Future of the Monarchy: The growing threat of the royals' dark colonial past?

A growing threat to the long-term existence of the Royal Family is its own uncomfortable and murky past.

Amid an ongoing debate around whether King Charles should apologise for his ancestors’ role in the slave trade – or even pay financial reparations – Yahoo's royal executive editor Omid Scobie puts some tough questions to three expert panelists.

How much will the monarchy be impacted by its inability to deal efficiently with its historic crimes, and as one panelist asked, where do we draw a line under the past?

The 'Future of the Monarchy' was hosted by Yahoo in April 2023 shortly before the coronation of King Charles III.

Joining Omid were author and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, Catherine Mayer; King Charles’ biographer and royal editor at The Evening Standard Robert Jobson; and journalist and broadcaster Afua Hagan.

Watch the full clip above

Video Transcript

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OMID SCOBIE: Uncomfortable history indeed. Now Catherine, there's obviously been so much talk about demands for an apology, but is this something that the Royal Family can do if we haven't heard the government do the same thing?

CATHERINE MAYER: I think absolutely. One of the things about the endurance of the monarchy in this country, but also in the other realms where it still retains the head of state role, is that it's done this by kind of a process of constant adaptation. And part of that adaptation is not waiting for things to happen to it but to make those things happen.

Now, one of the excuses that you'll hear with anything where they get criticized, whether it's about their failure to do enough or soon enough in terms of acknowledging the history of slavery and their huge role in it or, for example, paying inheritance tax, they will say, oh, but it's up to legislators to decide this. We just do what we're told.

That's of course not true at all. It's always been a process-- or long been a process of working together. And if they wanted something to happen, all they would need to do is talk to the government of the day-- if they wanted something to move in a direction that would be in keeping with public opinion, shall we say.

So they could have done more. They could do more. They could be doing a lot more than they're doing. What we're seeing is instead we're seeing them pulled by public opinion. But we're also seeing them caught in the tides not just of an increased consciousness, not just around colonial history but also around existing inequalities that are playing out today and how that really is reflected within their own structures and family.

So we're seeing that, but we're also seeing them caught up in the culture war. And it's being very unhelpfully politicized and covered in the press here. So it's a really interesting situation.

OMID SCOBIE: I fear the public opinion largely want to see some kind of acknowledgment or apology come from the Royal Family. But when you look at the sort of Royalist demographic, those sort of older, more patriotic Brits, you will see that there's an overwhelming opinion that this isn't required. It's not something they want to see.

By Charles taking this step forward, and it is admittedly a very small one, does he risk losing his own supporter base?

AFUA HAGAN: He does a bit, but he also has to realize that he has to modernize, right? And modernizing the Royal Family means keeping up with the times and keeping up with the pulse. And yes, there is a certain generation who would say, look-- like you said in your intro-- that this is leftist, wokeist nonsense, and that slavery is done and dusted. It doesn't affect us today.

But that's another reason why we need to have more accurate history taught in our schools because the effects of enslaving people has real-time effects on the outcomes of Black and Brown people in this country today because of the institutionalized racism that we see in health service, that we see in the police service, and how we have lower outcomes for Black and Brown people, whether that is how much income they earn, what type of housing they are in, what health outcomes they will have.

So we need to realize that it's not just something that's happened that can be swept under the carpet and it doesn't matter today. It does matter today, and it's still happening. And yes, perhaps King Charles does lose the support of some of his fan base. But without sounding too crass and without sounding too cold, that fan base are not going to be here forever.

And it's the younger people and the younger fan base who are probably the ones that do want to see more of a conversation about this that are going to be around for a longer period of time. It's horrible to say that, but it is true. And so King Charles III would really do well to take real steps towards addressing the Royal Family's involvement with enslaving Africans, but also the effects that it has today and what that can mean for an apology and reparations.

It's not enough just to say, OK, I'm going to let you look in the archives, I'm going to let you lift the curtain on what we actually already know.

CATHERINE MAYER: One person to look in the archives as well.

AFUA HAGAN: Absolutely.

CATHERINE MAYER: It's hardly kind of throwing them open to scholars.

AFUA HAGAN: Exactly, and she's going to be doing that until 2026. That's a long time. What we actually need to do is-- I'm all for looking at the archives, but that's not really what I want to see. What I want to see is the Royal Family addressing the fact that, yes, we founded the Royal African Company. Yes, we bought and sold in shares. Yes, essentially we enslaved thousands of African people.

What effects does that have today? What are we going to do about it? Are we going to apologize? Yes, they should. But also let's look at the artifacts that we have in our stores. Let's look at the crown jewels and things that are with the crown jewels that were taken during times of war, not things that were gifted to the Royal Family. That's completely different.

Things that were taken during times of war, things that were taken during times of colonialism. And let's give them back to their rightful owners. These are real steps that need to be taken. And if King Charles III loses some of his fan base, I think so be it.

OMID SCOBIE: It puts him in a very difficult position because, of course, by admitting everything that you've just listed, they're also admitting to the fact that so much of what they have today is built on that. And when you start sort of pulling at the thread, you do threaten sort of dismantling so much more than that.

Robert, this is a sort of-- I guess a surprise decision to many by King Charles. There hadn't been much talk about it in the months leading up to reign change. Do you-- did you see this coming along? Do you know that this is something he had discussed?

ROBERT JOBSON: I was in Barbados when it was handed over. I was in Barbados with William and Kate, so covered it. It was obviously coming in that direction. And a lot of-- been an awful lot of developments since the Black Lives Matter movement in the Caribbean in this and a lot of momentum behind it.

I mean, I hear what both you say, but I think that this has been on the agenda of education for a long time. And I remember when I was a kid studying in a comprehensive in the '70s. I did a whole project on the slave trade, was very passionate about it. So I think it's always been there. I think more needs to be done.

But equally, I think Charles is right to do what he's doing. I think it's the right step to do it. I think he's absolutely right that he puts the academic in the archives and starts the process because that's where you're gonna get more and more information that they can base a proper investigation upon.

But equally, things need to be speeded up because, you know, how long is this reign gonna last? I mean, you know, it might not even be finished this time before the reign's over at this rate. So in my opinion, we need to speed things up. We need to be-- this monarchy's now in a new time. It's a new reign, and things need to be done differently. They need to be--

I think that we've just seen on "Panorama" how the younger generation are not really interested in monarchy and that they really-- they can't rely on the goodwill of what was surrounding Her Majesty the Queen. I mean, Elizabeth-- I think if we had a republic and voted for president, she'd win it hands down. That's not necessarily the case with King Charles.

So I think Charles-- although I personally think he's a terrific person. I think he's a deeply spiritual man. I think he's a man of great intellect. I think he's also a man that I think has done great things in terms of trying to preserve our planet for all of us. But in terms of being the King of the United Kingdom and the other realms and head of the Commonwealth, I think things need to be speeded up.

I think we need to-- there needs to be much more liaison with Prince William-- William, Prince of Wales. But more important than that, there needs to be I think younger people around him in terms of advising him. Some of these advisors are all interested in getting lords and ladies and knights and whatever, NVOs, PVO, wherever they are.

And frankly, I think they're all a waste of time. What we do need now are younger people with different perspective to advise the King and the Royal Family going forward because William is over-- he's 40. You know, he's not a young man. They need to be young people advising them, not people that have self interest, whether they get a land or whether they get a knighthood, whether they get a cushy number somewhere.

It's all well and good banging on about the Prince's Trust. Prince's Trust is yesterday now. We're now dealing with a time of a new reign. And I really do believe that we need to start listening to the under 30s and even the under '20s because if the monarchy does have a longevity, it's those people that matter.

And in my view, there's a lot of stuffed shirts at the Palace. There's a lot of people that are not necessarily in it for the long term because they're too old. There are a lot of people in terms of-- that I don't think are necessarily doing the King a service. But one thing I would say about the King-- and Catherine, you wrote a brilliant book on the King too.

CATHERINE MAYER: Thank you.

ROBERT JOBSON: Is that he does listen to younger people. He has a real connection with younger people. And if he's allowed to do his job without too much noise, he will cut to the chase. He's somebody who really does care. And I think he's somebody that has made a real difference to the lives of many-- Black, white, Asian-- lots of different people that are able to start businesses and become a success.

But the other thing I'd say on this specific thing is that we have to be very, very careful with history. And I'm a history graduate and I'm passionate about it. You know, where does this stop? Where does the line start and where does it stop? Because there's obviously an agenda. I think you should apologize unreservedly-- unreservedly for the abhorrence of slavery, as William Wilberforce moved to do all those years ago.

But then what about the reparations from the African tribal leaders that actually were actually pushing the slave-- were capturing their rivals pf the other tribes to sell them. Are they culpable too? What about the people that were indentured, the Indians, the Asians that were indentured, that had served 20 years or 15 years before-- in slavery, effectively-- before they were free?

So there's a lot-- this goes a lot deeper. And the colonial past of Great Britain, abhorrent that it was, there's been a lot of advancement that came as a result of that. And really, I think that we have to look very carefully because we are an island. We're no longer an Empire with a huge bank account. Do we bankrupt Great Britain due to our past when we were an Empire?

It's a very difficult subject. But the King, as Catherine rightly said, should take a lead, is taking a lead. But the government has to back him with cash. And I don't think they will.

OMID SCOBIE: You talk about how far does this go, but it feels like we haven't really even started. As you say, it's just one historian from Historic Royal Palaces--

ROBERT JOBSON: Oh, it should be much more than that.

OMID SCOBIE: --on their own accord looking into this. It sounds like this is something that was in the works anyway that the King has piggybacked off. And I think when you take a look at, say, the Netherlands, for example, the monarch over there and the announcement he made-- he gave a three-year plan. He announced exactly how much money would be going into it. And it sort of had--

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, Belgium were appalling--

OMID SCOBIE: --a start and an end to talk about.

ROBERT JOBSON: --what they did in the Congo. What the Belgian King did in the Congo, that was abborhant.

OMID SCOBIE: So let's talk about--

AFUA HAGAN: Like France. I mean--

ROBERT JOBSON: Look at France.

AFUA HAGAN: Yeah, absolutely.

ROBERT JOBSON: The land of the free-- the Republic France.

AFUA HAGAN: But it still has-- sorry.

CATHERINE MAYER: No go ahead.

AFUA HAGAN: It still has countries today that pay money to France. People that live in certain countries in the Caribbean and Africa can vote in the French elections. They still have colonialism ongoing today.

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, it's a [INAUDIBLE]

AFUA HAGAN: Well, exactly.

ROBERT JOBSON: So do we.

CATHERINE MAYER: I mean, that's your point earlier. Colonialism is not something in the past. And although I absolutely take your point about the complexities of history, where I would disagree is about the way it's taught and the way it's perceived because all of the opponents that you've seen--

As I said, this is becoming subsumed in culture wars very unhelpfully. And they will kind of say, done and dusted, that phrase you used. And of course it's living--

ROBERT JOBSON: That said, I remember in the '70s I wasn't taught it.

CATHERINE MAYER: But I'm not talking about--

ROBERT JOBSON: I went away and studied and did a project on it and I found out about it myself.

CATHERINE MAYER: Yeah, but-- well, I went to an English school and I got to the Second World War twice and nothing about colonial history.

OMID SCOBIE: Which is the same for the majority.

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, I think it's up to you to learn it, isn't it?

AFUA HAGAN: But that's-- but it shouldn't be.

CATHERINE MAYER: Let me continue with this thought because what I was going to say is, I mean, there are so many things already to unpack here because, first of all, your point-- outcomes and structural inequality is still absolutely here. So you can say that colonialism plays a huge part in it. The realms are literally still a colonial construct. The Commonwealth is a post-colonial colonial construct. It is part of everyday life.

So one of the things is about access and transparency and accountability. The Royal Family benefits from huge degrees of secrecy that no other institution of that size or scale or heft or importance does. That's just completely wrong. They shouldn't really be in a position of just allowing one historian to come in like that, any more than they should dictate who uses footage of royal occasions, which they can.

ROBERT JOBSON: Totally agree.

CATHERINE MAYER: Or as the head of state--

ROBERT JOBSON: Totally agree.

CATHERINE MAYER: Well, I also agree with what you said about they're very ill served by their advisors. And Charles and Camilla I think more than-- the Queen had some pretty good advisors at various.

ROBERT JOBSON: The Queen also was a pretty canny lady.

CATHERINE MAYER: She was-- yeah. And they've got--

ROBERT JOBSON: And I think she would listen to a lot more people perhaps.

CATHERINE MAYER: And he-- and he has got people who have his ear who are not doing him a good service at all. But they also have another problem, which we've sort of been talking around, the sort of elephant in the room here. Yes, young people not only we are not interested in them, but one of the things that happened with the marriage of Harry and Meghan was that people who had never seen the Royal Family in any way reflect them-- so young people, people of color-- went, oh look, finally this is something for me.

ROBERT JOBSON: So true.

CATHERINE MAYER: And the failure of that project has not just made people lose interest. It's made them actual active opponents of the monarchy. And the monarchy has existed-- like, people always go, oh, it's got 75% popularity. No, it had a mixture of people who were passionately pro-monarchy and people who didn't care much one way or the other, 25% Republicans.

That number is potentially swelled by the people that you were talking about, and there is nobody to fill the gap. And you talked about how old William-- one of you mentioned how old William is.

ROBERT JOBSON: 40, yeah.

CATHERINE MAYER: 40. He also-- William and Kate are already looking like a kind of steady, middle aged couple. They don't have that sort of glam and outreach and all of that that Harry and Meghan-- even though Meghan's actually a bit older-- was able to have.

ROBERT JOBSON: But Harry's nearly 40, so I'd say-- I'd say that, actually, they're all a bit old.

CATHERINE MAYER: Yes, but-- but look who comes below. Then you have this huge gap--

ROBERT JOBSON: Then there's a huge gap.

CATHERINE MAYER: --between-- and so everyone kind of goes, oh, he's slimming down-- Charles is slimming down the monarchy, that's a great thing to do. Well actually, it's slimming itself down, and they've got nobody to come into that gap.

OMID SCOBIE: Before we talk about the sort of modernity crisis and lack of youth within the institution, Afua, I just want to ask, in terms of this particular topic, the uncomfortable history of colonialism, we've obviously seen that first step made. How do you think this should look moving forwards?

AFUA HAGAN: Well, I completely agree with what both of you said, Robert and Catherine, is that we need to speed up this kind of investigation into the evidence of the Royal Family's involvement in slavery because we know that they were involved. It doesn't take one woman three years to be able to tell us that. We know that.

And it's great that she's doing that research for a book. And like you said, he's kind of-- the King's kind of piggybacked off that. So we need to get to a point where there is an unreserved apology that needs to happen really, really quickly because we know--

ROBERT JOBSON: And that can happen now.

AFUA HAGAN: Yeah, exactly.

ROBERT JOBSON: That's what I don't understand. Just say it.

AFUA HAGAN: We know what the facts are. We know what the facts are, so apologize for it, number one. And like Robert said, that can be done any time and should be done--

ROBERT JOBSON: Should have been done in Barbados.

AFUA HAGAN: Yeah, and should be done very quickly after the coronation because then that really gives us a sense of what King Charles III wants going forward. That should be his first big act after the coronation, is to apologize unreservedly for--

ROBERT JOBSON: But the trouble you've got there is--

AFUA HAGAN: --enslaving thousands of Africans.

ROBERT JOBSON: --that then you start one apology-- and then I'm saying do it now. But what about the Indigenous people in Australia?

OMID SCOBIE: But I think you take--

ROBERT JOBSON: That is just--

OMID SCOBIE: --one thing on at a time.

ROBERT JOBSON: Well no, they would argue they're just as important as what happened in the Caribbean.

AFUA HAGAN: And Indigenous people--

ROBERT JOBSON: They were used in polo matches--

AFUA HAGAN: Indigenous people--

ROBERT JOBSON: Things like their heads were cut off.

AFUA HAGAN: --in Canada.

ROBERT JOBSON: So it was pretty awful.

AFUA HAGAN: As well what happened to Indegouns people--

ROBERT JOBSON: And the Indigenous--

AFUA HAGAN: --in Canada.

ROBERT JOBSON: And the tribes in Canada.

AFUA HAGAN: And what happened with the children's homes.

ROBERT JOBSON: Hell of a lot of apologizing will have to go on.

AFUA HAGAN: But it has to be done, doesn't it?

CATHERINE MAYER: But an apology tour would actually be a better look than that Caribbean tour of William and Kates'.

AFUA HAGAN: Well, absolutely.

ROBERT JOBSON: I was on that one, I must admit. It wasn't--

AFUA HAGAN: But Robert--

ROBERT JOBSON: It wasn't quite as bad as it was presented, I can assure you. It really wasn't.

AFUA HAGAN: But Robert, this plays into the point that you very astutely made. They need better advisors. If you had better advisors--

ROBERT JOBSON: Younger people need to be there.

AFUA HAGAN: Younger people behind closed doors telling you that, you know what? If you stand there with that fence and put your hands through, it's gonna look a bit--

ROBERT JOBSON: Well, that was taken by Chris Jackson, that picture--

AFUA HAGAN: But the thing is--

ROBERT JOBSON: --who's been taking all these pictures. But there was Raheem Sterling doing exactly the same thing. And by the way--

AFUA HAGAN: No, it's different.

ROBERT JOBSON: By the way, that fence was there before because we were in Trench Town and--

AFUA HAGAN: But the point is--

ROBERT JOBSON: --it's not the safest of places.

AFUA HAGAN: But the point is--

ROBERT JOBSON: That fence was there.

AFUA HAGAN: But the point is better advisors--

ROBERT JOBSON: If they'd torn it down, it would've looked odd.

AFUA HAGAN: But better advisors will be able to tell you that that's not gonna play out well, let's perhaps do it another way.

ROBERT JOBSON: But I must say, having been there, just to clarify this 'cause it's easy from a long distance-- and with the greatest respect, none of you were there. I was. It was a mayhem in Trench Town. And with the greatest respect to the advisors, yes, they should have seen this on a recce, but what do they do? Tear down a fence that's actually there for the protection of the teams there?

And I think that the photograph was taken by a very trusted photographer, someone that should be on site. And that was put out and then the gender switched. But he never took the photograph of all the Black footballers and the Raheem Sterling doing exactly the same. And that was a bad look, but you've got to remember that was mayhem.

CATHERINE MAYER: But the colonial outfits--

OMID SCOBIE: It was a series of moments. It was a series of moments in the Caribbean. And I think for as much as we--

ROBERT JOBSON: From a distance it looks like, but it wasn't quite like that.

CATHERINE MAYER: But from a distance, Matt--

ROBERT JOBSON: Yes, it does matter.

CATHERINE MAYER: The whole point is actually from a distance.

ROBERT JOBSON: Yes, I know that. But there was mayhem. There were thousands of supporting people there. And so decisions don't get made in-- there were mistakes made, but I would sit there and blame the advisors and it's easy to do that. But someone should have seen that on a recce. Someone should have been more prepared.

AFUA HAGAN: Absolutely. Yes, they should. 100%.

ROBERT JOBSON: But all have said-- or really, actually, William and Kate should've said, this isn't gonna to go.

CATHERINE MAYER: That's my feeling, is--

ROBERT JOBSON: That doesn't look good [INAUDIBLE].

CATHERINE MAYER: --it does ask--

OMID SCOBIE: We can't spend years praising the Royal Family for thinking about optics in every moment [INAUDIBLE]--

ROBERT JOBSON: I think they were drawn--

OMID SCOBIE: --and then overlook such--

ROBERT JOBSON: They were drawn to it as well.

OMID SCOBIE: --a faux pas--

ROBERT JOBSON: --because all the kids were screaming--

OMID SCOBIE: --on that occasion.

ROBERT JOBSON: --and saying they wanted that.

OMID SCOBIE: We've got to move on.

ROBERT JOBSON: But then again, we do-- I know optics are good from afar, but they're also when you're on the front line, which I was, it wasn't quite as your 1,000 miles away viewpoint was stated. And I would just like to stress that. And also the car thing, the whole business of that car colonial, totally the request of the Jamaican army. Nothing to do with the British.

Then again, you could argue they should have seen that coming. But the British-- the Canadian army were very proud about that moment and insisted upon it. So what do you do? You're their guests.

OMID SCOBIE: I've seen royal advisors bulldoze--

ROBERT JOBSON: Not when you're the--

OMID SCOBIE: --bulldoze governments--

ROBERT JOBSON: --guest of the realm.

OMID SCOBIE: --and officials in every occasion.

ROBERT JOBSON: When you're on an official visit, yes. But if you're in a realm, the realm takes complete control of that visit. And it's nothing to do with the Palace.