The birth of a new prince
Now, after a torrid summer marred by natural tragedies, needless death, and devastating destruction, comes undiluted happy news. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, has given birth to a prince. So, the first child of a commoner to be welcomed into the British royal family in modern times (Wallis Simpson tried to gatecrash in 1936 and was promptly asked to leave) has delivered an heir to extend the Windsors’ influence into the next generation.
The birth has set off genuine rejoicing around the world as a harmless piece of fun that only a humbug could find offensive. And the impeccably authentic upstairs/downstairs soap opera that makes “
Downtown Downton Abbey” look like “The Days of Our Lives” has provided another romantic twist in an endlessly colorful plotline that began nearly two thousand years ago with the Kings of the Angles.
There has been many a slip in succession between the Mercia kings and the new prince. There were pretenders to the throne, including Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, and the Old Pretender, known as the “Warming Pan Baby.” There was a beheading, too, when Charles I fell foul of the parliamentarians, who were every bit as opposed to high taxation and the encroachment of the executive branch as the Tea Party today. But since William and Mary were imported from Holland in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and given the British crown on condition they didn’t interfere with parliament, the British monarchy has been secure.
The new baby will not just accede to the British throne. He will also eventually be crowned king of 15 other countries, including Australia, Canada, Jamaica, and New Zealand. His influence will stretch far wider. As the world has shrunk, so the British royal family has become a free source of pageant-filled entertainment, as well as a guide to how to behave — and how not to behave.
When Franklin Roosevelt was edging America into World War Two in 1939, he had King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to stay at Hyde Park where, over a hot dog picnic, many Americans became re-engaged with the monarchy they rejected in 1776. That unlikely love affair has continued ever since, with American TV networks satisfying their audience’s ready appetite for pomp and circumstance by sending reporting teams to each successive royal wedding and funeral.
The new prince is third in line to the throne, after Princes Charles, Prince of Wales, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, bumping Prince Harry into fourth place. Like them, he will have no power but considerable influence. As the personification of the British state, he will be taught to embrace the virtues of good government. Like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, he will be expected to serve in uniform, most likely in the Royal Navy.
When his time comes, he will obediently read out the government’s legislative program as if it were his own and sign every law put before him without demurring. Like his great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth, he will soon discover that the rich life he inherits comes with a high price tag: selfless, untiring public service and a continuous invasion of his personal privacy.
It is increasingly difficult for any member of the royal family to have views of any kind. Once it was apolitical to promote population control and wildlife protection, as championed for years by the Duke of Edinburgh before he was told to stop interfering in politics. Prince Charles, too, tried to take an interest in organic farming and architecture until he, too, was urged to desist. Everything is political today, except perhaps stamp collecting and shuffleboard.
Such a strict regime is not for everyone. Princess Diana, beloved around the world for her photogenic fashion sense, discovered too late that the job of being married to the heir to the throne was not all about her. She had married into a hard-nosed business where everyone is expected to do their bit, charming the less fortunate and acting as an unpaid extra during national ceremonies.
Kate has learned the hard lessons of the glamorous mother-in-law she never knew and has democratized the monarchy by buying clothes off the peg and performing the daily chore of shaking thousands of hands without complaint. She will no doubt instruct her son in the art of being the center of attention without hogging the limelight.
Is there anything we can learn from the birth of the new prince? Britain’s constitutional monarchy is a system of government that few drafters of constitutions would choose, but it has its advantages. The Founding Fathers believed in the separation of powers — keeping the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary apart — but they made the president not merely the chief executive but also the head of state, inextricably linking politics and patriotism.
That can prove difficult when a president is being censured, such as the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and even when a president is under fire, which is all the time. In Britain, as weekly broadcasts of the ill-mannered prime minister’s questions attest, the executive can be harshly criticized without the critic being accused of lack of patriotism. Presidents are awarded the deference due to a king and escape the routine scrutiny all prime ministers face. In that key aspect, our system of democracy is less accountable than Britain’s.
There is also a difference in how the role of the state is perceived. In Britain, the royals personify the state, making it more human, understandable and likeable. The new prince will one day be called upon to represent the whole of Britain and exemplify its eternal values. In America, the state is thought of as little more than the federal government, an anonymous, amorphous, cumbersome body that has few friends even among those who believe it a force for good. The Tea Party is just the latest in a series of grassroots movements that suspect the American state for its unaccountable use of power against citizens. Looking at the IRS scandal and the Prism snooping, who can doubt it?
While Britain’s monarchy is no more than a front for parliament, which is the nation’s sovereign body, its traditional relationship with the people informs the nature of the connection between the government and the governed. The link between the British state and its citizens is one of a monarch with his or her subjects, which is a benign, paternal, responsible association that exchanges concern for devotion.
Here, the state intervenes between citizens and the guarantees of their rights expressed in the Constitution, which is far from the warm-hearted, trusting relationship that exists in Britain. On acceding the throne, Queen Elizabeth, like the monarchs before her, pledged a lifetime of service to her people. No such personal oath reassures Americans that their lives are important to the keepers of the state.
None of these constitutional niceties will be of any interest to the latest Windsor baby until, at some time in the future, he discovers what fate, or act of God if you will, has conferred on him. He will enjoy a charmed life until the day dawns he is not so much a king in waiting as a prisoner in a constitutional arrangement not of his choosing.
There are many arguments for republicanism, but perhaps the most persuasive for those expected to act out the rich tapestry of the British monarchy is that, despite their immense wealth and privilege, they have been given a life sentence they did nothing to deserve. For that the Windsor family, in its moment of happiness, should be both thanked and pitied.
PHOTO: Britain’s Prince Andrew (L), Prince Harry (2nd L), Prince William (R) and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Trooping the Colour ceremony in central London June 15, 2013. Trooping the Colour is a ceremony to honour the sovereign’s official birthday. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.