Surge in support for grieving Royals but pressure to modernise monarchy remains

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The Independent Online

A year ago, an opinion poll suggested public sentiment in Britain was moving significantly against the monarchy and in favour of a republic.

The republican-minded minority had grown from 13 per cent in 1987 to an all-time high of 34 per cent, according to ICM. People were almost evenly divided over the Royals, with 39 per cent saying Britain would be better off without them and 41per cent believing they should stay.

The findings of today's poll by NOP for The Independent are strikingly different: support for abolition of the monarchy has fallen back to just 12 per cent, while 54 per cent want it left as it is now.

All opinion surveys are snapshots and the two polls undoubtedly reflect the contrasting fortunes of the Royal Family at the time they were taken. A year ago, the controversy over the Countess of Wessex's business activities was in the headlines. Today's poll highlights a very different national mood following the death of the Queen Mother.

It will not be possible to get a more settled view of what the British people think of the monarchy's future until after the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations, starting next month.

But some lessons can be drawn from the poll. Despite the very public traumas the Royals have suffered in recent years, there is still a solid underlying block of support for the monarchy and no groundswell for its abolition.

Equally, there is a solid wedge of people who believe the monarchy should be radically reformed. This is supported by 30 per cent, a figure that would probably be higher in more normal times. It is a natural and sympathetic reaction to leave the Queen and her family alone while they are grieving.

While defenders of the monarchy can take comfort from the wave of support for the Royals in the past 10 days, they cannot assume that their long-term future is secure. To apply the slogan on which Tony Blair based New Labour, the monarchy may have to "modernise or die".

The death of the Queen Mother may enable Buckingham Palace to extend a "softly, softly" reform programme that has already seen the Queen pay tax and the Civil List cut back.

In a few months, a debate about the future of the monarchy inside the Labour Party, which has been firmly on the back-burner since 1997, will finally begin. It will be led by think-tanks such as the Fabian Society and will focus on whether the monarch's constitutional powers – for example, to give assent to legislation and invite a party leader to form a government after an inconclusive general election--should be passed to the Commons Speaker.

The Queen's Speech to Parliament and the national anthem might disappear, with the powers of Royal prerogative passing to ministers. The debate would inevitably include whether the Church of England should be disestablished.

Mr Blair and his ministers are said to be relaxed about such a debate but have little desire to lead it. "We have enough on our plate; we don't want a battle with sections of Fleet Street, which would be all pain and no gain," a senior Labour source said.

A more likely scenario, ministers believe, is that the Royal Family, encouraged by the Prince of Wales, embraces limited reforms which would then be picked up enthusiastically by the Government. These might include scrapping the ban on Roman Catholics becoming monarch and giving women equal rights of succession, a move that would allow a daughter of Prince William to become queen if she were his eldest child.

The public mood on reform is expected to be governed rather more by the behaviour and image of the Royals than the constitutional questions which interest politicians. But these issues are important and will not go away, despite the show of affection for the Queen Mother in recent days.