x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

With William and Kate, UK revives its royal love affair

Commentators on the left are fulminating at what they call a "new age of sycophancy". But the media have good reason to salute the royal marriage.

That the British monarchy faces an uncertain future is one of the commonest cliches rolled out by newspapers. But Queen Elizabeth II, as she reflects on her visit to the UAE, may take comfort in the public reaction to an English bishop's harsh comments about the engagement of her grandson Prince William to Kate Middleton.

Pete Broadbent, the bishop of the London suburb of Willesden, wrote on his Facebook page that he was going to France next year to avoid the "nauseating tosh" of the royal wedding which would cost "an arm and a leg". The royal couple were just a pair of "shallow celebrities" and, given the record of marriages in the House of Windsor, would be divorced in seven years. The Church of England, the bishop's employer, initially said he was entitled to his opinions. But the church misjudged the public mood no less than the bishop. Despite an apology, the bishop was suspended from his duties. These days, it is the outspoken bishop's fate which is uncertain.

The movement to abolish the monarchy - known as republicanism - is always predicted to break through into the mainstream of British politics, but it never does. Now, it appears to be in sharp retreat.

The British press has lavished praise on the future Queen Catherine for her poise and elegance. Gone is the mean-spirited carping about her "pushy", "middle class" parents (her father is a retired airline dispatcher and her mother a former air hostess), and they have made a fortune with a party-planning business. Now the consensus is that Kate's entrepreneurial blood will revive the House of Windsor for the next generation.

The Independent newspaper, once a bastion of republicanism, generously acknowledged that supporters of the monarchy remained a majority. "The coming marriage provides the best guarantee that the institution will continue into a new generation as the force for stability that it has been during Queen Elizabeth II's long reign." Commentators on the left are fulminating at what they call a "new age of sycophancy". But the media have good reason to salute the royal marriage.

Prince William, however, hates the press and blames it for causing the death of his mother Diana, in a car crash in Paris when pursued by a pack of paparazzi. Without doubt, she was hounded in a way that would not be tolerated now.

This is not to say that the British people as a whole venerate the institution of monarchy. They are more pragmatic. It is the individuals, not the institution, who inspire respect. Even the most ardent republican could not deny that the Queen has devoted herself tirelessly to the job which was thrust on her at the age of 25 when her father, King George VI, died in 1952. It has been an unyielding life of service.

Mrs Middleton, Kate's mother, is a more modern figure. In her first meeting with the press, she declared: "I have to be true to myself." This simple phrase suggests she is confident she will not be crushed by tradition, but can bring the royal family into the 21st century.

There are reasons beyond personality for the preservation of the monarchy. Britain is entering a new age of austerity as it struggles to clear a mountain of debt accumulated by the previous Labour government. This is the legacy of "Cool Britannia", the principle that everything old and stuffy about Britain should be swept away in favour of the new and the flashy. Now that the bill has to be paid, there is less enthusiasm for grand projects of change.

All republican schemes fall down on the issue of who would be ceremonial president of the United Kingdom. Would such a person devote themselves as selflessly as the Queen to opening provincial hospitals? Would anyone notice if they did? Inevitably, it would be some superannuated politician. But politicians, when they fall from power, are held in such low regard in Britain these days that we just want to see the back of them.

Republicans, either in Britain or Australia or Canada (where the Queen is still monarch), have failed to convince the people that electing a president would be better than preserving the status quo. This is the breakwater against which the waves of republicanism dash.

The coming two years, with a royal wedding in April and the Queen's diamond jubilee in 2012, will be a halcyon period for the monarchy.

It is after 2012, with the Queen approaching her 90th birthday, that the family firm - as the Duke of Edinburgh refers to the royal family - will face new challenges. It is quite possible that Prince Charles, the heir apparent, will not ascend to the throne until he is well beyond 70 or approaching 80. By that time, there will be two generations of future monarchs behind him if William and Kate produce a son.

The hereditary principle is not helped by increasing longevity. The current rules of succession mean that no king or queen is likely to be crowned until he or she reaches old age. The comparison with the final days of the USSR, when a succession of old men struggled up the steps to the top of Lenin's tomb for the annual parades in Red Square, is not a happy one.

Already Prince Charles, at the age of 62, is eclipsed by his son as the focus of media attention. Newspaper polls show a majority of the British would prefer to see William on the throne in place of his father who, for all his charity work and his early espousal of causes such as the environment and conservation that have now become mainstream, does not have television appeal.

The Queen is not going to abdicate, nor is she likely to change the law of succession. In her view, she is God's anointed, to serve until death, not a talent show contestant to be voted off at the whim of the people.

The monarchy has survived the age of revolutions in Europe, the era of the common man and will surely find the means to survive the current challenge.

It is clear that the monarchy will have to be more collegiate. All members will have to work together and work harder to share the duties that the Queen has carried out for decades. In fact, a bit of managerial expertise from a middle-class girl is exactly what the royal family needs.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae