The monarchy : adapt and survive

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:34 AM GMT+0

If the public has a message as William prepares to marry Kate, it is: give the lad a break. In recent years, polls have consistently found that the public would prefer William, rather than Charles, to be our next monarch. No longer. Now, YouGov’s latest poll for Prospect finds that just 37% think William should succeed his grandmother, while 45% think Charles should inherit the crown after more than four decades as Prince of Wales. This compares with a 41-37% margin in William’s favour five years ago, when Charles announced his engagement to Camilla.

Perhaps folk memories, fed by TV documentaries, have reminded many of us that some of Elizabeth II’s happiest days were spent in the late Forties as the wife of a young naval officer in Malta, before she became Queen – and that maybe William should enjoy some years of as-normal-as-possible life with Kate before he ascends to the throne.

Wedding fever has also sapped the radicalism of some republicans. Five years ago 19% wanted neither Charles nor William to become King: they wanted the monarchy scrapped. That number has declined by one-third to just 13%. Those who think that the older we get the more we favour the monarchy should think again: the limited appeal of republicanism varies little by age. On the other hand, there are signs that many people would like a monarch roughly their own age. Charles’s generation – the over sixties – prefer him to William by three-to-two, while the under 40s would slightly prefer William to be King.

That said, there is no wish for a handover anytime soon. YouGov reminded people that the Queen will be 85 this April. Even so, 65% want her to stay on, while just 25% think she should step down. Three-quarters of a century after the brief reign of Edward VIII, the notion of abdication still sends a collective shiver down the national spine.

By margins of two-to-one, we reveal ourselves to be traditionalists in two other ways. We are happy for the next monarch to continue to be head of other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, and also for him to be head of the Church of England. Antidisestablishmentarianism may not attract as much passion as Iraq, student fees or the X Factor, but it does reflect the mood of the public.

However, the public does back two reforms that have been mooted. By 75-17%, we think the eldest child of a monarch, whatever, their gender, should become monarch – not the eldest son (if there is one) as now. As we found last month in our survey on sexism, the largest minorities favouring the traditional preference for males are to be found among young men. The testosterone tendency has invaded attitudes on almost every aspect of our national life.

Secondly, by 71-16%, we think our monarch should be allowed to have a Catholic spouse. Ever since the 1701 Act of Settlement, nobody who 'should profess the popish religion, or marry a papist' may ascend to the throne. William could have married a Baptist or a Quaker, a Jew or a Muslim, an atheist or a Jedi Knight – but not a Catholic.

Three hundred years ago Catholics were also banned from becoming Members of Parliament – a law that was finally repealed in 1829 during a spate of progressive reform that culminated in the great Reform Act of 1832. It is, of course, right that we take our time to consider constitutional change. We should never rush to overturn tradition. But 182 years after 'papists' were allowed to become MPs, most of us seem to be ready to accept them as royal consorts.

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