Michael Valpy: Pity Baby Cambridge, and a life of media drool
Being royal in the smartphone age will almost certainly take the mystique out of the monarchy
The Queen, not known as a jolly knees-up-Mother-Brown person, is unlikely to be getting off on the tasteless merchandising pandemic and media celebrity drool enveloping the birth of her great-grandson and heir to her 16 thrones. (Although the gift shops at Buckingham and Kensington Palaces are flogging their own line of baby sleepers.)
But having spent more than 60 years dissecting how a monarchy should be maintained, no doubt some times in despair, she may well have concluded that indecorum and noise are necessary and even welcome protections. If they can be properly managed.
The celebrity hoopla surrounding the arrival of Baby Cambridge — the world's most famous baby as the Washington Post has declared — is what the fantasy of monarchy is all about (compounded by Neil Postman's dictum that, by the means of modern communications media, we're all bent on amusing ourselves to death).
Irish social anthropologist Declan Quigley, an academic expert on monarchy who taught Prince William at Scotland's St. Andrew's University, says a king or queen — and by extension Baby Cambridge, third in line — is not considered to be ordinary but an extraordinary being by the rest of the community.
"A king simply cannot be an ordinary person, and modern attempts to look like the rest of us make a nonsense of the installation ritual," says Quigley. "The more like one of us the sovereign becomes, the less there is any reason for having a sovereign."
Which will have republicans declaring that Prof. Quigley has just demonstrated the absurdity of monarchy. But, in fact, he's demonstrated how it works.
The danger of mystique
A constitutional monarch, as Canadian historian Jacques Monet has written, holds the great fire extinguisher of the Constitution, to be used when politicians violate the fundamentals of our democracy.
But for constitutional fire extinguishers to be recognized and respected, they must be brightly coloured and highly visible — as the Queen and her heirs are.
So yes, lots of noise and hoopla enhancing the visibility of Prince William's and Kate's first-born and confirming the magic of monarchy.
But there's a danger here.
The Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot declared that, for monarchy to work, it must also have "mystique." As he put it, "We must not let daylight in upon magic" — in other words, the Sovereign and her heirs cannot be made to look like the rest of us.
Yet modern communications technology threatens the aura of mystery that legitimizes the Crown, and the numbers grow every year of those with the opportunity and the technology to invade the royal domain and strip the monarchy of the illusions of dignity. Think cellphone hacking (Prince William and Prince Charles), long-distance photo lenses (topless Catherine), smartphone cameras (naked Prince Harry).
Royal biographer Andrew Morton has made the interesting calculation that if the lifespans of the late Queen Mother, the Queen and Prince Philip are inherited by their offspring, the Queen will rule until 2027, Charles's reign will last until 2039 and William will rule until 2073, with Baby Cambridge taking over at age 60.
That's a long time to hold on to the magic of monarchy without letting in daylight.
The Queen has done it; she has made monarchy her life. William, though, has indicated he intends to be a different kind of sovereign from his grandmother.
After a French magazine published photographs of his topless wife sunbathing, Prince William angrily declared that he was entitled to a private life.
Surmised Morton: "Essentially he believes that he is able to clock on and off as a prince. We are seeing the monarchy evolving from a sacred calling — which is how the Queen sees it — to a serious job, but a job nonetheless."
Maybe. Let's imagine what kind of life lies ahead for the son of William and Kate — school years, university years, first dates, first serious love affairs, first drug experiments, first drunken nightclub parties, tens of thousands of public appearances with their hideous opportunities for mis-speaks.
Can daylight be kept out of the magic through all that?
Kings emerged out of the earliest mists of history as sacred figures often designated to suffer for their people's well-being as ritual scapegoats (although kingship itself comfortably survived).
But, in modem democracies, as Quigley notes, royals are scapegoated because of how marginal their ritual function is to society's wellbeing and to the actual devices of political legitimization.
Thus driven by our demand to be endlessly entertained by the intimate details of royal lives — to let 24/7 daylight in upon the magic of a family who are ritually at the very centre of national society and yet must be removed from it — the contemporary invasion of the media threatens to push the institution over the edge rather than reinvigorate it.
Scapegoating is an element of all modern political systems, says Quigley, but monarchy is too fragile, too mythological and symbolic simply to become one more victim among others in the modern addiction to open up what was previously hidden.
Once the royals are sacrificed to exposure, there will be no more royals. In other words, a tough life ahead for Baby Cambridge.