Celebrity glare haunts the British royal family

The gaze of the world has landed on Britain’s celebrity couple, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, for whom the public ‘wait’ to ascend the throne stretches ahead like a ghastly obstacle course

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sun, Dec 09, 2012 - Page 9

I have no opinion on hyperemesis gravidarum. Maternity couture is not my forte. I am weak on Salic law. As for the logistics of twins as heirs to the throne, I leave that to the department of angels on pinheads. Royal babies are ooh-aah journalism. They soften the brain.

Yet after so much relentless bad news, we gulp down anything heart-warming like parched travelers stumbling into an oasis. In mid-recession, Britain went ecstatic when Prince William and the then-Kate Middleton wed. It cooed with pleasure over a royal jubilee. “Olympic heroes” sent it weak at the knees. Now comes a royal pregnancy — and a thumping great smile crosses the nation’s face.

At 4pm on Monday afternoon, Dec. 3, every office, shop floor, canteen and playground was uplifted, or so the media told us. British Prime Minister David Cameron emerged from Downing Street like a mole scenting the dawn, for his Tony Blair royal moment. He said he was “absolutely delighted,” over and again.

This is the danger of media simplification. When front pages used all to carry a dozen news stories, the world’s ups and downs tended to cancel each other out. The window on the world had many openings, good and bad.

Tabloidization has turned this into a single daily head bang, one dominant story, overwritten and slammed in front of the reader’s eyes to the exclusion of all else. Whether it is bankers’ bonuses or phone hacking or the Olympics or child abuse, single-issue coverage distorts perception and encourages a gloomy cynicism toward the world. Bad news is always catastrophe, good news is hysteria.

The prospective birth of a third in line to the throne is significant, since the UK constitution requires the headship of the British state to be inherited. What is not given is that those down that line of inheritance — and their potential children — be accorded such massive fame. Britain is exceptional, even among surviving crowned heads of state, in treating its monarchy as a royal collective.

While republicanism has the rational high ground in the matter of heredity, it has failed to dent the emotional attachment of the English (I hesitate to speak for other Britons) to constitutional monarchy. However, that attachment has never been unqualified. When monarchy does not play ball with democracy, it is monarchy that is in trouble. It wobbled during the parliamentary crisis of 1910 and on the abdication of 1936. It wobbled, briefly, after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Wobbling opens the usual can of worms, such as why not female inheritance and why not a Catholic or an atheist. Female succession is now confirmed. However, each move to a more “relevant” monarchy leads to more ideas for reform, until it comes dangerously close to making the person of the monarch signify something specific, which it must not. Traditional institutions are always at their most vulnerable when being changed, as Alexis de Tocqueville warned and of which the Anglican Church is now an awful example.

Who is monarch must not matter. He or she is required to be no more than the anthropomorphic embodiment of statehood. Inheritance is a security against monarchical power, since its indefensibility ensures the powerlessness of the head of state. By being random in age, merit or inclination, it detaches the head of state from all claim to influence.

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.