Mind the (generation) gap: Young Britons ponder point of having a monarchy

By Christina Boyle, Laura King March 19, 2021 3:39 PM PT Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

Pandemic lockdowns and lack of opportunity drove 24-year-old drama school graduate Sarah Evans back to her family home in small-town Wales. In the general store where she works, the subject of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the now California-based Duke and Duchess of Sussex, sparks heated arguments with an older clientele.

There has long been a generational divide in Britain over the role of the royal family. But the couple’s explosive interview this month with Oprah Winfrey cast those age-based differences in sharp relief, a rift that some believe could point to eventual troubles for the thousand-year-old monarchy.

Britons as a whole strongly support the institution of the monarchy, with about two-thirds in favor of maintaining it, according to a YouGov poll last week. Among those age 18 to 24, though, that backing falls to less than half.

In the post-interview poll, a solid majority of Britons between 18 and 24 voiced approval of Meghan and Harry, who spoke openly of their struggles with racism, mental-health issues, a callous palace culture and a mendacious, intrusive tabloid press. Their elders, particularly those over 65, expressed sharp disapproval of both, particularly Meghan.

From behind the till of the little shop in the seaside resort of Rhyl, Evans gets a daily earful from ardent royalists, mainly older townspeople, about “bare-faced lies” told in the interview, although her peers tended to register the pair’s comments as powerful truths.

“I found myself defending them,” Evans said of the couple, to whom she had previously given little thought. The most ardent royalists among her shop’s clientele, often in their 70s and 80s, “now just hate this woman,” she said, referring to Meghan.

Evans’ age cohort is too young to have personal recollections of Harry’s mother, the free-spirited and emotive Princess Diana. Exiled from the royal family after her split from Prince Charles, she was fatally injured in a 1997 Paris car crash with paparazzi in pursuit.

Diana’s tragic arc, nevertheless, was on the minds of many people nearly three years ago, when the world’s eyes were on the royal spectacle of Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Evans remembers her own misgivings then about whether a biracial American ex-actress would be truly accepted.

“We’ve all grown up knowing what happened with Diana — it’s always been a thing that has been talked about,” she said. “But this makes me understand the whole thing a little bit more.”

During the nearly two weeks since the interview aired in the United States and then Britain, the palace has said little. Other news, including the abduction and killing of a young London woman, Sarah Everard, and European qualms over the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, has somewhat dimmed the clamor.

A statement issued last week in the name of 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth II said the family was “saddened” to hear of the extent of Harry and Meghan’s distress, and would deal with the matter privately. Harry’s brother, William, second in line to the throne, told reporters that “we’re very much not a racist family.”

Still, controversy lingered. The estranged brother princes, William and Harry, were reported to have had an “unproductive” talk. Michelle Obama, in a televised interview last week, empathized with the royal family’s pain, and said she hoped the episode would be a “teachable” moment.

The queen’s personal popularity, always strong, was scarcely dented by the interview. Other family members — including Harry’s father Charles, the 72-year-old king in waiting, fared less well.

Charles already lagged in the royal family popularity roster, placing seventh in recent polls, and Harry’s disclosure that his father at one point stopped returning his calls helped revive talk about whether the line of royal succession might end up skipping a generation, to the 39-year-old William.

Few in Britain expect the monarchy is going anywhere, especially while Elizabeth, a beloved national icon, sits on the throne. And such a prospect, while highly remote, would involve complex maneuvers such as a national referendum, an act of Parliament, or both, experts have said.

But the generational divide over royalty’s role echoes schisms over broader issues such Brexit — older people powered the 2016 vote that resulted in Britain exiting the European Union — and punishing economic inequalities that have left younger compatriots unable to get a foothold in the housing market.

“As a generation of young people, we were told that things could only get better,” journalist Ben Smoke wrote in a story published this week in British GQ that dissected the interview and its aftermath. “We were lied to.”

Smoke wrote that the Meghan-and-Harry contretemps showed that the British establishment is “incapable of wholesale structural change on its own, that even those at the heart of it would still be sacrificed in the name of tradition and convention if they threatened it.”

To the outside world, the British monarchy is still an object of fascination, and its many trappings — castles and crowns, horse-drawn carriages and resplendent red-clad palace guards — are a huge tourist draw. That meshes well with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s drive to build a “global Britain” brand, based less on economic clout than a unique cultural character.

But those who would like to see the monarchy scrapped have been quick to point out that ongoing discord surrounding the interview does little to burnish an image of Britain’s mystique.

“Far from projecting soft power around the world the monarchy is an embarrassment we have to endure,” the abolitionist group Republic tweeted Wednesday. “For now.”

In Harry and Meghan’s saga, many younger people saw a missed opportunity for reinvigoration. Michael Duffy, a 25-year-old Londoner originally from Ireland, said that when the two wed, he thought they might bring change to a tired and outmoded royal establishment.

“It was going to bring it into the 21st century,” he said. “I just thought that Meghan and Harry were going to be a bit more with the times, really.”

Elizabeth, on the throne for nearly seven decades, is for many older Britons an echo of their own youth. She became the country’s sovereign at just 27, only eight years after Britain emerged, battered and deprived, from the wreckage of World War II.

James Elwin, a 24-year-old who has an entry-level “runner” job with the British broadcaster ITV, said that he did not want the monarchy abolished altogether, but that the royal family needed to change with the times, becoming more approachable and relevant.

“I think they’ve served a purpose in history,” he said.

Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.