EARLIER this month, King Juan Carlos of Spain abdicated his throne after reigning for for decades. His abdication was, amongst others, a measure to save the Spanish crown from its plummeting popularity among the Spanish populace. His son Felipe VI took his place as king on June 19.
In the United Kingdom, when news broke of the abdication, mainstream newspaper The Guardian ran a poll on whether Queen Elizabeth II should also follow suit and give way to her son Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Also in the same newspaper, a commentator wrote an article about how Juan Carlos’ abdication was the “writing on the wall” for European royals and it should “send shivers through the House of Windsor”.
Articles criticising the monarchy are quite common in the UK. Anti-royal sentiments reached its height in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s untimely death, when many criticised the royals’ response to the tragedy. The British throne’s popularity has recovered since then, so much so that when Queen Elizabeth reached the diamond jubilee of her reign as Queen, the nation celebrated with her. Yet despite the popularity of the British royals, including of course Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, his wife Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and their son Prince George, there has always been a republican movement within the UK calling for the abolition of the British throne.
The British crown began in England, with separate kingdoms that were then united under one throne. Wales, at first a principality, was annexed to the English crown in the 16th century. When the Stuarts, a Scottish royal family, reigned over England, even though the English and Scottish crowns were separate, they were placed on the same head. Later on, the two crowns were merged into one, known as the Kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland was then conquered and England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland became the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. However, most of Ireland seceded from British rule, except for Northern Ireland, and the UK now comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The UK does not have a written constitution to guarantee the establishment of the monarchy. The sources of the UK Constitution include Acts of Parliament, laws made by the Courts known as “common law” and constitutional conventions. The monarchy in the UK finds its legality and legitimacy in these disparate sources. Also because of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, where Parliament is supreme and can make and unmake any law, it is theoretically possible for Parliament to abolish the British crown.
The UK does not see a need to “protect” the crown with “lese majesty” laws; laws that criminalise insults or attacks on the dignity of the reigning monarch. Sedition, too, has been abolished. Criticising the monarchy or even calling for its abolition is not a crime in the UK, as long as it is done peacefully.
Queen Elizabeth is not only the Queen of the UK. She is also the reigning monarch of several other independent countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, Bahamas, Grenada and Papua New Guinea. These are former colonies or dominions of the UK and even after they are no longer ruled by the British, they retain the Queen as their head of state. Even though republicanism is high in some of these countries, the majority still opted to keep the current system. For example, in a most recent poll in Australia, 42% of those polled agreed with the statement that "Australia should become a republic", whereas 51% opposed.
A poll carried out in the UK revealed that as many as 77% of Britons favoured a monarchy over a republic.
The tradition of monarchy in the United Kingdom has endured for centuries. Except for a brief period when England became a republic following the revolution led by Oliver Cromwell, England, Wales and Scotland have had reigning monarchs. In this period where England was without a king, the “Commonwealth of England” was ruled by a Lord Protectorate for some years, before the monarchy was restored in 1660. The crown has passed from several people in different royal families - Plantagenet, Tudor from Wales, Stuart from Scotland, Hanover, Saxe-Coburg and Windsor, the last three tracing their roots in Germany, but the crown itself has endured.
It is not laws that protect and uphold the crown. It is the support of the British populace, who still think that the UK throne is still relevant in today’s world, that guarantees its place.