Go Dutch? Why the British Monarchy will need to modernize
In the eternal scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur pretends to drive through the British countryside. (He is not actually on horseback.) Seeing a peasant, he shouts “Old woman!” “Man!” corrects the peasant, and an argument ensues. When a real peasant girl (played by male Python Terry Jones) crawls through the mud, she’s even more combative: “Who does he think he is? Hey?”
“I am your king! said Arthur. “Well, I didn’t vote for you,” the woman sniffles.
It is this kind of attitude that the British royal family will have to face when the 96-year-old Queen leaves. Elizabeth’s personal popularity protected the monarchy for decades. But after her, “The Firm” will have to navigate a more egalitarian era. The peasants revolt. The new mass movements of our time – populism, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter – share a common tension: anger against elites who see themselves as entitled just because of who they are. The tolerance of homosexual royal families has diminished.
Modern monarchies, paradoxically, require the kind of popular consent demanded by the peasants of Python. By seeking it, post-Elizabethan Windsors could learn from the tactics of continental Europe’s two largest monarchies, the Spanish and the Dutch.
The Spanish monarchy is in such a situation that the previous king cannot enter his own country without angering the people. Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 after a variety of scandals from shooting an elephant on a luxury safari to trying to pressure his ex-lover in London to pay him back 65 million euros – a generous Saudi gift he had passed on to her. He is now exiled in Abu Dhabi, but when he traveled to Spain last month, after paying his tax bills late, the government wouldn’t even let him stay at the royal palace. The current king, Felipe, is frantically trying to undo the damage his father has done to the monarchy.
Even in the much more royalist Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander’s ratings hit an all-time high due to his sense of impunity over Covid-19 restrictions: he had to apologize for spending holidays in Greece as the government asked people not to travel. Like other monarchies, the Dutch Oranjes have also suffered from the demise of a popular press that sold royal fairy tales and the rise of acerbic social media.
Even so, the more accessible Dutch royal style suggests a possible future for the Windsors. The Oranjes present themselves as a “cycling monarchy”: a fairly ordinary but super-rich family that just happens to have a crown. One night in 1990, in the bar of an Amsterdam student society, my touring English student football team met a chubby blond Dutch contemporary: Willem-Alexander, then Crown Prince. My teammates were amazed: meeting a royal in the wild just didn’t happen in Britain.
He knows how to play the good bourgeois, working in anonymity for more than 20 years as a part-time pilot of KLM Cityhopper planes, and now hosts Ukrainian refugees in one of his castles. In Spain, King Felipe is aiming for even more sobriety. In April, trying to be transparent, he declared his personal fortune: 2.6 million euros. (The Spanish Bourbons were relatively poor until Juan Carlos began dating the Gulf royals.) Felipe has more to worry about than the Windsors or the Oranjes: Republican dominance in some Spanish polls, especially among young people, suggests that the Spanish monarchy could possibly be abolished in the near future. referendum as was the case in Italy in 1946 and in Greece in 1974.
Felipe’s sobriety will never be Windsor’s way, but a future King Charles could reduce the number of royals who receive state aid. Charles shares his mother’s inability to talk to ordinary people, but his sons’ greater mutual contact could help the Windsors – so to speak – continue to win re-election.
Even then, they can lose parts of their kingdom. Monarchs are supposed to embody national unity, but that is precisely why national separatist movements dislike them. In Spain, a region’s level of royalism correlates with its sense of being Spanish, so the monarchy is popular in a pro-Spanish region like Extremadura and unpopular in regions with their own nationalism: the Navarre, the Basque Country and especially Catalonia. Given that Felipe is usually mocked in Barcelona, where the Supreme Court of Spain had to force the town hall to display an image of him, it is difficult to say that he is still king of Catalonia.
The kingdom of the Windsors may also shrink, emotionally and possibly legally. Barbados became a republic last November. The Queen’s death would be an obvious time for Republicans in Australia and even traditionally more royalist Canada to demand referendums on the monarchy. Polls suggest they would win. In the UK, the monarchy is less popular in Scotland than in England, while Republicans Sinn Féin are now Northern Ireland’s largest party.
The Windsors will probably keep their throne as long as there is an England. But the Spanish lesson is that every monarch must win the crown again. After Elizabeth, the Windsors will have to win the peasant vote.
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