After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?
- By Ed Owens
- Bloomsbury Continuum
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Kitty Kelley
- December 28, 2023
A brash young author offers dubious advice to the crown.
After Elizabeth purports to be the first life-saving buoy tossed to a drowning monarchy. “We’ve been conning ourselves,” writes author Ed Owens, a Brit now living in France. “Just as historians of the (royal-backed) Commonwealth have revealed it to be a hollow organization…the monarchy exists as a kind of screen on to which the UK public has been encouraged to project ideas of perpetual national greatness that simply don’t bear the weight of scrutiny.”
No knighthood for this young man, who announces he’s “under 40” and part of the generation most opposed to “a pampered royal elite.” In reassessing royalty, Owens writes:
“Given its loss of real-world economic and geopolitical power, Britain has comforted itself by focusing on a rear-view mirror that offers a romantic rose-tinted vision of past glories.”
Claiming that “opinion poll after opinion poll” revealed more than half of the country was uninterested in the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023, Owens writes that peak viewership was “just 20 million, roughly two-thirds the size of the audience that tuned in for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. This was less than one third of the entire UK population.” The author recognizes, as do the royals, that the greatest threat to the crown is not its loudest critics but rather its slow slide into irrelevance.
Despite the 2,300 guests invited to Westminster Abbey to witness Charles’ coronation, the ceremony may have disappointed the son who does not attract his mother’s masses. Swathed in an ermine-trimmed red velvet robe, satin sash, and diamond-encrusted crown, the 75-year-old king looked like he was playing dress-up in the queen’s closet. On that particular day, the St. Edward’s crown itself became a problem. “We practiced putting it on and securing it down twice a week over four months,” the archbishop of Canterbury told the New York Times recently. “It’s a wobbly old thing.”
While the Most Rev. Justin Welby addressed the literal problem of securing the crown on the king’s head, Owens addresses the figurative problem of getting rid of the “wobbly old thing.” But his arguments in this book are themselves too wobbly to be of much concern to the House of Windsor. Royalists will be relieved to learn that for all the author’s talk of “a new kind of democratic kingship,” Owens still intends to crack a knee to the king, whereas Republicans in the U.K., still a minority, seek to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. No crowns, no curtsies.
For U.K. Republicans, this means a clean sweep of the British class system with its dukes, marquesses, earls (counts), viscounts, and barons. Sitting atop this stratification of British society today is Charles Philip Arthur George — king of the United Kingdom and 14 other commonwealth realms — whose net worth is conservatively estimated to be $747 million, with a real estate portfolio valued at $21 billion, most of which is tax-exempt and hidden from the public.
Trying to straddle the royalist-Republican divide, Owens proposes a “Monarchy Act” that would put in writing the role of the crown in constitutional politics. This is how he attempts to explain his convoluted proposition:
“Although the Monarchy Act could be introduced as part of a much wider codification of the constitution if there was support for it, it could just as easily exist as part of the hybrid constitution (partly written, partly unwritten) that currently exists in Britain, where some parts of government have their function articulated clearly in writing.”
Presently, Britain has no fully written constitution, and getting one in the aftermath of Brexit seems as likely as blue birds flying over the white cliffs of Dover. Yet the author suggests that King Charles III, who’s waited decades to wear the crown, might voluntarily initiate a public discussion on the future of the monarchy and seek to diminish his own imperial role.
This challenges credulity — somewhat like expecting a death-row prisoner to willingly oil the coils of the electric chair — yet Owens insists that if the monarchy doesn’t radically reinvent itself, which “will require root-and-branch reform,” Britain will devolve into a republic. The author leaves no doubt about how distasteful that would be.
Readers of this dense book full of rambling run-on sentences might be well advised to catch the final six episodes of “The Crown” and dwell in the bubble of fashion and money and gossip and intrigue that defines the same House of Windsor young Ed Owens seeks to reform and rehabilitate.
Kitty Kelley is the author of seven number-one New York Times bestseller biographies, including Nancy Reagan, Jackie Oh!, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty. She is on the board of the Independent and is the 2023 recipient of the Biographers International Organization’s BIO Award, which is given annually to a writer who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Her book The Royals was published around the world but banned in Britain.