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05 May 2023

Constitution and governance

Ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, John Curtice examines public attitudes towards the monarchy. This piece is taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British monarchy’, co-published with the Constitution Unit. 

When the late Queen Elizabeth’s coronation took place seventy years ago, the monarchy appeared to be a sure and solid foundation in a country that was still recovering from the ravages of war. King Charles, in contrast, is inheriting an institution that, while still widely popular, now has a harder task justifying itself in the eyes of public opinion.

So firmly embedded was the crown in the country’s life that for many years pollsters hardly ever bothered to ask people their attitude towards having a monarchy. That decision appeared to be vindicated when, in 1983, the first British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey asked, ‘How important or unimportant do you think it is for Britain to continue to have a monarchy?’. As many as 65% said it was ‘very important’ and another 21% that it was ‘quite important – a combined total of 86%.

Unsurprisingly, the question was not posed again for another decade.

However, 1992 was, as the Queen herself admitted, an “annus horribilis”. Three of her children decided to separate or divorce their partners, including, most controversially, the then heir to the throne, Prince Charles, from his popular wife, Diana, Princess of Wales. These marital break-ups shattered the carefully crafted image that had been created of the monarchy as a happy model ‘Royal Family’, most notably in a 1969 television documentary, shortly after which National Opinion Polls (NOP) found that as many as 88% thought the monarchy was good for Britain.

When British Social Attitudes (BSA) revisited people’s views on the importance of the monarchy in 1994, only 32% said that its retention was ‘very important’, while only two-thirds (66%) stated it was either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important. Similarly, when the previous year Ipsos asked for the first time, ‘Would you favour Britain becoming a republic or remaining a monarchy?’, 69% said it should be a monarchy, while 18% reckoned it should be a republic.

This picture changed little over the subsequent twenty years. In eleven readings taken between 1995 and 2008, on average 31% told BSA it was ‘very important’ to have a monarchy, while 65% said it was ‘very’ or ‘quite important’. Similarly, in 20 polls it conducted between 1994 and 2006, on average Ipsos found that 72% wanted to keep the monarchy, while 18% stated that Britain should become a republic.

However, the popularity of the monarchy has oscillated over the last decade – in both directions. In 2011 and 2012 the Queen made much lauded trips to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, symbolically healing divisions on both sides of the border – most notably by shaking  the hand of the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. In both years, three-quarters (75%) told BSA it was important to have a monarchy. Meanwhile, in three polls conducted in 2012, also the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, on average 79% advised Ipsos that they preferred a monarchy, while support for a republic slipped to 15%.

However, this purple patch did not last. Cracks in the image of a stable ‘Royal Family’ appeared once again. In 2019 Prince Andrew was forced to withdraw from public life following a disastrous television interview and subsequent out of court settlement in respect of allegations about improper sexual behaviour. In early 2020 King Charles’ younger son, Harry, and his wife, Meghan, opted to pursue a private life in the US following a well-publicised and continuing falling out with other members of the family.

In the wake of these developments, King Charles has found himself inheriting the crown at a time when support for the monarchy appears as low as ever. A YouGov poll in October 2022 reported that only 55% believe the monarchy is good for Britain, very different from the 88% figure that NOP reported in 1969. In the most recent BSA, conducted towards the end of 2021, a record low of 55% said it was important to have a monarchy. Equally, an Ipsos poll in November 2021 found that those preferring a monarchy had dropped to a new low of 60%, while 21% supported a republic. Although the former figure edged up to 68% at the time of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in May 2022, it was still only 64% in Ipsos’ latest poll in January this year. That last reading suggests the widespread mourning at the death of Queen Elizabeth has not significantly reversed the recent dent to the Royal Family’s popularity.

In any event, the future of the monarchy under King Charles and his heirs will rest on their ability to persuade new generations of the value of the crown. Yet there is a big age difference in attitudes. According to BSA just 14% of those aged under 35 say that it is ‘very important’ to keep the monarchy, whereas 44% of those aged 55 and over express that view. Similarly, in their most recent poll Ipsos found that, among those aged less than 35, those who preferred a monarchy (43%) only just outnumbered those who back a republic (38%). In contrast, no less than 84% of those aged 65 and over supported a monarchy.

However, there has long been some age difference in attitudes, but one that has been relatively constant over time. That suggests people have tended to become more supportive of the monarchy as they get older. For example, among those born in the 1960s, in 1994 only 22% felt it was ‘very important’ to have a monarchy, ten points below the 32% figure among the whole population. In the most recent BSA, in contrast, 38% were of this view, seven points above the proportion among all adults.

Yet more recently there are signs the age gap has widened. Thanks to the very low level of under 35s who now say that it is ‘very important’ to have a monarchy, the age difference in attitudes in response to the BSA question is as wide as it has ever been. Equally, the 43% of under 35s who currently prefer the monarchy to a republic is well below the 70% figure in Ipsos’ polls in 2012. In contrast, the level of support now among over 65s is only seven points down on a decade ago.

The monarchy may look secure for now, but the foundations of its public support need some reinforcement.

By John Curtice, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research, and Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde.

This piece is one in a series of articles taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British monarchy, co-published with the Constitution Unit.


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