Long Live Queens And Kings
INthe early 1990s, soon after Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, its small royalist party sent a message to Britain’s Prince Edward inviting him to come and be their king. “Your background as an actor and television producer would be ideal to create the majesty a new king would require to combine ancient culture with modern political reality,” it said, apparently without irony. Maybe they had never seen Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest son on stage.
The offer remained just that, showing how far we have come from the 19th century, when revolutions and the emergence of new countries meant plenty of opportunities for royal ‘spares’ such as Edward to be given a realm of their own abroad. Yet while no new thrones have been created in Europe since World War II – with the exception of the restoration of Spain’s Bourbon dynasty after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco – its remaining monarchies continue to go strong, and not just in Britain.
The celebrations marking the Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, culminating in a grand pageant on the Thames, is proof that no one does pomp quite like the British monarchy – as if such proof were needed after last April’s wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Yet Britons often forget that nine other countries in Europe – Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Luxembourg and the postage-stamp principalities of Liechtenstein and Monaco – are also presided over by hereditary rulers who play an equally central role in the life of their respective countries. So how does this apparently anachronistic institution endure, especially in some of Europe’s most progressive countries? Part of the appeal is precisely events like the Jubilee: More than just an excuse for a party, they bring a swell of patriotic pride to all but a minority whose aversion to hereditary privilege outweighs all else.
They also serve as a reminder of the continuity that a queen such as Elizabeth, with her 60 years of experience, can bring to a nation.
Opinion polls in Britain show support for the monarchy has been fairly steady at 69 to 72 percent over the past two decades – ratings an elected politician would die for – with the republican cause languishing on 15 to 22 percent.
Contrast that with Germany, where the last two presidents – whose largely ceremonial role is in many ways similar to that of a constitutional monarch – were both obliged to resign before completing their terms. Or with Italy, where the presidents’ political pasts have often led to tension with their governments. Groups such as Britain’s Republic and its counterparts elsewhere in Europe that agitate for an end to monarchy face an overwhelming problem: The system works.
The British royal family is currently helped by the fact that matters on the personal front are going well. The Jubilee will mark the high point of what in retrospect will be seen as a rare golden era. All that’s needed now is a baby for William and Kate. The multiple horrors of the queen’s ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 – when the marriages of three royal children broke up and Windsor Castle caught fire – and of subsequent years are like a barely remembered nightmare. This year should go down in history instead as an annus mirabilis.
Yet history shows that for every period when everything appears to go right for royalty there is another when the reverse is true. Some of the continental monarchies that watched with bemused detachment as the House of Windsor was ripped apart by the public collapse of the marriage of Charles and Diana in the mid- 1990s are facing some embarrassing questions themselves these days, ranging from Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden’s penchant for dubious nightclubs to the alleged philandering of Spain’s Juan Carlos. And the less said about the marriage of Albert II of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock, the former Olympic swimmer, the better.
In the meantime, a shadow has been cast over the Dutch royal family by a skiing accident in February that has left Queen Beatrix’s second son, Johan Friso, in a coma from which it is feared he may never recover.
Yet the pendulum can – and will – swing back over time. The crises in Spain and Sweden will fade, while the eventual end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth – still in robust health at 86 – will present the British monarchy with new challenges.
The prospect of a King Charles III is viewed with little enthusiasm by many who would prefer for the crown to skip a generation. They will be disappointed.
After a life of speaking out on issues dear to his heart, from the efficacy of homeopathic medicine to the scourge of modern architecture, will Charles be able to keep his views to himself, as his mother has done so successfully throughout her reign? And what of the republican movements in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which are among the 15 so-called sovereign realms that also have the British monarch as their head of state? Charles’s accession would be the perfect moment to sever what many see as an anachronistic link with the former mother country.
Even Britain’s love affair with Prince William will not endure forever, once he, like his father before him, has to struggle with the challenge of filling the non-job of Prince of Wales and heir apparent. And how long before his younger brother, Harry, metamorphoses into unpopular Uncle Andrew, whose prodigious expenses have made him an easy target for the tabloids? Let the British royal family enjoy their annus mirabilis. The good times won’t last forever. Yet monarchy itself just might.