Can monarchy endure after Elizabeth’s death? Will Charles be the last King? Royal expert Dr Ed Owens tells our Writer at Large that the Windsors must modernise or face oblivion

The Herald:

TO royalist ears, Dr Ed Owens may sound as if he comes not just with a counsel of despair, but also a ruthless attack on an institution – the monarchy – they hold sacred. However, royalists should listen closely to what he says, for, if anything, Owens presents a threat to republicans who would abolish the monarchy.

His analysis of the state of Britain’s monarchy, a year after Queen Elizabeth’s death, is scathing.

Yes, he says, the Queen presided over failure, allowing monarchy to languish in the past. Yes, he says, the monarchy could collapse, giving way to a republic. But he also presents a rescue programme to save the monarchy both from itself and extinction.

If King Charles heeds Owens, the monarchy could well continue – even prosper – throughout the 21st century. Keep on the same track as his mother, however, and Charles may be the last head to wear Britain’s crown.

Owens is a distinguished historian, royal commentator, and fellow of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. He’s just brought out his latest book, After Elizabeth: Can The Monarchy Save Itself?


When the Queen died, says Owens, the gushing media narrative failed to reflect the “failures” of her reign. “Elizabeth was elevated as an almost god-like figure, she couldn’t do anything wrong,” Owens adds, “but look more closely at her record and there’s clearly things she didn’t get right.”

Chief among her failures was a refusal to modernise. Prior to her Coronation, the monarchy went through “tumultuous changes”. George V – Elizabeth’s grandfather – had modernised. Public engagements, charity, attending big sporting events: this became the stuff of monarchy, marking a change from the distant nature of previous monarchs.

However, “rather than continue modernising, Elizabeth consolidated the version of monarchy she inherited. That’s what we’re left with today – essentially the version of monarchy popularised in the 1920s and 30s, almost 100 years ago”.

George V embraced change due to the “threats he faced as King following the First World War”, with growing British republicanism. By failing to “continue modernisation”, Elizabeth created an institution that “feels very dated, and hasn’t managed to keep up with social, political, cultural and economic change”.

Small details matter. The monarchy “never got onboard with the welfare state”. Despite being “patrons of new national hospitals, there’s real incongruity: for their healthcare they go private. Arguably, it’s hypocrisy”.

The size of the royal household under Elizabeth “got bigger as opposed to smaller”. In terms of finances and public opinion, that’s “damaging to the institution”.

The Herald:


POLLS, says Owens, show a significant minority – four in 10 – either indifferent or hostile to monarchy. Among the young, opinion worsens: only 36% of 18 to 24-year-olds want to keep the monarchy. Demography is against the Windsors.

“There must be serious reinvention and downsizing to make it more attractive to the young.”

To millennials and gen Z, monarchy is linked to a political system that’s failed them. “The young have been badly served by British democracy over the last 15 years. That’s one reason they’re rejecting monarchy: this sense of disenchantment with the status quo. What they see of monarchy isn’t appealing, it’s not talking to a younger generation who feel poorer, feel they haven’t got opportunities, feel angry their voices aren’t being heard in a politics dominated by older people’s concerns.”

Owens suggests the “traumatic way her father came to the throne” – following Edward VIII’s abdication – along with the chaos of war meant “stability, continuity and caution became defining themes” of Elizabeth’s reign. However, even by the 1960s her style felt dated.

Elizabeth wasn’t helped by advisers like Sir Alan Lascelles, her first private secretary. A courtier since 1920, he was deeply “traditionalist”, teaching Elizabeth that “continuity was key”.

Owens says that “glorification of monarchy” and a sense that the Queen felt “adulation” was her “due” meant the institution failed to “keep in tune with changing times”, positioning itself as “embodying an older tradition”.


BEFORE it’s too late, Charles must “dramatically rethink the pomp and circumstance, the spectacle of monarchy”. With the monarchy still mirroring the style of George V, it reflects the period in which he came to the throne: 1910 “when monarchy symbolised the high point of British imperial expansion”.

Owens warns against “symbols of hierarchy, class difference, wealth and privilege”. Referring to Charles’s Coronation, he added: “One of the most nauseating things for someone attuned to the challenges many people currently face was the symbolism of the gold state carriage. When people can’t feed themselves, how did Charles think it a good idea to put that on display?”

The gold coach was first used in 1901 by Edward VII “projecting royal power and authority, mainly to working-class people who he wanted to remind how social hierarchy worked, that they owed loyalty and affection. That idea doesn’t sit well anymore”.

Today’s “bombastic royal ritual … remains stepped in the symbolism of an imperialism dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Big royal events still emphasise social hierarchy, royal power and British national strength – much of which doesn’t match the reality of life in Britain in 2023”.

Charles fully understands the risks of this symbolism. However, “he’s genuinely fearful of deviating from the established blueprint”. Owens adds: “This assumption that Britain must put on grand displays to have meaning is bizarre. What could be a stronger statement in terms of Charles wanting to do things differently than him saying ‘we’re going to rethink the spectacle of monarchy, downscale it, make it smaller, more modest, less emphasis on pomp and splendour’.”

Other European monarchies “don’t put this pageantry and performance on display to make their monarchy meaningful”. Cut the pomp and “therefore avoid accusations of waste, extravagance and privilege”.

Owens suggests Charles focuses on “smaller royal events” which unite the nation. He proposes an “annual King’s Day’ which is about social integration, getting communities to come together, encouraging social mixing, getting Britons learning about each other”.

Amid bitter political division, the monarchy could try to foster national cohesion in a bid to modernise and make itself relevant.

Royal-sponsored events could see people from cities given opportunities to spend time in the countryside and vice versa. Royal music events could become a “focal point for national celebration”, copying the French Fête de la Musique, created in the 1980s as France “dramatically changed its social profile” through immigration. Its purpose was to “bring France together”.


ROYAL pomp is a “distraction” when it comes to a modern sense of what Britain means. Owens says: “Royal symbolism perpetuates misguided understandings of our history, it crowds out other interpretations of history … When most people think of British history they think of the monarchy. That’s problematic. British history is much richer and diverse.” British working-class history, for instance, “just doesn’t get heard”.

The Herald:

The royals’ imperial baggage is also “really problematic. That imperial system elevated white power”. When William and Kate recently visited Jamaica it felt “distinctly colonial”.

Empire, Owens says, “is key to [royal] identity”. Yet “young people are more attuned to social and racial inequality”.

Royal ancestors owned slaves, so the monarchy “should acknowledge that people make mistakes, and in the past people did things that feel wrong when looked at today. They need to acknowledge they were an essential part of the British Empire, but the British Empire followed many other empires. History is complicated”.

An apology for slavery would “go a long way”, but needs couched so it doesn’t leave the government facing demands for mass reparations. Charles has made “positive noises”, though, around the monarchy’s imperial legacy, referring to the “stain” of slavery. Simultaneously, the “very idea of the Commonwealth is coming under greater scrutiny” due to empire’s legacy.


CONCERNS remain that the royal household “is staffed by people with old-fashioned, arguably sometimes bigoted views”. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was asked about her baby’s skin colour by a royal.

“If you downsize you get rid of much of the personnel too. It’s a double whammy: introduce new blood and get rid of fawning sycophants,” says Owens.

Crucially, the royals must avoid getting “drawn into the culture war over Britain’s imperial history, as the people who matter most are the young. Better be seen as a more progressive monarchy, than dismiss genuine concerns [around ethnicity] as the concerns of the ‘woke left’ – that brings even greater risk”.

“In survival terms, it makes good sense for the Windsors to heed the concerns of a younger generation it’s yet to win over,” he adds. “That’s not to say the monarchy need be more ‘woke’ – certainly, if the royals became more outspoken on social and political issues it’ll only lead to trouble for them.

“Rather, they can take proactive steps to demonstrate they recognise the problem with the grotesque forms of social inequality we’re confronted with today by living in fewer palaces, scaling back their extravagant, pampered lives, and flying on fewer private aircraft.”

Confronting empire’s legacy, fits with the notion of monarchy as a “socially integrative force, encouraging social cohesion. There’s an open goal here to get ahead on the issue of the colonial past”.

The Andrew issue

THE biggest, most simple change, though, would be “getting rid of Andrew”. Says Owens: “His reputation is tarnished beyond repair. Every time the institution draws him back into the limelight it raises questions about their moral judgment. There’s no place for him. Signal clearly there’s no comeback.”

With Harry and Megan, Charles “must be seen to hold that olive branch. The King could acknowledge the relationship has broken down, and he’s sorry that’s the case, without making a formal apology”. Harry and Megan’s alienation compounds how demography is against the monarchy. Young people like the Sussexes.

“Harry and Megan were Charles’s ‘silver bullet’,” Owens says. Young Britons are attuned to their mixed race marriage, Meghan’s feminism, and Harry’s talk of “unconscious bias”. “By alienating them, Charles lacks that connection. William and Catherine can’t embody it with the same authenticity.” Owens doesn’t feel “the older generation’s antipathy towards Meghan is motivated primarily by racism”. Some dislike her for that reason, but for “traditionalists” it’s “her progressive views” which were “too much to stomach”.


REImagining the concept of “family” is central to royal survival. Elizabeth “elevated” the notion of the royal family “setting a moral example to society”. That was “derailed” quickly by Princess Margaret, and Charles and Diana, who experienced the same loves, losses, affairs and heartbreaks as millions of Britons.

“The narrative of a morally upstanding family served them so demonstrably poorly, it did much to tarnish the institution,” says Owens. “They don’t need to project this family narrative.” The “picture-perfect” image was intended to make ordinary people “emotionally identify with the royals by ‘partaking’ in their weddings, births and funerals”. That kept backfiring, though, due to “scandal2.

Now, “with questions being asked about how happy the Prince and Princess of Wales are, if anything ever went wrong in their marriage, it would do irreparable damage to the institution” says Owens, adding: “It would be game over. Why elevate yourself as the ideal family, when you’re turning yourself into hostages to fortune as it can all go disastrously wrong?

“Downscale royal weddings. Make them more intimate. Acknowledge human frailty. Charles is in the strongest position of any monarch to say ‘we’re all human. My family isn’t perfect, we make mistakes like all families. We’ll do our best to be a happy family but we’re not going to set a moral example as that’s not our role’.”

When it comes to the media “turn the gas off”. Royals could use social media to get their message out. The press would clearly be hostile if royals “cut the drip feed”, but long-term they’d free themselves from a “toxic relationship” that’s essentially “sado-masochistic where they must dance to the tune” of newspapers. Borrow ideas from less ostentatious European monarchies. “Stop rejecting the idea of abdication”. Abdication is common in other monarchies. “Abdication is one of the reasons we’re in this mess. It was anathema to Elizabeth because of her father and uncle,” Owens says.

However, passing the torch to younger royals “reinvigorates and modernises”. Charles ascended the throne “in the autumn of life, set in his ways”. Charles is “concerned about breaking from the script”, even though “he’s got the opportunity to be courageous and say I’ve inherited an institution that wasn’t modernised by my mother – she basically took her foot of the pedal, so for 30 years we’ve been in free fall”.

Owens suggests Charles reign for 15 years, then “pass it on to William and Kate. Let them reinvigorate the institution while they’ve got time”.


CRUCIALLY, the monarchy should carve a role as “defender of British democracy”. However, Elizabeth “allowed secrecy to build up in terms of interactions with government”. Owens adds: “The monarchy isn’t accountable – it lacks integrity over back-channel dealings with Number 10. This isn’t right in a modern democracy.”

Scrap the convention of “consent” whereby “the monarch vets laws before they’re discussed in Parliament, suggesting amendments where they effect royal interests”. Open royal archives; foster more transparency.

Owens suggests creating a “Crown Committee”, working in the monarch’s name – without the King’s direct involvement – to promote the Nolan principles: accountability, transparency and integrity in public life. “Charles must acknowledge the current model of monarchy is broken.”

Boris Johnson proroguing Parliament also damaged the monarchy. “It revealed dishonest prime ministers could mislead the monarch, subverting democracy,” he says. It highlighted “the monarch’s impotence when faced by rogue PMs”.

Owens adds his suggestions are just that: suggestions. What’s needed is “a national conservation around the kind of monarchy we want … We can reform the monarchy so it plays a genuinely useful role in the 21st century”. He warns that “if the monarchy doesn’t change it could be doomed by demography”.

Charles can “either become caretaker, protecting the monarchy in its old Elizabethan form, or say the institution I’ve inherited is flawed. There are issues I want to address”. Currently, the monarchy “isn’t helping the country. It’s part of a national malaise … One reason young people are so pissed at the monarchy is because they’re pissed with everything else, they feel Britain is broken”.


CREATING this “democratic monarchy” would take years and need substantial political and public buy-in, Owens believes. “If the situation doesn’t improve and the monarchy doesn’t embrace significant modernisation we’re going to become a republic. An inevitable slow slide into irrelevancy is the greatest threat to monarchy – ‘royal redundancy’ is the major issue.

“Strip away the hierarchy, privilege, power and secrecy and it could appeal to people critical of the institution, even some republicans could reconcile themselves to a radically reformed monarchy.”

However, even reform may not help the monarchy in Scotland. There is “greater antipathy” here, Owens say, “because Scots see the monarchy as symbolic of England’s dominance within the union, and I think it is a symbol of English dominance”. Scots are “rightly more cynical” about monarchy. “Tartan-wearing royals feel tokenistic, phoney.”

Owens was told that the “Queen planned to die at Balmoral”. However, he adds: “Think of the symbolism: the journey across the border, the Queen – Scottish monarch, British monarch – returning to the political centre of Westminster, then to her family home at Windsor. It had great potency. One of her legacies was she helped keep the union together.”

But Charles has less popularity in Scotland than Elizabeth, Owens adds. “Would the monarchy survive an independent Scotland? No, I don’t think so in the longer term. I struggle to see how a monarchy that’s so English in its roots manages to carry an appeal beyond political independence. While there might be reassuring messages from nationalist leaders that they’d retain the monarchy, would the Scottish public want that? It comes back to the younger generation. Some of the most radical members of British society today are younger Scots, who look at their country, the rest of Britain, the monarchy, and just think: what the hell is going on here?”

Historically, “the monarchy has been too anglo-centric”. Owens says the monarchy should “de-centre London and England – making itself more symbolically representative of the entire nation”, perhaps by leading new annual events “celebrating local cultures” which take place in “different UK cities every year”.

If Scotland left the union, Owen believes “England would maintain its monarchy because we see the kind of right-wing English nationalism that’s been resurgent recently”. He adds: “Monarchy could appeal to that constituency, which would be really concerning given its politics. It would be a regression in terms of the monarchy as a symbol of a more democratic, tolerant society. But the monarchy puts one thing ahead of all else: survival.”