 2019.
The most striking case for a reformed monarchy emerged in Spain. The former king Juan Carlos, also present at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, had presided over the restoration of democracy in 1975 after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco. In 2014, the monarch was forced to abdicate after a series of scandals; he now live in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
His son and successor King Felipe has managed to slim down the royal family drastically, banning its members from accepting presents or participating in business deals. The new faces of the monarchy in Spain are his wife, Queen Letizia, a former journalist from a modest background, and their teenage daughter, a student in Wales. Still, a small majority in Spain today supports replacing the monarchy with a republic.
Confident of greater public backing, the British royal family seems relatively robust. The new King Charles III is rumored to be keen on reforms of the kind already in place in Spain and other European democracies. There is certainly much he can do: Buckingham Palace with its 775 rooms and a swimming pool could be a luxury hotel with perfect location in central London. He could tell most of the massively over-extended royal family to lead normal lives, outside their golden cages.
Whether or not he attempts such reforms, even Britain’s royals can no longer expect to be exempted from the tests of merit and performance to which the rest of us are constantly subject. Now that Queen Elizabeth is gone, more scandalous behavior by taxpayer-supported idlers could sink the royal family very quickly.
Certainly, its luxurious indifference to the pain felt by ordinary Britons is likely to appear more and more egregious to commoners. Britain may seem fortunate to have had Queen Elizabeth reign serenely for as long as she did. But that luck, which helped disguise a deep national rot, has now run out. Questions about what the monarchy is for will become louder as, in the months to come, Britain stands fully exposed — a country pushed into political and economic crises by a political and media establishment which the monarchy did little to impede.