Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 23 April 2015

Two occasions to remind us how lucky we are to have a proper royal family

Long life | 23 April 2015
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There are already people camping outside St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, to await the birth shortly of another royal baby, the second child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It is hardly a very exciting event. Babies are born all the time, and there are already quite enough descendants of the Queen to ensure the survival of the Windsor dynasty on the throne of the United Kingdom for a long time to come. Yet there are many people in this country for whom this commonplace event will be more thrilling than the forthcoming general election, even though it could presage the dismemberment of the country itself. The British monarchy continues to enjoy enormous popularity. There may be doubts about the suitability of Prince Charles to succeed to the throne, but latest polls also show that about 70 per cent of the people of Britain still support the institution itself. No other British institution comes close to it in public esteem.

This seems rather weird and juvenile to the citizens of many foreign republics, in particular to those of the United States, a country founded on rejection of the dynastic principle. George Washington was so wary of seeming to be like a king that he wore a plain brown broadcloth suit for his first inauguration in 1789 and quashed an early proposal that his official title should be ‘His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of Their Liberties’.

But even from its birth the United States, the land of equal opportunity for all, showed itself susceptible to the appeal of dynasties. It elected a father and son — John Adams and John Quincy Adams — as its second and sixth presidents; and in more recent times the names Roosevelt and Kennedy have ensured political prominence for members of those families. And what’s true of America has been even truer of India, that other great democratic republic, where politics for most of the time since independence has been dominated by the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty.

But here we are in 2015, and the two leading candidates in the race for the White House are called Bush and Clinton. This might not seem a great advantage. To be called Bush might even seem a liability. Jeb Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, only won the Republican nomination, despite being Ronald Reagan’s anointed successor, because his opponent Bob Dole, who had a withered arm and an ironic wit, was considered ‘mean-spirited’.

H.W. himself was not much admired. He was often characterised as a ‘wimp’ and as ‘looking like every woman’s first husband’, and he freely admitted to having a problem with ‘the vision thing’. He only won the 1988 election because his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, was even more unimpressive than him, and he was humiliatingly ousted four years later in favour of the sleazy but dynamic Bill Clinton by an electorate tired of his woodenness and Episcopalian reserve. Despite this, Clinton was eventually succeeded by H.W.’s son George W., whose record was to say the least controversial. But has this damaged Jeb’s prospects? It would appear not.

Bill Clinton is a more plausible founder of a political dynasty: he was and is much more popular than any person called Bush. But he ended his presidency mired in scandal — Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Monicagate, and so on. You’d think all that could count against his wife as she launches her campaign to be the ‘champion of everyday Americans’, and doubtless it will be used against her as the battle heats up. Also, her own record, both as First Lady and as secretary of state under Barack Obama, is not much to write home about. But even this negative legacy, like that of the Bushes, is apparently more than offset by the comfort Americans draw from their familiarity.

The great strength of a monarchy is that it satisfies the public’s urge for the familiarity and continuity of a dynasty without distorting the democratic system. We’ve had political families in Britain — Cecils, Churchills, Chamberlains, Asquiths, Benns, and so on — but rarely has any one of them held power for more than a generation. We don’t need them to. We are happy with the boring old Windsors, and we like the way they keep politicians in their place.