When somebody as important as Her Majesty the Queen dies, it is natural that people in the rest of the world will want to know what people in Britain thought about her; and we ourselves may wonder whether other people living in Britain think as we do. Historically, we could only judge the popularity of the Monarchy and the Monarch outside our own circle of friends by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds that greeted them on public occasions, and this was still largely true seventy years ago, when Elizabeth II came to the throne. Of course, big crowds can be deceptive – they say nothing about the people that have stayed at home. And although the newspapers sometimes reported what people thought, there was always the suspicion that they better reflected the opinions of their proprietors than public opinion.
Britain and the world have both changed hugely since 1952. One of the most remarkable achievements of the Queen’s reign was keeping the Monarchy and the Royal Family relevant throughout that period. As the Monarchy has changed, so has its relationship with the media, and journalists today report, investigate, and often challenge all aspects of its role; one consequence of this is that they seek to understand public opinion about the Monarch, the Royal Family, and the institution, and so opinion polls on the subject, almost unknown in 1952, are now frequently conducted.
So far as we are aware, the first polls in this country about support for the Monarchy were commissioned by the BBC in the late 1960s; it must have felt a daring venture at the time. But by the 1990s, when many newspapers were openly questioning the Monarchy, polls had become taken for granted as part of the reporting. And among the things they consistently showed was that the majority of the public continued to support the Monarchy and believed that Her Majesty personally was doing her job well.
This has continued to be the case into the 21st century. While we didn’t poll during the mourning period, there is plenty of evidence from the past few years. At its peak, support for the Queen came as close to unanimity as almost any subject on which we have measured public opinion. In 2012, 90% of people said they were satisfied with the way that she was doing her job, and only 7% dissatisfied; even among those who said that they would prefer to abolish the Monarchy and make Britain a Republic, only a minority were dissatisfied with the Queen herself. Earlier this year, with a differently-framed question, we found that 69% had “favourable… opinions and impressions” of the Queen, while 12% had unfavourable ones. While that is not quite unanimous, it is an impressive margin of approval.
The crowds who have been expressing their grief at her death and thankfulness for her reign by paying their respects to the Queen’s coffin are certainly not unrepresentative of the British public.
Dr. Roger Mortimore is Director of Political Analysis at Ipsos in the UK and Professor of Public Opinion & Political Analysis at King's College London.