Indifference to the monarchy, hostility to Britain becoming a republic

In the 60 years since Elizabeth II came to the throne, Britain has become vastly less religious and less deferential. You might expect such trends to have undermined support for the continuation of an institution whose authority comes from God and superior birth – yet support for the monarchy is overwhelming.

But while there is little appetite for Britain to become a republic, attitudes to the monarchy have changed in recent years. Far fewer people now think it brings any overall benefit to Britain, and there continue to be doubts about whether Prince Charles should inherit.

Better than the alternatives

Over nearly 20 years, Ipsos MORI have been asking whether people would prefer Britain to become a republic or remain a monarchy. In that time – covering the emergence of Charles’ relationship with Camilla, the death of Diana, and Harry’s appearance in a Nazi costume – support for keeping the monarchy never dropped below 65%, compared with a high of 22% wanting a republic:

A question from YouGov adds an interesting point of comparison. In July 2003, 41% said they would support keeping the monarchy in its current state, 41% said they would only support keeping it if it modernised, and 16% opposed keeping it altogether.

At that point, MORI’s data suggest that given a straight choice between keeping or abolishing the monarchy, only about 20% would abolish it. So of the 41% who told YouGov they would keep the monarchy only if it reformed, nearly all would, if pushed, prefer to keep it than scrap it.

The growth of indifference

But this solid opposition to republicanism doesn’t equate with full-throated support for the monarchy.

Another tracking question from Ipsos MORI suggests that, since the early ‘80s, there has been a significant fall in the numbers who think that the monarchy brings an overall benefit to Britain.

In 1984, 77% thought that Britain would be worse off if the monarchy was abolished. Now, that figure is just 46%. In keeping with the continued lack of support for a republic, there has been little change in the proportion that thinks Britain would be better off without royals. Instead, the growth has come in the numbers who say it would make no difference.

While the tracking stopped in ’02, the pattern is clear: since the early ‘90s, barely more than half think that Britain would be actively worse off without a monarchy:

A problem like Charles

In some respects, Prince Charles’ standing in the public’s eyes is remarkably positive.

In September ’97, Ipsos MORI found that only 28% thought that he should become king if he married Camilla Parker-Bowles. That wedding went ahead, and now 47% think that he should become king.

But while his standing may have improved substantially since immediately after the death of Diana, public opinion of the heir to the throne continues to suggest a problem for the monarchy.

MORI’s tracker finds the country to be evenly split on whether he should renounce his claim to the throne in favour of William. There even appears to have been a gradual strengthening of that view recently, with support now at its highest level since shortly after Diana’s death:

So, the monarchy remains protected from any real threat of abolition by a public opinion that overwhelmingly opposes radical change. Even those who want it reformed are reluctant to follow up their threat and commit to republicanism.

But the desire to retain the monarchy might say more about a lack of enthusiasm for the other options than about a belief that the royal family is good for Britain. Indeed, the continuing doubts about Charles suggest that some of monarchy’s fundamental principles, like primogeniture, may still be in question.

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