Here in Britain we have rather marvelled at the welcome our Australasian cousins have given the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their infant son. Occasionally, since the monarchy referendum in 1999, we have read stories about the alleged rise in republicanism in Australia, and even how New Zealand is thinking of redesigning its flag to remove atavistic references to the Mother Country. Modern and advanced countries, long self-governing and autonomous, on the other side of the world, should not be expected to subscribe to such a relic of medievalism. However, it now seems that medievalism is rather popular in those countries that have chosen to maintain their historic ties to Britain by, among other things, sharing its head of state and taking her as their own.
Yet this is medievalism with a modern twist. The Cambridges may have an appeal entirely contingent upon an accident of birth, but unlike earlier ages in the history of the hereditary principle, their lot is not to receive deference. It is to perform, to act in what Arnold Bennett once called ‘the great cause of cheering us all up’. Wherever they go they represent something ancient, more ancient than the polities they visit, more ancient then even most people in an old country such as Britain can comprehend. That is part of their appeal; as is the label of royalty, that peculiarly European idea that has gained such impressive footholds outside Europe even as it has dwindled on the old continent itself.
But what really provides their selling point is a hybrid confection tailored brilliantly to the needs of the early 21st century, be it in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain. The Cambridges represent not just the glamour of hereditary royalty, nor the intoxicating attraction of celebrity, but something far more exciting and addictive: hereditary celebrity.
An important part of this appeal, and something the Duke of Cambridge has that distinguishes him even from his father the Prince of Wales, and certainly from his grandmother the Queen, is a sense of studied ordinariness. There is a grandeur about the Prince of Wales that sets him apart from the people over whom he will one day reign. It can be summed up by the story current a decade or so ago that he had a valet one of whose jobs was to put toothpaste on the Royal brush each morning and evening. The Queen, who is notoriously frugal and down-to-earth — she has Tupperware on her breakfast table to keep her cereal, once opened, from going off — has maintained an essential distance from her people, never giving interviews, never expressing a political opinion, maintaining a reserve that has caused her to be regarded as a sort of deity. That was how she was brought up to do things: the Cambridges are very different.
They are more like film stars than royalty, following to an extent the template set by the Duke’s late mother. Certainly, media starved for the last 17 years of the glamour of the late Diana, Princess of Wales are lapping up the progress of her son, his wife and their child. But then the Cambridges act with an ease that makes it nearly impossible for even the sharpest and most cynical critic to land a glove on them, and which seems (for the moment, at any rate) to invite adulation. There is no side to them. The Duke is free of pomposity or regard for his rank. His wife is the jolly girl from the English home counties who played hockey at school and took with stoicism the years of prurient interest in her by the press as she, and they, waited for the moment when Prince William might ask her to marry him. They were the thinking man’s Brad and Angelina and caused even more excitement.
Bagehot talked a century and a half ago about monarchy being acceptable to the English (and, by extension, to anyone else who wished to subscribe to it) because the idea of ‘a family on the throne’ was easily comprehensible to them. So it remains: but modern celebrities such as the Cambridges are easily comprehensible to people too, and the comprehensibility forestalls any awkward questions about the legitimacy of such a hereditary institution in a democratic age.
Yet most film stars have had remarkable ordinary upbringings, with extraordinary talent or a lucky break making the difference between obscurity and fame. So it was with the Duchess of Cambridge, and the unthreatening manner she brings before the public is the secret of her considerable success and popularity. The Duke seems to be happy to allow her to take the limelight, treating her with a consideration and deference that was not inevitably the case in the relationship between his own mother and father. It is all as it should be; it strikes a chord with all who see it — apart from the professionally cynical — as exactly how their royalty, their celebrities, should behave. The result is not deference as medieval, or even early 20th century, royalty would have understood it, but it is deference all the same. The simple fact of existence demanded that deference; now, the performance commands it. Everybody is happy, because expectations on both sides have been satisfied.
Doubtless, what it takes to make people identify with those who provide some sort of leadership for them changes from generation to generation. Royalty can never be ‘one of us’; but what must change is the degree of distance. There is a sincerity about the Cambridges that causes genuine happiness among those who observe them. It contrasts with the rank opportunism of so many in the political class, which itself helps explain much of the modern appeal of monarchy. In Britain, the Queen and the Prince of Wales emerged from a period of public disapproval after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales not least because of mounting disgust among the British people with the administration of Tony Blair. As loathing of the political class in Britain has risen, so too has its respect for the Royal family and the public service it performs, and performs from a sense of duty rather than any possibility of gain or advancement.
The Cambridges are living up to the public’s evolved expectations of them: living up to them wherever they go in the world. Hereditary celebrity seems to work. And far be it from an Englishman to make assumptions about the Australian cousinry, but the relationship that has been established between Australia and the monarchy seems to have buried republicanism for a few more decades yet.
Simon Heffer is a former deputy editor of The Spectator and author of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House).