Prince and Princess of Wales need to learn from Scandinavian royals to ensure 'happy and glorious' future – Joyce McMillan

Royals like Harry and Meghan who walk away are reviled, while those who remain show signs of distress and dysfunction

In January of this year, Queen Margrethe of Denmark decided that at the age of 83, after 52 years on the throne, she would retire, and pass on her role as monarch and head of state to her elder son, Fredrik. No great fuss surrounded her decision, although there was a certain amount of dignified ceremony; and a large crowd gathered outside the parliament house in Copenhagen to cheer their new king, after the Prime Minister proclaimed his accession.

Contrary to royalist myth, in other words, Britain is not the only modern European country with a monarchy worth the name; and contrary to republican myth, a hereditary head of state does not automatically leave a country wallowing in an anti-democratic culture of entrenched inequality and mediaeval deference. On the contrary, Denmark is one of the most successful nations on the planet, in terms of equality, prosperity, human development and happiness.

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A debate about the role of heads of state framed in these constitutional and comparative terms, though, seems a world away from most British discourse about the royal family, which generally sees them in one of three ways; as magical symbols of nationhood to be venerated without question, as characters in an ongoing soap-opera, or as relics of a mediaeval feudal system that should be swept away without delay.

Watched by Prince William, the Prince and Princess of Wales try archery at the 3rd Upton Scouts in May last year (Picture: Daniel Leal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Watched by Prince William, the Prince and Princess of Wales try archery at the 3rd Upton Scouts in May last year (Picture: Daniel Leal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Watched by Prince William, the Prince and Princess of Wales try archery at the 3rd Upton Scouts in May last year (Picture: Daniel Leal/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Abysmal debate about UK’s political future

The latest object of this overheated and often polarised conversation is, of course, the Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, whose sudden disappearance from public life, for what was said to be “planned abdominal surgery”, has led to a slowly rising tide of speculation, brought to fever-pitch this week by the release of a Mother’s Day picture of Kate with her children, which proved to have been heavily manipulated. Some have reacted by refusing to take any interest in the story at all; some by banging on about how they know someone who knows someone who knows Kate’s exact medical diagnosis.

Meanwhile, newspapers with a spectacular record of intrusion into other private lives have suddenly declared that Kate should be left to recover in peace. And of course, the whole mood is heightened by the fact that King Charles himself announced last month that he is suffering from a form of cancer, and is currently undergoing treatment.

And what is striking, on this occasion, is just how profoundly unhelpful most of these responses are, both to the individuals involved, and to the already abysmal quality of debate about the political future of the UK. Despite the rhetoric of those who claim that the royal family does not matter at all, the fact is that their function as head of state does matter, constitutionally, legally and symbolically.

At the moment, illness has struck two leading members of the now fairly small group of leading royals; and the public, for whom in theory they work, has every right to know the outline of their medical condition, and what the plans are for meeting their commitments in their absence. King Charles has handled this situation reasonably well, giving some (although not all) details about his cancer, and making it clear that he is well enough to continue with his basic duties, while his wife takes on some of his engagements.

Queen’s life of service

The Prince and Princess of Wales, by contrast, have made an absolute hash of it, remaining secretive about the nature of Kate’s illness, and then making an attempt to release a reassuring picture which went horribly wrong; perhaps, in future, they should make sure that they use a fully professional photographer, when producing images for leading news agencies.

The underlying reason for the difficulty in which they now find themselves, though, lies in their own failure, or that of their advisers, to think clearly about the job they are heavily subsidised to do, and about what they owe the public in return. The late Queen had no difficulty with this, given her strong religious belief that she had been born into a life of service.

Kate and William, though, sometimes seem to feel that they have the same right to privacy as private individuals; when the position they occupy means that they absolutely do not. If they are unable to carry out their duties, they owe the public a simple and truthful outline explanation; and as they are learning to their cost, a phrase as vague as “planned abdominal surgery” simply does not cut the mustard.

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And the fact that the couple on whom the future of he UK monarchy now rests have somehow blundered into this mess inevitably raises – for all but the most worshipful – the question of how long all this can go on. If the UK was able to be a bit more Nordic about its royal family – more rational, more functional, more interested in seriously debating the upsides and downsides of elected heads of state – then the whole business might yet have a future, both in the UK, and in any possible independent Scotland. It seems, though, that for Britain – today as in the 17th century – it’s still either chopping the royals’ heads off, or tolerating levels of magical royal nonsense that seem increasingly absurd and out of time.

Those who walk away – Harry, Meghan, Diana before them – are reviled or despised; while those who remain show increasingly florid signs of distress and dysfunction. And unless the heir apparent and his wife can swallow some of that “thousand-year monarchy” pride, and learn a thing or two from their fellow 21st century royals about how to fulfil the role in a more low-key and sustainable manner, it’s hard to imagine for any of them, or for us, that “happy and glorious” future of which the people of the UK still sing, whenever their national anthem is played.



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