LONDON — When Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday, the most prominent anti-monarchist movement in Britain did what it had been planning to do for years upon her death: It lay low.
Republic, a group founded in 1983 that campaigns for an elected head of state and wants the monarchy abolished, instead released a short statement of condolence to the royal family that acknowledged its right to grieve and pledged to avoid further commentary for the immediate future.
Normal business then tentatively resumed on Saturday, when Republic criticized King Charles III’s formal accession to the throne as undemocratic, while still expressing “every sympathy for King Charles” as he mourned his mother.
“It’s just a sensible thing to do, really,” said Graham Smith, Republic’s chief executive. “Let all this run its course, and we will get into the more serious things later.”
This is the careful line that Britain’s leading anti-monarchists, known as republicans, believe they must tread in the early days of the new reign — balancing long-term opportunity with short-term pitfalls.
Polling shows Britons are far less enamored with Charles than with his mother, providing republican campaigners with their biggest chance to build momentum in a quarter-century. But they are wary of alienating potential supporters by appearing to be unmoved by the outpouring of grief for the queen.
The United Kingdom or the nation that dominates it, England, has been led by a hereditary monarchy for more than nine centuries, barring a brief period of republican rule in the 1600s.
While monarchs gradually ceded governing power to Parliament over the centuries, it still governs in the monarch’s name, and the king or queen still plays a significant — if almost entirely symbolic — role in important British functions: the transition from one government to another, the administration of the Church of England and the judicial system.
Republican campaigners want to change all of that — by replacing a hereditary king or queen with an elected president.
Since the end of the short-lived British republic in 1660, the concept has rarely, attracted significant popular support, but it has had its moments. Thomas Paine, the anti-monarchist philosopher whose writing helped build the intellectual underpinnings of the American Revolution, was born in Britain and wrote at least one of his major works there.
In 1991, Tony Benn, a prominent left-wing lawmaker, tried to get Parliament to vote to abolish the monarchy. In 2000, The Guardian newspaper led a campaign for the creation of a republic, hoping to spur public debate.
Both efforts failed. And for years, campaigners have known that the accession of King Charles — more awkward and opinionated than his mother, and less popular — would represent their best chance of garnering support for their cause.
Polling in May showed Charles’ national approval rating was 65%, 21 percentage points lower than the queen’s.
Charles has “neither the kind of celebrity, the kind of charisma or the kind of authority of years that Elizabeth had,” said David Edgerton, a historian of 20th-century British history.
For now, most British republicans are biding their time.
One protester disrupted a proclamation on Sunday in Oxford about the king’s accession, leading to his arrest, while another was arrested in Edinburgh in a separate incident. But republicans have otherwise mostly left the streets to the thousands of mourners and well-wishers.
The Green Party, one of the few British political parties to include opposition to the monarchy’s political role in its manifesto, called the queen’s death “a moment of great sadness for our nation,” avoiding any hint of criticism.
Opponents of the monarchy who have taken a less diplomatic position — criticizing the public for falling victim to establishment groupthink — have been called out by other republicans for estranging would-be allies.
“A republicanism that has no faith in the public is no republicanism at all,” wrote one columnist in Spiked, a libertarian online magazine that opposes the monarchy but often takes potshots at what it often sees as the “woke left.”
Still, some see an opportunity once the queen is buried and the public’s focus shifts to Charles.
“We will be campaigning pretty hard from not long after the funeral through to the coronation,” said Smith, the head of Republic. The queen, he said, was a “heat-shield that deflected a lot of criticism, and you just don’t get that with Charles.”
“It’s going to be a very much easier campaign to run,” Smith added.
While the queen was generally seen as a paragon of personal virtue, Charles’ judgment and propriety has been the subject of perpetual scrutiny from his time as a young prince even up until a few months ago.
Among other controversies, the police announced an investigation in February into allegations that one of Charles’ charities offered to help secure a knighthood and citizenship for a Saudi businessman, in exchange for a large donation. Charles’ spokesperson said the royal had been unaware of any deal, and a top aide stepped down under pressure over the transaction.
Charles is also remembered for his fractious divorce during the 1990s from his first wife, Diana, in which the news media often presented him as cold and distant. The public has largely moved on, as has Charles with his second marriage to Camilla, now the queen consort, but the impression that the split created has not entirely dissipated.
Republicanism is also rising among a younger generation of Britons. An estimated 41% of Britons 18-25 said they wanted an elected head of state, according to polling from 2021 — 15 percentage points higher than in 2019.
Demand for a republic has remained fairly static for decades — the most recent polling suggested nearly 70% of Britons support a monarchy, about the same as in the early 1990s.
Part of the queen’s appeal was in the opacity of her beliefs, said Laura Clancy, who researches the public image of the royal family at the University of Lancaster.
The queen revealed little about her opinions, creating an aura of mystery about her core beliefs, allowing others to project onto her whatever views they hoped she might hold. Before and after Britain’s exit from the European Union, the inscrutability of the queen’s position allowed both supporters and critics of Brexit to claim her as their own.
“You couldn’t possibly do that with Charles,” Clancy said. “Because we know what he thinks about lots of things.”
Charles’ views on architecture, aesthetics and the environment are widely reported. He is seen by some as a meddler, achieving notoriety for sending handwritten messages to government ministers about political matters — messages known as “black spider” letters because of the messiness of his handwriting and the black ink of his pen.
But even if Charles’ accession offers a chance for republicans to construct a different narrative about monarchy, commentators and campaigners say that any success will be slow.
“Talking about Republicanism in the U.K. is still, actually, quite taboo,” Clancy said. “Is there going to be a moment when it becomes less taboo? That’s what I feel like is coming.”