The year 2022 may well go down in history as a crossroads for the British monarchy and its place in the world – where fascination for its power, rituals and pageantry coexists with its increasingly loud association with the residues of a colonial past and present.
Instead of strengthening the Commonwealth’s ties, the Caribbean tour of the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in March that year was met with calls for slavery reparations and aspirations to independence. The celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee in June were soon to be obfuscated by her death in September and the public displays of acrimony between members of the royal family, culminating in January 2023 with Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare.
Within this context, large national research bodies and newspapers have repeatedly conducted surveys to try to capture public perceptions, attitudes and feelings towards the institution of the monarchy and members of the royal family. From the data we collected around the time of the Platinum Jubilee as part of the project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN), which explores the long-term impact of Brexit – and Britain’s shifting position on the world stage – on migration to and from the United Kingdom, it seems these struggles and conversations around post-Elizabethan futures do not map neatly onto the UKs territorial borders, but take place in all those spaces and amongst all those populations touched by the continual rebordering of Britain.
Who loves the monarchy?
Surveys conducted by influential UK research organisations in the United Kingdom such as NatCen show that support for the monarchy generally varies by and increases with age. Our data confirms this trend but also shows that, even among older cohorts, the monarchy is met with significant ambivalence.
As the second quote foregrounds, perceptions of the monarchy’s relevance for Britain and Britishness do not necessarily align with personal feelings and orientations towards the institution. Among our respondents living across the European Union/UK border, it was evident that many instead harboured conflicting and ambivalent attitudes.
Indeed, we found a discernible contrast between people’s warm feelings towards the late Queen, and towards the monarchy. In their ponderings about post-Elizabethan futures, many anticipated a decrease in the latter’s significance:
Rebordering an imagined British community
The sentiments that our study captured largely chime with findings from national public opinion surveys. What is notable, however, is that our data is taken from a cohort that tends to be left out of debates on societal attitudes towards the monarchy, and more generally. This omission, or invisibilisation, suggests an implicit assumption that “the British public” coincides with the British living in Britain.
The MIGZEN project considers exactly how territorial and identity borders are continuously reworked, specifically in the aftermath of Brexit. Drawing on political scientist Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities, we see British identity as a formation in perpetual motion, constructed by and encompassing not only people living on UK soil but also the millions of British citizens living in Europe and across the globe.
EU/European Economic Area citizens and dual nationals living in the UK also have a stake in the future of Britain and Britishness. Specifically, MIGZEN proposes that Brexit has led to the “rebordering” of Britain through redrawing the boundaries around the imagined community of those who are allowed to consider themselves as part of Britain and/or as British.
Brexit could hit the monarchy hard
If you look at Britain through a rebordering lens, questions on the future of the post-Elizabethan British monarchy become highly relevant to all those who have been forced to reimagine their sense of belonging and identity after Brexit. Indeed, one of the participants in our panel drew an explicit connection between the monarchy and her loss of rights as an EU citizen in the UK:
Others mentioned that the monarchy-centric events of 2022 compounded their feelings of non-belonging triggered or exacerbated by Brexit.
These quotes show that the monarchy and Brexit are deeply entangled in people’s construction of identity and belonging to Britain. On the one hand, both act as prisms through which people evaluate their own understanding of place within Britain. They seem to intensify people’s engagement with British identity in both positive and negative ways. On the other hand, Brexit has also affected people’s feelings towards the monarchy as a symbol of national identity, as well as the extent to which they feel included in it. Ultimately, a rebordering lens can reveal spaces where contestations around British identity and imaginations of post-Elizabethan futures take place that are conventionally overlooked or obscured in the public debate.
The British living in Britain are evidently not the only people who have an opinion on, or a stake in, these unfolding futures. Indeed, they are not just determined or located within the British Isles. As the UK seeks to reposition itself on the world stage after Brexit under the guise of the government’s Global Britain strategy, it is clear that the future of the British monarchy will be of consequence to people residing beyond British borders.
On the flip side, people residing in Britain – whether citizens or not – undoubtedly have a role to play in shaping what lies ahead. Questions on the meaning of the British monarchy in the 21st century, and imaginings of post-Elizabethan futures, thus need to be raised alongside discussions around who gets to be thought of as being part of Britain.
References and further reading
Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Books.
Benson, M. (2013). The British in rural France: Lifestyle migration and the ongoing quest for a better way of life. Manchester University Press.
Benson, M., Sigona, N., Zambelli, E., & Craven, C. (2022). From the state of the art to new directions in researching what Brexit means for migration and migrants. Migration Studies. 10(2), 374–390. https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mnac010
Godin, M., & Sigona, N. (2022). Intergenerational narratives of citizenship among EU citizens in the UK after the Brexit referendum. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(6), 1135–1154. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2021.1981964
This article was first published by The Sociological Review Magazine on 4. April 2023, as part of the issue exploring Post-Elizabethan Futures.