Royal Pain: The British Republicans’ Waiting Game

When Britain’s Prince William and his wife of three months Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, visited Los Angeles, celebrity capital of the world, in July, the kind of feverish scramble for invitations to the three receptions given in their honor was a thing virtually unseen since the epic contest among leading actresses of the day to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Wills and Kate may have had their ten-day honeymoon in the Seychelle Islands, but their global honeymoon shows no signs of having run its course. Kate Middleton is rapidly approaching the status enjoyed by Princess Diana as the most photographed woman on earth. So it would seem that the chronically dysfunctional British royals have at last got themselves a winner. And they do—at least on the international scene, but perhaps less so where it matters most: in the United Kingdom.

The BBC estimated that twenty-five to thirty million television viewers watched either all or part of the channel’s respectful, wall-to-wall coverage (or independent television’s more spirited version) of the marriage between Prince William, son of the late Princess Diana and second in line to the British throne, and his college sweetheart, Catherine (Kate) Middleton. A further million people packed the royal route in London.

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Sure, that’s a lot of people, but it didn’t meet the British media narrative, which was that the United Kingdom’s entire population of sixty-two million found itself swept up in the excitement of the Wills-and-Kate nuptials. In numerical terms, it seems that half the country did, and the other half just took advantage of the official holiday to ignore the whole affair.

The Cameron government might have hoped that the royal event would lift the spirit of a nation struggling with tough austerity measures. But that would be reading too much into it, as the Guardian commented (shortly after dropping its longstanding support for a republican Britain in favor of a continuation of the monarchy).

“The wedding was not a looking-glass event, reflecting the infantilization of a subject nation,” the paper said in an editorial. “The curtain rose and then fell. The circus came and went. It did not change anything. Britain is not now a happier or a safer, a more purposive or a less unequal place than it was before Prince William placed the ring on his bride’s finger . . . ”

And it is not much friendlier to the royals after all the glorious hugger-mugger has come and gone. MORI, a leading British pollster, has been asking the same question since 1993—“Would you favor Britain becoming a republic, or remaining a monarchy?”—and getting more or less the same result: eleven million Britons, or roughly a sixth of the population, say they are committed republicans who would like to see an elected president as head of state in place of the monarch.

It could be said that another twenty million Britons who apparently opted not to follow the prince’s nuptials may not favor a Republic of Britain: still, they form a sizable groundswell of public indifference—and that makes them the group to cause the British royals most concern. Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, has a realist’s view of the future, as is indicated by his minimalist observation: “If people don’t want [the monarchy], they won’t have it.”

Such is the dream of Republic, a movement started in 1983, and the leading exponent of the republican cause in Britain. A smaller, more recent, and more virulent movement is ThroneOut. The Republic website trots out the familiar arguments: the monarchy is an anachronism that perpetuates a divisive class system in which being a member of the aristocracy is more important than merit and ability. Today, the idea of the monarch at the apex of a hierarchical society runs counter to most people’s values.

Republic’s website goes on to say that the hereditary system “leaves the position of head of state to chance.” And the monarchy legitimizes a British constitution that is flawed and gives the prime minister unchecked power because the head of state has been denied any authority to check it. Furthermore, Republic spokesman Graham Smith points out that the monarchy’s cost to the nation of  $48.2 million in 2010 makes it “the most expensive monarchy in Europe—the most expensive head of state in Europe.”

Britain had its republican experience in the seventeenth century under Oliver Cromwell. Since then, however, British republicans have not exactly been forceful in pushing for change. At times, British republicanism seems to be more intellectual voyeurism than political activism. It’s not as if they have a plan ready to put into action. They don’t envision a US-style presidency. Some talk of a system akin to the French, in which a nationally elected president shares executive power with the prime minister, while others would prefer the Italian system where the president, chosen by parliamentary vote, has more limited powers, but can and does intervene when he deems it appropriate.

Inevitably, a republican Britain, should it ever come into being, would also require a change to a single codified constitution to replace the current unwritten constitution—a reform that even has support among many who are not republicans.

“As a republican, I have to recognize that . . . even those of us who would like to be rid of the monarchy aren’t exactly taking our cause to the streets,” admits Peter Wilby, a prominent left-wing journalist. The actor Colin Firth claims that “unelected bodies are a problem for me”—but he portrayed King George VI in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, which gave the British monarchy as much a bounce in the polls as the wedding did. Helen Mirren is ambivalent about British royalty and the monarch she so brilliantly portrayed in The Queen: “I loathe the British class system and in many ways—in all ways—the royal family are the apex of the system.” Glenda Jackson, who played the first Queen Elizabeth in the film Mary, Queen of Scots and in the award-winning television series Elisabeth R, is listed among “eminent individuals” who support the republican cause on the Republic website, as is the historical novelist Philippa Gregory, well known for her novels on English kings and queens.

In part, what acts as a brake on activist republicanism is the high regard in which the person of Queen Elizabeth II is held by most of her subjects. Republicans believe that if they campaigned for her ouster they would fail to gain the needed traction with the population, although they are convinced that there are otherwise deep sympathies with their views.

The queen, eighty-five, was crowned on February 6, 1952. In May 2011, she became the second-longest-reigning British monarch after Queen Victoria. She has never put a foot wrong, as her biographers (including this writer) have often phrased it: shorthand for not having overstepped her largely ceremonial role, at least in public. The uncodified (unwritten) constitution of the United Kingdom demands neutrality from the monarch. The monarch does have sovereign powers, but he or she delegates them to the country’s political institutions and other official bodies. And Queen Elizabeth has carefully (some might say blandly) never said or done anything that could be considered an intrusion in the political life of the country.

Her sixty-two-year-old heir, Prince Charles, who television news personality and author of a recent book on the monarchy Jeremy Paxman says is perceived—somewhat unfairly—as “vain, indulged, whingeing, eccentric, talks to trees,” could provide more grist to the republican mill were he to ascend to the throne. The prince’s outspoken views on the environment, for example, have political implications. Will he be capable of royal restraint, or would he be a more “intrusive” king and thus embroil the monarchy in controversy and further imperil the institution?

The idea of skipping Prince Charles in the succession and going straight to Prince William just doesn’t fly with the royals. But there is apparently talk in royal circles that if Queen Elizabeth II lives for another decade (more than a possibility given the longevity of the Windsor women), Prince Charles, who will then be in his seventies when he finally becomes king, would name his son William—who on present showing has a defter common touch—as Prince Regent to help with the heavy lifting. The last Prince Regent was the eldest son of George III. He was appointed in 1811 during King George’s bout of mental illness, and when the latter died succeeded him as George IV.

The royal family probably couldn’t believe their luck when William announced that he wished to marry Kate Middleton. In modern times, no future English monarch had married what the English call a “commoner,” that is, someone who is not a member of a royal house or of the aristocracy. (The ill-fated Edward VIII did not marry Wallis Simpson until after his abdication.) Public reaction was favorable to the pretty, vivacious, likable young woman who, incidentally, would be the first woman in the British royal family with a university degree.

Commentators of the royal wedding frequently pointed out that the bride entered Westminster Abbey as plain Kate Middleton and came out a princess and a member of the royal house of Windsor. Less mentioned was the fact that Prince William entered the abbey a prince and came out a member of the Middleton family. The newlyweds had known each other for a decade and from all accounts had been living together for at least half a dozen years, during which time the prince has been a frequent visitor to the home of Kate’s parents, Carole and Michael Middleton, owners of a successful party-planning business.

The genius of the royal wedding was to combine a perfectly choreographed ceremonial designed to make the connection with the couple’s future as king and queen, with their own intimate, personal story. The historian Simon Schama called it “simultaneously magnificent and very simple; and if the monarchy is going to survive, which to my mind it will, it has to have that cleverness about a simple connection with everybody in the country . . . essentially this mix between the informality and the public duty of the monarchy.”

That message was cleverly (indeed, subliminally) slipped into the proceedings: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, calling the couple “deeply unpretentious people,” members of the royal family riding to and from Buckingham Palace in two buses, Prince William himself at the altar whispering affectionately to his bride—no doubt knowing full well that it would not stay a whisper for long—and to his new father-in-law, “This was supposed to be a small family wedding.”

The nineteenth-century British economist Walter Bagehot, writing about the British Constitution, famously warned, “Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it . . . Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon the magic.” But Bagehot was not writing in the age of the blog, the telephoto lens, and the other modern techniques of privacy invasion. At a time when we are confronted with royal fallibility in real time, the mystique of monarchy can no longer lie in its mystery. Still, the danger is that Prince William’s closeness to the middle class blurs his status as a royal, which could ultimately help the republican argument that he needn’t be there at all.

This is one reason why British republicans must feel that time is on their side. In recent polls, only that half of the population that watched the wedding believes the British monarchy will survive past the next fifty years. And William will be seventy-nine in 2061.

Roland Flamini worked for Time magazine from 1968 to 1994, by turns covering Europe from London and serving as a correspondent, editor, and bureau chief in Rome, Bonn, Paris, Lebanon, and Jerusalem. He now reports for various publications.

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