In the undying scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur is pretending to ride through the British countryside. (He isn’t actually on a horse.) Spotting a peasant, he cries out “Old woman!” “Man!” corrects the peasant, and an argument ensues. When an actual female peasant (played by the male Python Terry Jones) crawls up through the mud, she’s even more combative: “Who does he think he is? Hey?”
“I am your king!” says Arthur. “Well, I didn’t vote for you,” sniffs the woman.
It’s this kind of attitude that the British royals will have to confront when the 96-year-old queen goes. Elizabeth’s personal popularity has shielded the monarchy for decades. But after her, “The Firm” will need to navigate a more egalitarian age. The peasants are revolting. Our era’s new mass movements — populism, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter — share a common strain: anger at elites who consider themselves entitled just because of who they are. Tolerance of hoity-toity royal families has waned.
Modern monarchies, paradoxically, require the kind of popular consent demanded by Python’s peasants. In seeking it, the post-Elizabethan Windsors could learn from the tactics of continental Europe’s two biggest monarchies, the Spanish and the Dutch.
Spain’s monarchy is in such trouble that the previous king cannot enter his own country without enraging people. Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 after a variety of scandals ranging from shooting an elephant on a luxury safari to trying to pressure his ex-lover in London into repaying him €65mn — a generous Saudi Arabian gift that he had passed on to her. Now he’s exiled in Abu Dhabi, but when he visited Spain last month, after belatedly paying his tax bills, the government wouldn’t even let him stay in the royal palace. The current king, Felipe, is frantically trying to repair the damage his father did to the monarchy.
Even in the much more royalist Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander’s ratings have hit an all-time low over his sense of impunity from Covid-19 restrictions: he had to apologise for holidaying in Greece when the government was asking people not to travel. Like other monarchies, the Dutch Oranjes have also suffered from the fading of a popular press that sold royal fairy tales, and the rise of acerbic social media.
Even so, the more approachable Dutch royal style suggests a possible future for the Windsors. The Oranjes present themselves as a “cycling monarchy”: a fairly ordinary if super-rich family that happens to have a crown. One night in 1990, in the bar of an Amsterdam student society, my touring English student football team ran into a chubby blond Dutch contemporary: Willem-Alexander, then the crown prince. My teammates were astonished: meeting a royal in the wild didn’t happen in Britain.
He knows how to play the good burgher, working anonymously for over 20 years as a part-time pilot of KLM Cityhopper planes, and now housing Ukrainian refugees in one of his castles. In Spain, King Felipe aims for even more sobriety. In April, trying to show transparency, he declared his personal wealth: €2.6mn. (The Spanish Bourbons were relatively penurious until Juan Carlos began buddying up with Gulf royals.) Felipe has more worries than the Windsors or Oranjes: republican dominance in some Spanish polls, especially among younger people, suggests that Spain’s monarchy could eventually be abolished in a referendum as happened in Italy in 1946 and Greece in 1974.
Felipe’s sobriety will never be the Windsor way, but a future King Charles may shrink the number of royals who receive public handouts. Charles shares his mother’s inability to talk to ordinary people, but his sons’ greater common touch could help the Windsors to — as it were — keep getting reelected.
Even then, they may lose parts of their realm. Monarchs are meant to embody national unity, but that’s precisely why domestic separatist movements don’t like them. In Spain, a region’s level of royalism correlates with its sense of being Spanish, so the monarchy is popular in a pro-Spain region like Extremadura and unpopular in regions with their own nationalism: Navarre, the Basque country and especially Catalonia. Given that Felipe is habitually jeered in Barcelona, where Spain’s supreme court had to force the city hall to put up an image of him, it’s hard to argue he is still king of Catalonia.
The Windsors’ realm may shrink too, emotionally and possibly legally. Barbados became a republic last November. The Queen’s passing would be an obvious moment for republicans in Australia and even in traditionally more royalist Canada to demand referendums on the monarchy. Polls suggest they would win. Within the UK, the monarchy is less popular in Scotland than in England, while Sinn Féin’s republicans are now Northern Ireland’s largest party.
The Windsors will probably keep their throne as long as there’s an England. But the Spanish lesson is that each monarch must earn the crown anew. After Elizabeth, the Windsors will need to win the peasant vote.
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