Features Editor Athina Bohner spoke to dozens of UofG students and funeral-goers in Edinburgh to better understand Scottish public opinion about the British monarchy.
When Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle on 8 September 2022, aged 96, the UK seemed to come to a staggering standstill. However, while the floral tributes in front of Buckingham Palace grew, so did the longstanding criticism of the British monarchy’s colonial legacy, institutional racism, and sexual abuse allegations. In particular, this stark divide in public opinion was evident in Scotland – a country where the idea of monarchy in the 21st century seems to be simultaneously loved and hated.
According to a poll conducted in May 2022 by the think tank British Future, only 45% of Scots support the monarchy, compared to 60% of the UK as a whole, indicating a profound split between Scottish and British public opinion. In fact, over a third of Scots surveyed agreed that the end of the Queen’s reign should be the time when the country becomes a republic. In addition to this geographical divergence, studies have demonstrated an increasing generational shift, including a YouGov poll from 2021, which revealed that only 31% of young Britons aged 18 to 24 wish to see the monarchy continue.
Speaking to dozens of University of Glasgow students after the Queen’s funeral, it became evident that a significant portion of Scotland’s younger demographic is against the monarchy. A few students referred to the Queen as “the head of a corrupt establishment” built on oppression, with Ella, 24, expressing: “[The British monarchy] is the biggest symbol of everything that is wrong with our society, where the rich get richer, and we celebrate it when there are people literally living in poverty in the same country.”
In order to better understand the Scottish people who continue to support the British monarchy, I decided to attend the Queen’s funeral procession in Edinburgh on 12 September, along with thousands of others. As the packed crowd on the Royal Mile waited for over four hours to witness the hearse pass by, I interviewed numerous mourners, who all echoed the historic nature of the event, as well as the Queen’s perpetual presence as “a constant” in their lives. The atmosphere felt permeated by muted anticipation and a surreal sense of collective grief, as epitomised by a mother standing next to me singing ‘God Save the King’ as a lullaby to her crying baby.
At the procession, Robert, who lives in Glasgow, regarded the Queen as “representing everybody’s interests; the glue that holds the four nations together” before comparing his reaction to the Queen’s death to “the loss of a close relative”. Likewise, a woman from Edinburgh expressed her deep sadness about the Queen’s passing, because “she was always there for us”. While observing those coping with the loss of this life-long, one-sided attachment, it seemed as though supporters of the monarchy were not only mourning the perceived loss of stability but also a vital part of themselves, as the value systems shaping their own identities and belonging are so intrinsically connected to the assumption of the idealised Queen.
In contrast, UofG students observed a divergent attitude as they consider this romanticised version of the crown’s legacy as “blissfully unaware”. A student from Wales remarked: “I’m not glad that an old lady has died – that’s sad – but why should that be different to any other old lady dying?” Additionally, students expressed outrage that essential services, such as food banks and hospital appointments, were cancelled for the state funeral. Moreover, a 19-year-old UofG student who works at Costa Coffee told The Glasgow Guardian that per instruction from the head office, employees were not allowed to play music, accept tips, or collect donations for charity during the national mourning period.
When The Glasgow Guardian called attention to the extortionate estimated cost of the funeral and coronation to the British taxpayer, a number of pro-monarchy supporters declined to comment, with one 63-year-old man from Dunfermline claiming that: “For a lot of people, this is money well spent”. In addition to sentimentality, the financial aspect of the British monarchy seems to be a key divisive issue, with many resorting to the contested argument that the monarchy would attract tourism to Scotland. At the funeral procession in Edinburgh, a student responded: “It is a tricky one. Since the taxpayer has always paid, it wouldn’t be right if the funeral is the first thing that they don’t.”
Especially in light of the current cost of living crisis, UofG students felt particularly concerned about the expense to the British taxpayer, with one describing the situation as “anxiety-inducing” and Amy, 23, regarding it as “tone-deaf”. She added: “It’s mad that the people who support the royals tend to be the people who don’t want benefits going to refugees and low-income people, but will happily give it to those that don’t need it at all.”
Nevertheless, young people were also present at the funeral procession, including a group of 18-year-olds who travelled to Edinburgh from England to experience this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. Another 21-year-old student at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh told The Glasgow Guardian that she thinks “the fact that it’s happened in Scotland has probably made Scottish people feel closer to the monarchy”. In fact, the majority of Scots I spoke to in Edinburgh expressed a personal connection to the Queen’s Balmoral passing, proudly calling it “her happy place”. A middle-aged Scottish couple expressed that “She loved Scotland, so everybody loved her”, which further sheds light on the complex relationship between national pride and identity.
Unlike the majority of funeral-goers in Edinburgh, Margaret, who is 65 years old and a UofG graduate, does not believe in unionism. She told The Glasgow Guardian at the procession: “I don’t support the union, but I respect the lady. There needs to be a slimmed-down modernised version of monarchy, especially now, [as they have] an awful lot of wealth and privilege inherited”. Her sons, who are in their 30s, wish to see independence for Scotland, and she plans to vote Yes in the proposed second Scottish independence referendum for the sake of her children’s future.
When asked about their views on the new King Charles III, Glasgow University students mostly remained sceptical, with some Scottish students feeling hopeful about his efforts to protect the environment. However, many seemed disinterested in the “disappointing turnover”, including an Irish student who told The Glasgow Guardian: “If anything, I’m insulted that Diana is dead because she should have been queen.”
Throughout my conversations with members of the public at the University of Glasgow and at Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the stark divide within Scottish public opinion, as well as the need for fostering constructive dialogue, became undeniably clear. When I asked supporters of the monarchy what they would like to say to those opposing their viewpoints, they expressed the desire for people to show respect to the Queen’s family, while anti-monarchy UofG students would pose a series of reflective questions. If given the chance, Ella would ask supporters of the monarchy: “Are your arguments for the royal family sentimental or realistic? There is a lot of value in sentiment, but is this a force for good or not?”