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The weight of expectation

Even before the baby is born, the spotlight’s been turned on William and Kate, writes Simon Jenkins.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2012 23:02 IST

I have no opinion on hyperemesis gravidarum. Maternity couture is not my forte. As for the logistics of twins as heirs to the throne, I leave that to the department of angels on pinheads.

Yet after so much relentless bad news, we gulp down anything heart-warming like parched travellers stumbling into an oasis. In mid-recession, Britain went ecstatic when William and Kate wed. It cooed with pleasure over a royal jubilee. ‘Olympic heroes’ sent it weak at the knees. Now comes a royal pregnancy.

On Monday, every office, shop floor, canteen and playground was uplifted, or so the media told us. David Cameron emerged from Downing Street for his Tony Blair royal moment. He said he was “absolutely delighted”, over and again.

This is the danger of media simplification. When front pages used all to carry a dozen news stories, the world’s ups and downs tended to cancel each other out. Tabloidisation has turned this into a single daily headbang, one dominant story, overwritten and slammed in front of the reader’s eyes to the exclusion of all else.

The prospective birth of a third in line to the throne is significant, since the constitution requires the headship of the British State to be inherited. What is not given is that those down that line of inheritance, and their potential children, be accorded such massive fame. Britain is exceptional in treating its monarchy as a royal collective.

Republicanism has failed to dent the emotional attachment of the English to constitutional monarchy. But that attachment has never been unqualified. When monarchy does not play ball with democracy, it is monarchy that is in trouble. It wobbled during the parliamentary crisis of 1910 and on the abdication of 1936. It wobbled, briefly, after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Wobbling opens the usual can of worms, such as why not female inheritance and why not a Catholic or an atheist.

Who is monarch must not matter. Inheritance is a security against monarchical power, since its indefensibility ensures the powerlessness of the head of State. By being random in age, merit or inclination, it detaches the head of State from all claim to influence. The monarch has no constitutional potency. The Prince of Wales can say what he likes. He does not award planning permission or run the National Health Service. The body politic is robust enough to stand a few eccentric occupants of the constitutional display case.

When kings and queens mattered, royal babies were serious tokens of national continuity. Since their sovereignty was beyond dispute, they were the crown in flesh and blood. Today an heir to the throne is a mere echo of that continuity. He or she embodies custom and practice, history, nationhood, much as do the crown jewels, Buckingham Palace and the houses of parliament. It doesn’t matter if the heir is a boy or a girl, a giant or an imp, a genius or a fool. It should not matter if it is Protestant or Catholic, gay or heterosexual. Monarchy is just the way Britons have long chosen to express their inanimate throne, largely because it would look empty otherwise.

The resulting pressures on the family members are well documented. Few couples can stand the weight of expectation — to be ecstatically happy — loaded on to them by celebrity status. In the case of Prince William and his wife, the ‘wait’ to ascend the throne, under the gaze of the entire world, stretches ahead like a ghastly obstacle course.

A ‘royal family’ was the biggest risk run by the British monarchy in modern times. The ferocity of the spotlight helped undermine three royal marriages. Now the same terrible glare is being turned on the next young couple, and what seems to be a difficult pregnancy. We can smile and wish them well. But it is not morning sickness that this family has most to fear, it is the demons that follow.

The Guardian