(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 31.)
You don’t have to be an ardent royal watcher (I’m not) to have noticed that there has been a striking change in the family dynamics of the Windsor whanau.The events surrounding the royal birth confirm that the new generation of royals refuses to be tied by the hidebound traditions of the past – and good on them for that.
There were a number of pointers which, individually, may have seemed insignificant. But taken together, they added up to a significant break from the stuffy dictates of Buckingham Palace protocol.Take the announcement of the royal birth. In one of those eccentric rituals so beloved by the British, tradition decreed that a letter announcing the birth be forwarded from the hospital to the monarch, after which a bulletin would be posted on a gilded easel outside the palace. Instead, a press release went out by social media.
The royal couple’s first visitors were Kate’s parents, who turned up at the hospital in a London taxi. In previous generations, this would have been seen as an unthinkable act of impertinence. Someone from the royal family – probably Prince Charles – would have had first visiting rights.The Middletons, after all, are mere commoners. But Kate is obviously close to her family and on such occasions, a first-time mother wants her Mum at her side – not a stiff, awkward father-in-law mumbling platitudes, as Charles would surely have done.
When the couple left the hospital, it wasn’t in the back of a chauffeur-driven limo. William placed the baby’s car seat in the back of a Range Rover then got behind the wheel and drove himself, just as any new father might have done (except that most new fathers can’t afford a Range Rover).Royal observers also noted that when the couple of emerged, it was Kate who carried the baby. In 1981, when the one-day-old William was presented in public for the first time on the same hospital steps, it was Charles who held him – leaving no room for doubt as to who was foremost in the parental pecking order. William and Kate, in contrast, seemed to be signalling that theirs is a marital partnership between equals.
Perhaps most important, the new addition to the royal family has not been handed over into the care of nannies, as was the fate of so many of his predecessors. It appears his parents are determined to raise him in a domestic setting that’s as close to normality as the dictates of royal life will allow.William will take the statutory two weeks’ paternity to leave to which any new father in Britain is entitled, then get back to work.
There’s a profound generational change taking place here. William and his younger brother Harry seem determined to do things their own way, rather than be governed by rigid precedents and pushed around by fussy courtiers. And who can blame them?The contrast between Prince Charles and his sons is striking. Charles is stiff and pompous, though you sometimes get the impression he desperately wants not to be. He seems incapable of exhibiting any spontaneity. He was an old fogey by the age of 21and seems imprisoned in the role history and tradition has assigned him.
His sons, by contrast, are relaxed and strikingly ordinary. They dress casually and speak with a neutral, middle-class accent. In fact Harry sometimes seems determined to sound like a working-class Eastender.It’s as if the two brothers have made a conscious decision to repudiate, as far as they reasonably can, the trappings of privilege and tradition. Whatever your opinion of the monarchy as an institution (and bear in mind it’s not the fault of William and Harry that they were born into it), they surely deserve some respect for that.
They also deserve the gratitude of the older royals for helping to restore the image of the Windsors after the family sank dangerously and deservedly low in the public esteem.While the Queen has been unfailingly conscientious in discharging her public duties, her children let “the firm” down badly. Princess Anne and the useless Prince Andrew both had disastrous marriages – Anne to a philanderer who fathered a child in an extramarital affair with a New Zealander, Andrew to the erratic Sarah Ferguson, who turned out to have an unfortunate weakness for wealthy American businessmen.
Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana unravelled even more spectacularly. Bullied into the marriage by his domineering father, according to some accounts, he chose his much younger bride largely on the basis, it seems, of her breeding potential. (“At least she’ll breed some height into the line,” Prince Philip reportedly remarked.)It was a cynical marriage of convenience. All along, Charles was in love with another woman. He should consider himself extraordinarily lucky that the British public seems to have forgiven him for being a cad.
The public emotion that erupted after Diana’s death, and in particular the anger and bewilderment over the Windsors’ apparent indifference to the tragedy, shook the royal family to its core.From that time on, the royals became noticeably more responsive to public opinion. Perhaps they realised that although unelected, they were still ultimately accountable to the people.
The Queen has since adopted a warmer, less aloof persona. She can take much of the credit for the fact that the royal family has regained the popularity it lost in the 1990s.But William and Harry, too, have helped rehabilitate the Windsors in the public eye. They have made the family look human.
Given that the two brothers experienced the trauma of their mother’s death at a sensitive age, and saw at close quarters how cold and clannishly self-protective the royal family could be, it’s remarkable that they have emerged so well-balanced.They could have been excused for rebelling against the stifling, tradition-bound environment they were born into. Instead they seem to have made the sensible decision to deal with it on their own terms. In doing so, they have showed a lot more character than their father.