Britain´s Brilliantly Powerless Monarchy

24.07.13 Publication:

I must admit I was
a bit surprised. Yesterday I was having my hair cut, in my small village in the
English countryside, and the elderly lady in the chair next to me asked a
question: “Why on earth is there so much fuss about the royal baby? Surely
there’s nothing really to say about it, is there?” She was right, even if the
question was a surprise in quite a traditional, even conservative part of
England. But even so it is quite clear: Britain’s royal baby is a worldwide

Of course, even a hardened old republican like
me knew there was going to be interest. After all, at least a hundred million
people around the world watched the wedding of Prince William and Kate
Middleton two years ago, on TV and YouTube, and a great show it was too. Still,
to see their baby leading news bulletins in countries all around the world, and
on the front pages of newspapers, even without a single new photograph of the
parents, grandparents or the baby boy, remains quite striking.

A century and a half ago a writer and economist
called Walter Bagehot, who was the greatest of all editors-in-chief of The Economist wrote a book called “The
English Constitution” which has remained a basic textbook on British government
ever since, but especially on the role of the monarchy. In it, he made a famous
recommendation: “Do not let daylight in upon magic”.

In other words, the royal family needed to
remain mysterious and rather elusive if they were to retain their popular
appeal. We should not know too much about them. In the modern world of
communications, of ubiquitous paparazzi, of television, of social media, this
is no longer possible or even desirable. But an element of it remains true, and
helps explain this week’s baby-mania.

Probably the crucial asset the British monarchy
has is scarcity. There is plenty of glamour in today’s world, and even lots of
history. But Hollywood stars are produced in quite large quantities. Glamour
can meet history and political power, as in the case of Carla Bruni, but her
time as first lady of France was strictly limited. What there is a shortage of
is real princes and princesses.

Well, in a way there isn’t. Europe has ten
monarchies in all, and plenty of them have large families. One of the worst
periods for the British royal family in terms of public relations came in the
1980s and 1990s when Queen Elizabeth’s four children all were married and had
children, all took quite prominent public roles, all were supported by
taxpayers’ money, and all but one became divorced.

Then the smartest thing our royals did was cut down
the number among them who are seen in public, as well as cutting the number
receiving direct subsidies from the public purse. So having been rather
over-supplied, the market became scarce again.

Until yesterday, there were just seven royals who are
in the public eye, and one of them—Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband—is 92
years old and so mainly gathers attention for his health. Another, Prince
Charles’s second wife Camilla, tries her best to keep a fairly low profile. So
that leaves just Queen Elizabeth, her heir Charles, his sons William and Harry,
and Kate. And now the newborn.

Of course, there is more to explain. Why should the
British royal family get so much more attention than the Swedish, Dutch,
Norwegian or Belgian monarchies? The abdication this week of Belgium’s King
Albert was completely overshadowed by the new British baby. History, the
English language, the continued existence of the Commonwealth much of which
considers Elizabeth to be its queen too, and powerful global media must have a
lot to do with it.

There are, though, two other important elements. Both
are features of the accidental genius of the British monarchy. The first is
that it is virtually powerless. Indeed, as Walter Bagehot foresaw, the key
strength of British monarchs is that they are purely “decorative”: their
position would be threatened the moment they appeared to hold, or try to
exercise, any power whatsoever.

This means that the scarce glamour of British royalty
is unsullied by political controversy. Prince Charles has occasionally sought
to rally opinion around causes such as organic food (he is a special fan of
Carlo Petrini and Slow Food) or classical architecture, but he shies away the
moment a cause risks becoming party-political.

The second feature of this accidental genius is
related. It is that, so far, the British royal family have maintained an image
of integrity. Members have been unfaithful to their wives or husbands, badly
behaved or just embarrassing. But so far, none has been accused of corruption.
The recent disgrace of the son-in-law of King Juan Carlos of Spain shows how
dangerous this is. Being powerless helps. Having funds that come from historic
land-holdings rather than directly from British taxpayers also helps.

And so it is that a baby boy, who is only third in
line to a powerless throne, whose name is not known and whose picture has not
been seen, has been born as a worldwide celebrity. Quite baffling to me and the
lady in my hairdresser’s, but there
it is.