Birth of a Monarch

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge—otherwise known as Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William—is soon to deliver the couple’s first child, an event that has been dubbed “the most anticipated birth since the dawn of Twitter.”

This child, when it does appear, will have precisely one official duty with which to occupy its time:  Waiting for his or her great-grandmother, grandfather and father to die.

When the last of these dreary eventualities finally comes to pass, the “royal baby” will at last assume what had all the time been his or her birthright:  Sitting in a comfy chair and passively waving to the good citizens of Great Britain.

With such exciting prospects for the young whippersnapper, one can understand what all the fuss has been about.

Here in the United States, we have a firmly-entrenched concept known as “American royalty.”  These are our fellow citizens whom we have collectively decided to treat as slightly above us on the cultural food chain—a designation typically earned through a combination of descending from a distinguished family and having good fashion sense.

Ostensibly, we engage in this odd activity to compensate for the fact that America has no actual royalty of its own, as stipulated by our Constitution.

However, rather than explaining away our collective fawning over holier-than-us celebrities, this serves only to beg a further question:  What good is there in doing so in the first place?  Why do we want royalty of any sort?

After all, were America to abruptly fall under an actual heretical dictatorship, with a leader sitting atop his throne until exhaling his final breath, we would find the whole business intolerable—as we did in the latter years of the 18th century, when we decided to turn our backs on the British Empire and give democratic republicanism the old college try.

We fashion ourselves a fake monarchy as a luxury of not having a real one.

What is most robustly demonstrated by our infatuation with the current British Royal Family, from Princess Diana onward, is our related tendency here in the states to generate cult followings for people who are, as the saying goes, “famous for being famous.”  That is, individuals whose cultural prominence seemingly stems from nothing at all and is, accordingly, utterly undeserved.

In point of fact, the British Royal Family—indeed, any royal family—is the perfect and absolute encapsulation of this horrid concept, demonstrated in no finer way than in the present preoccupation with the incoming heir to the throne.

This royal baby, having yet accomplished nothing other than simply existing, shall for a long time be “famous for being famous” by definition.  He or she will be subject to bottomless media coverage from dawn to dusk, from cradle to grave, for no reason except the cosmic accident of having Alfred the Great for a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

This dynamic is no less true for Princes William and Harry, their father Prince Charles, or Her Majesty herself, Queen Elizabeth II.  They are all essentially unremarkable people whose high positions in English society were sealed at the moment of conception.

What makes the tabloid-style worship of the Windsor clan just the slightest bit creepy—particularly in the British Isles themselves, where nearly 80 percent of the citizenry still supports the monarchy as an institution—is because the objects of this affection really are royalty.

Lest we forget, the Queen is officially the head of state, as well as the head of the Church of England.  She could, if she desired, unilaterally dismiss the sitting prime minister and appoint, in his place, anyone her heart desired.  As well, she could declare war on Iran or Syria and later bestow pardons on those who committed atrocities in the process.

In practice, such “royal prerogatives” have fallen almost entirely by the wayside.  The Queen has shown no interest in exercising them, instead delegating all business of government to Parliament.  None of her eventual heirs has indicated any intensions to the contrary.

That is entirely beside the point.  That the monarch declines to assume certain absolute powers does not negate the absurdity of the existence of such powers in the first place.  The real test of the monarchy’s so-called popularity will come when the monarch attempts to assert a level of authority that is, after all, nothing less than his or her birthright.

The magnificence and genius of the American presidency, by contrast, lies not in its great powers, but in its great limitations, which are established and enforced not merely by tradition, but by actual written documents by which the president is legally, constitutionally and morally bound.  If and when he attempts to assume too much authority, Congress and the courts are enjoined to intervene.  This does not always work in practice, but that is the fault of individuals, rather than the system itself.

From all this, what we might say for us in the Anglo-American world, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that we prefer our royalty in name but not in practice, with the maximum of glamour and the minimum of power.  In the name of all that is good and holy, let’s keep it that way.