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 phenomenon.

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.