Despite the paranoia of the left, the monarch has no constitutional potency. The power-grasping Stuarts brought Britain to rebellion, civil war and chaos. The power-averse Hanoverians buried themselves in their cards and their mistresses. Parliamentary freedom flourished as a result. The Prince of Wales can say what he likes. He does not award planning permission or run the UK’s publicly funded health service. The body politic is robust enough to stand a few eccentric occupants of the constitutional display case.
When kings and queens mattered, royal babies were serious tokens of national continuity. Since their sovereignty was, at least in theory, beyond dispute, they were the crown in flesh and blood. The infant Henry III, the feeble Henry VI, the sickly Edward VI were all treated as ciphers by the courtiers round them, but they still breathed an authority that could not be gainsaid.
Today an heir to the throne is a mere echo of that continuity. He or she embodies custom and practice, history, nationhood — much as do the crown jewels, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. It does not matter if the heir is a boy or a girl, a genius or a fool. It should not matter if it is Protestant or Catholic, white or black, gay or heterosexual. Monarchy is just the way Britons have long chosen to express their inanimate throne, largely because it would look empty otherwise.
The crown has made few mistakes in the lifetimes of most Britons. One error, made under PR advice back in the 1960s, was to elevate the “royal family” to significance, its members adorning ceremonial and public occasions, however trivial, and drawing on a civil list in consequence. This confused the empty concept of “being in line to the throne” with actual headship of state. It set apart a collection of individuals, who could not do proper jobs and often irritated the public by their behavior, in a cocoon of costly protection. This last was unnecessary, since a virtue of heredity is an ample supply of replacements.
The resulting pressures on the family members are well documented. Few couples can stand the weight of expectation — to be ecstatically happy — loaded onto them by celebrity status. Scandinavians put their royals under nothing like this pressure. They lead a normal life unless and until called on to take office.
In the case of Prince William and his wife, the “wait” to ascend the throne, under the gaze of the entire world, stretches ahead like a ghastly obstacle course. It will last probably most of their lives.