Joyce McMillan: What royal baby worship tells us about Britain

It would be mean-minded not to be glad for Prince Harry and Meghan over the birth of their son Archie (Picture: Chris Allerton/SussexRoyal via Getty Images)It would be mean-minded not to be glad for Prince Harry and Meghan over the birth of their son Archie (Picture: Chris Allerton/SussexRoyal via Getty Images)
It would be mean-minded not to be glad for Prince Harry and Meghan over the birth of their son Archie (Picture: Chris Allerton/SussexRoyal via Getty Images)
Democratic maturity in the UK may require the Mountbatten Windsors to be given their marching orders, but don’t expect it any time soon, writes Joyce McMillan.

Ah, royalty. Amid the gloom and chaos of Brexit, here they come, with their celebrity radiance and endless fertility, presenting another beautiful new royal baby to the cameras, as a welcome distraction from uglier news. Only the terminally mean-minded will fail to be glad for Prince Harry and Meghan as they become parents; in different ways, both had difficult young lives, and their moment of joy is not to be grudged.

It is not their fault if large sections of the British media (and indeed of the British people) tend to lose their wits at the very mention of a royal infant, producing eight-page wrap-around supplements and spread after spread of pictures, as if little Archie – only seventh in line to the throne – were automatically destined to become a figure of historical note.

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I recall being stuck in an airport lounge, near a television, on the day in 2013 when the Duchess of Cambridge emerged from hospital with her first baby, Prince George, and watching in horror as a team of erstwhile respectable journalists spent several waiting hours trawling the crowd of mainly elderly royal enthusiasts for anyone with anything coherent to say at all. If more vacuous nonsense has ever been talked in the course of a single broadcast, then I will cheerfully eat a copy of the Daily Telegraph royal baby pull-out; and as for BBC Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchell’s momentary meltdown on Monday evening, as he struggled for words in front of Buckingham Palace, it was hard not to feel that he had, inadvertently or not, summed up the situation to perfection.

Yet the fact is that however much republicans wish that it were not so – and however empty-headed most British coverage of the royal family may be – there are still interesting things to be said about the persistence of royalty in the modern world, and what it means. In Britain and Ireland, there is a tradition of republican discourse – naturally strong in the Scottish National Party – which identifies Britain’s monarchy as a symbol of an empire-building state which was always loosely cobbled together out of four nations, which required huge amounts of imperial mythology to sustain it, and which has now signally failed to reform itself for a more democratic age; and in the case of UK, there is plenty of evidence to support that view, not so much in the conduct of the monarchy itself – which often seems to understand more about modern devolved Britain than the Westminster government does – as in the bizarrely reverential attitude to it of so many British establishment figures and institutions.

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The fact is, though, that Britain is far from being the only modern developed nation with a monarchy. Of the EU’s current 28 members, seven are monarchies, with Norway providing an eighth example of successful monarchy in western Europe. In most of those countries – which include, in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, three of the most egalitarian and successful social democracies on Earth – support for the continuation of the monarchy runs at between 70 and 80 per cent; and even in Spain – where the post-1975 monarchy began as a symbol of the return of democracy after the death of Franco, but has now, in the current Catalan crisis, drifted into a more reactionary position – more than half of voters still support the institution. And if we look beyond Europe, it’s clear that there is no direct relationship between the existence of monarchy and backward-looking or oppressive government; indeed the countries with the most illiberal regimes tend not to be monarchies, but – like Brazil, Russia, Turkey and the Philippines – populist democracies with elected Presidents who assume quasi-monarchical powers.

There is therefore something more complex going on, in the world of modern monarchy, than the mere festival of right-wing reaction that some exasperated British republicans will detect this week. In the end, every country must have a head of state to symbolise the nation. In every case, however modest the individual, that person will achieve some celebrity, carry some glamour, and command some loyalty, as the representative of a whole people; and if we look – as British exceptionalists so often fail to do – beyond these shores, we can see a world of nations coping in a range of ways with this need for symbolic representation, and with the fame it brings. Some countries – Ireland, Finland, Germany – work well with an elected head of state whose role is ceremonial, and clearly separated from that of the head of government. Some – France, the United States – have survived so far with constitutions that combine the roles of head of state and head of government in a single elected presidency, although the dangers are increasingly obvious.

And elsewhere, hereditary monarchy continues to play its symbolic part; but usually by clear invitation of the people, as part of a broadly republican constitution. At its best, a well-regulated hereditary monarchy can perhaps provide a point of calm amid the hurly-burly of politics, a symbol of continuity, and of the basic principles of the state; it also offers a national reflection, however wealthy or atypical, of those human and family moments – including childbirth – that, in the end, matter most to most of us.

There is a world of difference, though, between representing the nation, and claiming a kind of royal monopoly on the magic, beauty and charisma that should, in a good society, be inherent in every human life. It may well be that the British habit of deference to, and mystical reverence for, the monarchy, is just too profound for the nation’s good; and that the country – or countries – will only achieve full democratic maturity when the Mountbatten Windsors are finally given their marching orders.

Yet still, the strange and varied recent history of monarchy in Europe suggests that that evolution towards republicanism is not as simple as some on the left would argue; and that in the search for individuals or families to represent whole nations, all systems are so imperfect that the one that gave us this week’s outbreak of baby-worship over little Archie Windsor may not be for the guillotine, any time soon.