The United Kingdom Time for new monarchy

Linda Colley:

I was in Boston, Massachusetts, when Princess Diana died. We watched the saga of the car-crash and its aftermath unfolding on the TV while most Britons were still asleep. The next day, it was impossible for us to speak without someone rushing over to extend condolences. These kind people just knew we must be grieving. And when we eventually returned home, it was to find that the tapes on our answering machines were exhausted, so full were they with requests from the US media for interviews and information on the British royal family.

Last week was not like that. To be sure, the announcement that Prince Charles and Camilla were to marry received widespread coverage in American newspapers and news shows. But the engagement was not a lead story, and any interest in the matter seems quickly to have receded. In the words of one contributor to the Detroit News: “Royalty is so retro.” Yet such laid-back scorn is not the only reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Many Americans remain interested in royal goings-on in general, and not just because of their soap-opera appeal.

Britain functions as Americans’ defining “other”. Consequently, dwelling on Britain’s monarchy acts as a way for Americans to vaunt their own republicanism and reputed egalitarianism. When Americans compliment the British on their traditions and long history, what most of them are really saying is that we are fusty, finished and hide-bound, while they are innovatory and masters of the present.

Since harping on about the British monarchy serves patriotic, self-promoting function for Americans, and since Charles and Diana are still selling lots of books and providing subjects for docudramas, why the apparent lack of interest in Charles and Camilla? The answer seems obvious enough. Here, as in Britain, the central actors in this particular royal drama are deemed too middle aged to be worth much attention. Victoria Mather (of the London Daily Telegraph and Vanity Fair) made the point with cruelty on a TV show. Camilla was “a 58-year-old bag”, she told the viewers. Fortunately, she continued, the lady was not planning to marry in white: otherwise “she’d look like one of those great big bits of ice that have just fallen off the Antarctic.”

There are at least three things wrong with this kind of polemic. First, ageism of this sort should be beyond the pale. To attack someone on the airwaves for being 58 and un-photogenic is no different in essence and no better than making fun of individuals on the grounds of their skin colour or limited physical mobility. Second, such a concentration on individuals and their frailties gets in the way of deeper and more important issues. Prince Charles’s marital adventures and difficulties all stem in part from one of the besetting, structural challenges confronting the house of Windsor and other royal dynasties: the changing status and roles of women.

Traditionally, royal females who have not had the luck to become queens regnant have been granted very limited roles. They have been expected to look pretty, be discreet, do charitable good deeds, and — if married to princes or kings — be quietly supportive and, above all, fertile. The problem with all this is clear. Since the second world war, as female expectations and opportunities have risen, becoming a royal woman — and remaining a royal woman — has seemed less and less an attractive proposition.

Those who criticise the Prince of Wales personally for their romantic misadventures are, then, missing part of the point. Now that more women expect a university education, a job, and their own affairs, there are inevitably far fewer suitable candidates available, willing and able to play the role of docile, fecund princess. The fact that Diana was apparently so close to the traditional mould and yet still could not tolerate the position of full-time royal female for very long, only underlines how challenging the problem is. And this of course explains some of the appeal of Camilla. She comes from a family that has supplied discreet female royal companions before. Moreover, women of her generation and background do not automatically expect independent careers and interests. She is, in other words, one of the few females still around who could be said to be made for the role she is set to occupy — and, crucially, who wants it.

But there is a third reason, in regard to Charles and Camilla, why we need to go beyond the “they’re so middle-aged” mantra. There are now a substantial minority of Britons who favour a republic. Yet even if a majority thought this way, it is hard to see how a British republic could be achieved in practice. Would the crowd storm Buckingham Palace and drag its inmates off to the scaffold? Would parliament vote to pass legislation dismantling the monarchy? Would the House of Windsor dismantle itself and go into exile or private life in the English countryside? At present, the answer to all these questions must be a resounding no.

What one can feasibly hope for though is a modestly useful, firmly-in-the-background, inoffensive monarchy. And, in this regard, this new, middle-aged royal wedding may well have a wider public and political value. Diana’s glamour, and the media’s exploitation of it, obsessed and infantilised the British public. This time it will be different and better. In 21st century, democratic, post-imperial, culturally diverse and ever more European Britain, a non-glamorous, non-splendid, emphatically middle-aged monarchy may be all to the good. — The Guardian