Prince George (the future King George VII, long may he reign over us) could, if he was able to talk, be forgiven for complaining about all the photos of him in a lacy dress. Almost every front page in the country, the day after his christening, bore a photo of the three month old child. In each photo he gazes into the distance, robed in gold, surrounded by smiling royalty. Certain members of the royal family have a habit of appearing in far more embarrassing photographs, so one suspects that the little prince’s dress was never going to cause a stir. Besides, while his uncle has always lived up to the raucous example of his fifth Plantagenet namesake, George is the future King of England so we can expect the media to treat him with a little more respect.
However, while George not ascending the throne when his time comes seems unthinkable to many people now, royalist or otherwise, it is not as unlikely as it seems. As former royal correspondent Christopher Lee has pointed out, Britain is a very different place compared to the conservative, post-war and barely post-colonial world that our current monarch was thrust into. We now know who the royals are, how they behave and to a certain extent, what they think. Sixty years ago such public intrusion into the lives of royalty would have been unheard of.
As Lee observes, while the Queen is beloved by the majority of Britons and is arguably one of the world’s most identifiable brands we know next to nothing about what she thinks. A few diplomatically worded comments at the opening of Parliament aside she very rarely expresses a political opinion in public. Aside from encouraging us to celebrate in times of national triumph or calling on us to pull together in times of national tragedy she rarely makes high profile comments at all. The only time I can recall that she has said anything controversial or out of the ordinary was when she addressed the nation after the death of Diana Spencer. Admittedly I have been alive for less than half of her reign but regardless, it is very rare for her to move outside of her predetermined dual role as the nation’s master of ceremonies and firm shoulder to cry on.
There is good reason for her to avoid departing from this role. If she had spent her reign giving us her personal opinion on the matters of the day, whether she supported the miner’s strike, what her opinion of successive Prime Ministers was and who she thought should have won The Battle of Britpop we’d all love her a lot less. The moment a royal becomes a controversial figure it is easy to remember something that at other times most people conveniently forget. The House of Windsor provides us with an unelected head of state who has direct influence over the government of the day and who, in an era of food banks and rising poverty, is subsidised by the tax payer. The problem for George, although he doesn’t know it yet, is that Elizabeth aside the royals are an increasingly controversial bunch.
The prime example of this is Charles, our next king. He seems determined to continue the unfortunate tradition of monarchs called Charles in the British Isles. While he would probably avoid being executed outside Whitehall like the first English king of his name he is nonetheless an unpopular and decisive figure. Being a country gent with a love of tweed, organic food and upper class sport is no crime; in fact one could even say that Charles is fairly harmless. However, he is set to become King of a country (and let us not forget, the head of a global Commonwealth) that, lest we need reminding, is mostly inhabited by normal, tweed less individuals. Being out of touch with your subjects may be the natural state of most of history’s monarchs but in the 21st century such a gulf between the head of state and the people is no longer subtle. Add Charles’s insistence upon being very public about how he uses his influence over politicians and the idea that Charles will do anything but decrease the popularity of the monarchy is implausible at best.
What of his eldest son? Wills and Kate are by far the most popular royals with the nations young, the people who will most likely be reaching middle age by the time the current Duke of Cambridge becomes the monarch. There is however, a dangerous familiarity between the newest of royal couples and the public. This is not unexpected, given that William is the first future king to be raised in the age of information but, when the coronation comes, will we be able to ignore the fact that the internet can provide us with blurry, long lens photos of the new Queen topless? Perhaps, but there will be no denying that the aloof nature of monarchy will have well and truly crumbled. The real strength of the House of Windsor is its mystery. Without that the staggeringly expensive royal pageants and rolling estates underwritten by public money become distinctly less glossy. While the borderline racist views of Prince Phillip can be shrugged off as the outdated views of a man born in another era would similar pronouncements by a future consort be thought of so kindly? One hopes not. George then may never sit on the throne because his elders may have spoilt the fun for him. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether that would really be a bad thing?