It’s easy to see why a princely marriage rivets mankind. As Walter Bagehot said 150 years ago, it is a brilliant edition of a universal fact. Even a plain groom looks splendid in a princely uniform, and the pageantry and fanfares of a royal wedding deepen the romanticism of an already highly romantic occasion. But why does a princely birth apparently have an equally riveting impact?
The ceremonial aspects of Monday’s birth of the son of their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were austere in the extreme. Once the baby had been born and the Queen informed, a brief medical communiqué was posted on a board outside Buckingham Palace. One can hardly get less showy than that.
Yet the world immediately plunged into a warm bath of gushing sentimentality.
On the other side of the globe, hardened Australian republicans rushed to CNN International, smiling and cooing, wishing the baby and its wonderful parents well, surrendering to emotions they usually denounce as primitive. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd beamed as uncomplicatedly as any proud grandparent. The Green Party leader, either more principled or less adept, conceded in an embarrassed way that her party was, ahem, opposed to the young prince ever becoming King of Australia. But the Royal Family was wonderful all the same.
From a principled republican standpoint, of course, there is no reason to celebrate the birth of this boy more than that of any other child born Monday. The gushing signifies that either republicans don’t believe their own rationalism, or they know most other people don’t share it. Mr. Rudd was probably moved by the deep emotion that this kid could help win him the forthcoming election. But even that acknowledges that hereditary dynasty has deep popular appeal.
I am too squeamish to follow the cultural anthropologists in their exploration of the psycho-sexual roots of this appeal. When it comes to kings killing and eating kings, I agree with the Victorian lady who remarked (of Cleopatra’s court), “How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen.” Monarchy has moved on, and so shall I.
A more contemporary explanation might be that a hereditary dynasty It is, among other things, a soap opera with all the twists, turns and unpredictable outcomes of the genre. We get to know the characters from their very births, and follow their changing fortunes in the vicissitudes of a glamorous life.
In the past 30 years, Britain’s Royal Family has, if anything, gone overboard in its soap operatic imitation. Scandal, adultery, a secret mistress, a runaway bride, sudden death, rumours of murder, an uncaring Queen, a “People’s Princess,” discontent with a remote monarch – and then, at the last minute, doubt and disloyalty are swept away by a glittering Diamond Jubilee. At times, “the Firm,” as Prince Philip calls his family, has left Dallas or Dynasty in the shade. It has been riveting, but dangerously so.
Since Diana’s death, the monarchy has probably been saved by unconscious teamwork by three people: the Queen herself, who enjoys almost universal respect; her grandson Prince William, who proved to be a popular juvenile lead; and Kate, the beautiful young commoner who married him. Between them, they have managed to restore the respectability of the Windsor dynasty 1911-1980 without its occasional dullness.
Now, there is a fourth character to prolong the storyline into the 22nd century. Courtiers will hope his arrival finally draws down the curtain; given the nature of dynasties and soap operas, they will probably be disappointed. But they can console themselves with the nice anti-republican thought that dynasty is deeply rooted in the human psyche.
In constitutional monarchies, the dynasty reigns ceremonially; in republics, the dynasty rules bureaucratically. Just ask the Bushs, the Clintons or the Kennedys. Between them and the young prince – who would you prefer?
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.