James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has inevitably sparked a wave of interest in what the monarchy means to Britain. His death marks the beginning of the end of the second Elizabethan era and attention will soon be paid to what the Queen’s death in turn will mean for the future of the monarchy. Where does the monarchy sit in the minds of the British people and how might this change over time? Will the monarchy be fighting for its survival after the Queen dies? I have been through all the recent polling on the monarchy to try to answer these questions.
1) Support for the monarchy is very broad
Let’s deal with top line results first. On the basic popularity questions – in fact on every way you ask them – the British public supports the monarchy by a large margin.
YouGov’s tracker asks whether the monarchy is good or bad for Britain; the last result showed by 55 per cent to 11 per cent people say it’s good (with 27 per cent saying neither good nor bad). Savanta ComRes asked whether people agreed the monarchy was good for Britain; by 61 per cent to 15 per cent people agreed (with 18 per cent saying they neither agreed nor disagreed).
Ipsos-Mori recently asked whether it would be good or bad for Britain’s future if the monarchy was abolished; by 41 per cent to 19 per cent, people said it would be bad (with 31 per cent saying it would make no difference). Perhaps more interesting from a policy perspective, another YouGov poll asked whether Britain should continue to have a monarchy or replace it with an elected head of state; people chose the monarchy by 63 per cent to 25 per cent.
The Queen enjoys even higher levels of popularity: a separate YouGov tracker shows 79 per cent of the public think she has done a good job during her time on the throne.
Despite the large numbers of people who are either disinterested or unsure about the monarchy – figures which are surprisingly high for such a high-profile issue – support for the monarchy is very broad; it would take a catastrophic reversal of fortune for it to change significantly any time soon.
2) The Harry and Meghan affair hasn’t made much difference – yet
It’s hard to imagine worse coverage for the Royal Family in the last few months; the Oprah interview was, in PR terms, a total train wreck. However, despite all the shocking coverage in the media and online, the Harry and Meghan affair doesn’t seem to have changed public support much either way. Ipsos-Mori’s question on whether Britain’s future would be better with or without the monarchy was asked just before and just after the Oprah interview and there was only a very mild shift against the monarchy.
It is, of course, early days, and it’s possible the impact will take longer to be felt, but it certainly hasn’t been any sort of game changing event yet. In fact, the biggest shifts in the polls have been associated with Prince Harry’s personal reputation, which has dropped significantly; he has fallen a long way quickly; in 2018, a YouGov survey put him as the most popular Royal – above even the Queen. (It will be interesting to see how he handles any public appearances this week).
3) Younger people are again different
Drill into the numbers in more detail and of course the popularity of the monarchy doesn’t look so universal. As is becoming increasingly common, the biggest gaps are visible on age. In all of the polls I refer to above, the numbers change dramatically when you look at the tabs on age.
For example, the Savanta ComRes poll shows that 18-24s agree the monarchy is good for Britain only relatively narrowly, by 48 per cent to 37 per cent. More worryingly, in the YouGov question as to whether we should have a monarchy or an elected head of state, while the over-65’s believe we should have a monarchy by 77 per cent to 17 per cent, 18-24s support an elected head of state by 42 per cent to 37 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, the Harry and Meghan affair has been viewed differently by different age groups; young people are generally still positive towards the couple. Such were the allegations made by Harry and Meghan – on issues that we know the young care particularly passionately about – we don’t know whether all this will have a longer-lasting impact on the monarchy.
The great question is, of course, whether young people will, as it were, “grow out” of republicanism; their consistency across a range of cultural issues, and the intensity of feeling on cultural issues, suggests probably not – but this doesn’t mean the next generation will be the same.
4) Scotland lags behind
Only narrowly – by 41 per cent to 32 per cent – do Scots agree the monarchy is a good thing; the English agree by 63 per cent to 13 per cent and the Welsh by basically the same margin. As with the tabs on young people, this is also no surprise; the independence movement is completely entrenched in Scottish politics and the monarchy is seen by many in Scotland as an integral part of the Union, which of course it is.
The SNP has been careful on the monarchy, trying to avoid opening up an additional campaign front; after all, there will be some that would favour an independent Scotland with a shared head of state, but it’s clear that at least a significant minority of Scots view the Royal Family as a fundamentally English institution.
5) There’s a right-left split
Activists are always a bit odd; yes, that includes all of us that write for and read this website; we’re more likely to be ideological, to take an usually keen interest in politics and to have views on issues most people would find irrelevant or obscure.
But many of Labour’s activists are currently way out of the mainstream on an array of issues, with the monarchy being right up there. A YouGov poll of members in 2019 showed that 62 per cent of Labour members believe Britain should become a republic; the numbers for Scottish members were even higher (but the sample on Scottish members was tiny, so not robust).
I don’t have available corresponding figures for Conservative members, but the split between Conservative and Labour voters on a standard question as to whether we should keep the monarchy or have an elected head of state was 85 per cent to 10 per cent and 48 per cent to 40 per cent respectively – in favour of the monarchy.
Sir Keir Starmer has always been positive about the Royal Family (I have no idea of his personal views) and knows he needs to retain this line; but it’ll be interesting, given his grassroots, whether he feels pressure to say something like after the Queen’s death we should reform/slim down the monarchy, cutting off less popular minor royals. This would have at least some traction with the public.
6) King Charles looks set to inherit a less popular monarchy
The numbers on Prince Charles are at best mixed; YouGov’s tracker on whether he’d make a good king show the public are divided – with a third saying yes, a third no, and third unsure. On a straight question on ratings he’s currently viewed favourably by 49 per cent to 42 per cent (this dropped significantly in March; we need to keep an eye on this as it feels implausible that he’d fall so much, while others were pretty static).
Asked whether they’d prefer to see Prince Charles become king after the Queen’s death or Prince William, a poll in the autumn showed people would narrowly choose Prince William; Savanta ComRes’ more recent poll showed a significantly larger margin for William.
Will his low numbers damage the monarchy as an institution? That’s hard to say, but it requires working out what the numbers are telling us. While many on the right have been irritated by Charles’ pet political projects, the numbers don’t suggest that this irritates the public at large – probably because they don’t hear them. In fact, most people think it’s reasonable for him to speak out on issues that he worries about.
It’s more likely that he suffers from three things: (a) the fact he isn’t the Queen; (b) he’s not great on TV; (c) the legacy of his bitter divorce from Diana. In other words, I think the public are making a relative rather than an absolute judgement.
What does all this mean for the future of the monarchy? We should assume the Queen’s death or, more accurately, the coronation of King Charles will see support for the monarchy fall somewhat. This is inevitable; the Queen is so popular that any replacement will struggle – and Charles is starting from a low base.
But it’s hard to imagine this will lead to a serious, popular campaign for the end of the monarchy. Not only are the monarchy’s numbers as an institution sound, but let’s be honest: the public hate politicians so much, the idea that they’d like to see, say, an elected Labour or Conservative politician as head of state is mad (for realistically, this is who we’d get). For the foreseeable future, this will be a devastating counter-narrative.
The question is: will the monarchy’s numbers drop to such an extent that this doomsday argument needs to be made? Will we get to the point that we need to say: be careful what you wish for?
On this, I do indeed worry that this is where we might end up. Why? Because I fear the Royal Family is losing touch with the people who really support it: the English working class and lower middle class. It wouldn’t be one of my columns – would it – without this pivot to these voters? (Sorry.)
But look back at the polls I cite above and look at the tabs on SEG: time and again, you see C1/C2s and non-professionals giving the monarchy the greatest levels of support. These are the sorts of people who raise their love for the monarchy spontaneously and unprompted in focus groups; they’re the people who talk about day trips to London to “do all the Royal stuff”; they’re the people that attend the great public events and love them entirely at face value.
Perhaps because the popular press no longer sustains the massive levels of interest in the Royal Family that was evident even a decade ago (Harry and Meghan’s recent attacks aside), the Royal Family as an institution just don’t seem to have their finger on the English pulse like they used to. Simply put: the Daily Mail doesn’t force them to think of ordinary people as they once did.
And I fear Charles particularly lacks this insight; his concerns about the environment, modern architecture etc are all important but they’re inevitably niche issues for this audience; his public support for the military is a different matter, of course. He will need to learn about what it is these people really care about. (I could be wrong, but I suspect Camilla and her family are the best people to show him.)
In short, the monarchy will ultimately be safe in King Charles’ hands – but I suspect he’ll have to work hard to make it so.