Royal family: Protests raise questions about the future of the monarchy in the U.K.
After anti-monarchist protesters were arrested, Britons wonder about freedom of speech, the timing of the protests and what’s next for the U.K.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
LONDON – Queen Elizabeth II’s death has sparked widespread grief in the U.K., along with concerns that civil rights were undermined during brief crackdowns on protesters.
But amid an economic crisis and waning support for a monarchical system, when the queen’s mourning period ends, some Britons think it’s time to talk about the monarchy.
“A significant amount of appreciation in the U.K. for the monarchy wasn’t necessarily for the institution. It was for the queen,” said Paul Powlesland, 36, a lawyer who stood outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday with a blank piece of paper in his hand and said he was told he would be arrested if he wrote “Not my king” on it, a reference to his disapproval of King Charles III, who inherited the throne from his mother.
“Now that she’s gone I think there’s going to be a lot of people reassessing their relationship with the monarchy, especially as I think Charles is inherently less likable,” he said.
In fact, polls show that a majority of Britons are in favor of continuing with the monarchy, although support for it has steadily declined over the last decade. About 6 in 10 Britons – 62% – think Britain should continue to have a monarchy in the future, with only 22% saying the country should move to having an elected head of state instead, according to a survey published by YouGov, an online research firm, in June, before the queen died.
“You only have to look at the queues waiting patiently to see the queen lying-in-state to pay their respects to her to know how well she is loved,” said Patrick Vernon, a British racial equality campaigner whose parents grew up in Jamaica.
“But if the government doesn’t come up with a credible plan to deal with a cost-of-living crisis then people may start to think differently about the royal family,” he said.
Britain has been hit by a cost of living crisis, triggered by the war in Ukraine. Last week, Prime Minister Liz Truss announced a cap on soaring energy bills to $2,800 annually per household for the next two years, providing some relief to economically struggling citizens.
This week brought some further respite – official figures showed that inflation in the U.K. slowed slightly – the consumer price index rose 9.9% in the 12 months through August, down from the 40-year high of 10.1% reported last month.
But the British pound fell to under $1.14 – a 37-year low – on Friday after data from the Office for National Statistics revealed weak retail sales in August, showing Britons are tightening their wallets amid fears of a recession.
The monarchy’s vast wealth sparks frustration
Some critics of the monarchy have used the queen’s death as an opportunity to express frustration with an institution that costs British taxpayers almost $120 million last year, according to the royal family’s official expenses, known as the Accounts for the Sovereign Grant.
Charles inherits the Duchy of Lancaster, which holds swaths of land worth more than $750 million and a cut of the profits of the crown estate, estimated to hold more than $17 billion in assets. With Charles’ ascension to the throne, Prince William inherits the Duchy of Cornwall estate, worth more than $1.2 billion.
Castles and Crowns: What did Queen Elizabeth leave behind in the House of Windsor’s estate
While the vastness of the British royal family’s wealth is not known for certain, Forbes estimates it to be at $28 billion. King Charles will not pay inheritance tax on what is passed down from his mother, but he previously said he would follow her lead and voluntarily pay income tax.
Public scenes of dissent with the monarchy have been quickly quashed by the police, spurring a debate around free speech, following the queen’s death on Sept. 8.
In Scotland, a 22-year-old man was charged in connection with breaching the peace after he heckled the queen’s disgraced son Prince Andrew – who was stripped of royal duties in January following sexual assault allegations – as he walked behind his mother’s coffin in Edinburgh, as was a woman who held a sign reading “F— imperialism, abolish the monarchy.”
Activist Symon Hill was handcuffed in Oxford, southern England, after calling out, “Who elected him?” during a proclamation ceremony for the new king.
“The police abused their powers to arrest someone who voiced some mild opposition to a head of state being appointed undemocratically,” he said.
In London, a woman was moved from the Parliamentary gates while holding a sign saying, “Not my king.” Police said she was moved in order to allow vehicles to enter.
Late Friday, a man was arrested “following a disturbance” in Westminster Hall, where the queen’s coffin is lying-in-state ahead of her funeral Monday, British police said. Eyewitness reports said the man ran up to and touched the coffin and attempted to pull the queen’s Royal Standard flag off the coffin before he was swiftly arrested.
“We all understand that people will want to mourn the death of the queen, yet at the same time Charles has taken the job of head of state without debate or consent,” said Graham Smith, who runs Republic, a group that campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy. “That’s a political act which millions of people object to.”
A campaigning king? Unlikely.
Already, King Charles III inhabits a different sphere to his mother, whose 70-year reign spanned the era of British colonialism, the Commonwealth – an association of 56 states, most of them former British colonies – and the present day.
The new monarch has been seen expressing frustration since taking the throne – first angrily signaling to aides for a desk to be cleared before signing the Accession Proclamation, and then with a leaking pen while signing the visitor’s book at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, saying, “I can’t bear this bloody thing.” It’s a far cry from is late mother’s stoic stance, never appearing flustered in public.
The late queen was staunchly politically neutral, but Charles, as Prince of Wales, is known for his environmental activism. In June, he told Commonwealth leaders he could not describe “the depths of his personal sorrow” over the suffering caused by slavery at a summit in Rwanda. He founded the Prince’s Trust youth charity in 1976 to help vulnerable young people find jobs or start businesses. Beneficiaries include Hollywood star Idris Elba, who the trust awarded a $1,700 grant to train as an actor.
In 2018, Charles said in an interview with the BBC that he would not continue campaigning in the same way as king.
How do Britons envision the future of the monarchy?
Kallie Schut, 60, from London, said the monarchy “definitely has a role to play” in how the government operates in the future, given its influence over culture, history and international relations.
“This is a turbulent political time – we need to have a (monarch’s) role that is representative of all people of Britain,” said Schut, whose parents came to Britain from India, and who works in children’s services and is a yoga teacher.
Charles has said inclusion and diversity are always “close to my heart,” which means “there’s an awareness about how they (the monarchy) need to move to keep pace with change,” Schut said.
However, she added that Charles does not have a direct relationship with his subjects, and she thinks the future of the monarchy is “precarious” and “time-limited.” She added that the royal family’s failure to speak up to protect Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, from the “covert and overt racism” that was directed at her by the British press “speaks to people of color.”
“The new King should embrace a national conversation to reset the relationship between royalty and ‘subjects,'” including issuing an apology for slavery and colonialism, wrote Lester Holloway, the editor of the Voice, a Black British newspaper, in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. The paper was guest edited by then-Prince Charles to mark its 40th anniversary, soon before the queen’s death. “His reign should bring reform so that the monarchy changes to reflect the ways in which his country already has,” Holloway wrote.
“Everybody’s feelings at the minute is we don’t want any trouble,” said Pat Rider, from Essex, outside London, who was standing in line Friday to attend the queen’s lying-in-state. “If people want to protest – and we are so lucky that we can in this country – they should. But it’s very sensitive. This is not just about the monarchy. This is about the queen, a woman we love. Please, can they wait until after the funeral?”
Schut said the right to protest should be upheld the same way as the monarchy’s hereditary rights and that a balanced discussion was being prevented from taking place.
“That is not the sign of a healthy democracy – a healthy democracy can withstand a difference of opinion and protest,” she said.
Contributing: Jasper Colt
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