Get your diaries at the ready everybody: an auspicious date in Britain’s history is fast approaching. On the 9th of September this year Queen Elizabeth II is set to become the longest reigning monarch in the country’s history. Buckingham Palace have done the math: Queen Victoria reigned for 23, 226 days across 63 years, and come early autumn our present Queen, if she makes it to that date, will finally overtake her great-great-grandmother’s lengthy record. I say ‘if’, but it’s highly likely that she will. After all, the eighty-nine year old monarch appeared at the State Opening of Parliament just a week or so ago, launching the government’s business for another year, looking as staunch and as resolute as ever.
The 9th of September will be just another date in the flurry of royal anniversaries that have passed us by in recent times, but perhaps it should be a day for reflection. With the ongoing discussion and debate about the future of the country’s relationship with the EU, the way in which our political system operates, and the very existence of the ‘United Kingdom’ itself, perhaps it’s also time to consider the existence, or non-existence, of the monarchy in the years ahead. The Australians are already debating whether or not to declare themselves a republic after the dear old Queen ‘passes on’, so to speak. How bad would it be if this same debate was ignited in the country where the royals do the most of their reigning?
Of course, the very mention of the word ‘republic’ will cause a lump to form in the throat of Prince Charles, who’s also made his way into the history books with the length of time he’s been waiting to take on the top job. His life has very handily demonstrated one of the greatest downsides to the hereditary principle: that for a very select number of people their only real job in life is to wait for their mother or father to die. Grim though this may be for the royalists, the recent birth of Charles’ latest grandchild will instead dishearten those hoping for an imminent republican revolution – the newborn Charlotte Elizabeth Diana only further emphasises the continuity that underpins the stability of Britain’s ancient monarchical system.
If you have not yet heard that Wills and Kate have had another sprog, then shame on you, for it was all over the news at the beginning of May. But feel no shame if you, like quite a number of people throughout the land, resent the mass media when they babble on about the ‘royal’ baby, repeatedly reminding us all of how ‘special’ she is (don’t they know all babies are special?). And just think how straightforward that baby’s life will be: she’ll never have to worry about most of the things every other neonate in the land will one day fret over, such as passing exams, getting a job and – dare I mention it – having some babies of her own. Then again, how sweet will the life of this Princess really be? From an early age she will have to adjust to life under the scorching heat of the media searchlight, which is at least ten times as intense as it was when her father and mother were born some thirty years ago. Just think – all that pressure, and wee bonnie Princess Charlotte is not even directly in line to the throne. These days, it is acceptable to call for a republic on the grounds of child cruelty alone.
So how much of an appetite is there for a change in the system? It is extremely difficult to accurately gauge the levels of support for what is surely the quirkiest of British institutions, especially now that hastily prepared opinion polls, which just a few months ago told us Ed Miliband would now be Prime Minister, are treated with some scepticism. Surveys taken just two years ago – not long after the last of the confetti from the Jubilee had finally been brushed away – found 66 per cent of us said we were better off with the monarchy, while just 17 per cent called for a republic. Nor did a great many people – just 14 per cent – think we should forcefully eject the residents of Buckingham Palace after the Queen dies. All of this will only further dishearten republicans.
However, just a few years ago I was told that in my great country of birth, Scotland, support for breaking away from the United Kingdom was extremely low, and showed no sign of shifting any time soon. Now, the Scottish people are still adjusting to the consequences of a referendum that put the once marginal topic of independence to the forefront of the country’s political debate. What happened north of the border last year proved beyond doubt that an informed and engaging debate really can turn popular opinion around. So who’s to say what the prospect of a vote on the monarchy could do to the collective mind of the British electorate?
Sure, as it currently stands none of the major political parties are even contemplating giving the people a chance to decide on the issue of the royals, but after the long reign of Liz II comes to an end, and her predetermined successor, a man who often proves his own mixed feelings about some aspects of royal protocol, finally wears the crown, the issue of a British republic might become more pressing to the Queen’s ‘subjects’ than polls say it currently is. Who knows, if republicans are lucky there may be a referendum after all, and if they’re very lucky they may even get to choose the date. September 9th anyone?