Will Prince William and Kate Middleton usher in a more modern monarchy? BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt looks at how the eldest son of Prince Charles and grandson of Queen Elizabeth might reign. (Follow Mr. Hunt on Twitter.)
“In a way I didn’t have an apprenticeship,” the Queen declared once in a very rare BBC interview. “My father died much too young and so it was all very sudden… taking on and making the best job you can. It is a job for life.”
Abdication is a 10-letter word the Windsors avoid uttering. They’re still scarred by Edward VIII‘s decision to abandon the throne for Wallis Simpson in the ’30s. That episode and the period after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales are the two moments which most threatened to damage the institution. So, the Queen, a robust 84-year-old, will continue to reign for some time.
Her style has evolved. Her attraction, to many people, has been her ability to avoid becoming involved in divisive political issues. She has established a position, above the fray where, at key moments in the country’s life, she has been a symbol of national unity.
While the Queen had no “apprenticeship,” the next-in-line to the throne, Prince Charles, has had decades to wait, watch, and wonder. With the announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton‘s wedding, there has been a rash of opinion polls suggesting the son should replace the father at the front of the queue. But royal succession is not a beauty contest or an episode of Simon Cowell‘s talent show X Factor.
British citizens and subjects are observers of the process, not voters, and Charles’s time on the throne will come. His style of monarchy will have an impact on the way William will, one day reign.
As the heir, Prince Charles hasn’t sat around for years just twiddling his thumbs. At first in the ’70s, he wasn’t sure how to occupy himself. As he said at one point, “My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is. At the moment I do not have one. I must find one”.
His solution has been to embrace an extraordinary range of causes which include youth unemployment, architecture, and the fate of the native red squirrels whose very existence have been threatened by their gray American cousins.
One of his former senior officials has revealed that Charles would refer to himself as a “dissident” working against the prevailing political consensus. His supporters argue he gives a voice to those who otherwise would not be heard; his critics portray him as a meddlesome prince.
The fascinating question is how will he behave once he is the Sovereign? Will a man with strong opinions, forged during three decades of “dissident” work, be able to keep quiet, avoid controversy, and pretty much continue his mother’s style of monarchy? Those around him insist Charles the King will be very different from Charles the Prince of Wales.
Watching all of this, from the wings, is Prince William. He hasn’t had to rush in to anything — unlike his father who, for example, delivered a speech in Welsh before he was 21; and his grandmother who, at a similar age, broadcast in French a message of thanks to Belgian children for sending toys to Britain during the Second World War.
As second-in-line to the throne, William has time on his side, as he contemplates the style of monarchy he will eventually usher in. Even though the prospect is in the distant future, advice on what to do has already come his way.
One opposition politician, who’s also a historian, has written an essay on the subject. Tristram Hunt argues William should avoid the “indulgence” of his father, leave the “bling” to rich foreigners, and cultivate an understated style.
All the signs, so far, are that the politician is pushing at an open door. Diana’s son has adopted a low-key approach to embracing his destiny. He told me in an interview last year that he wanted to be more than just a “royal ornament.” His charitable work focuses on the homeless, the armed forces, and the environment.
Given his character, William is probably more attracted to his grandmother’s approach, rather than his father’s. He is no revolutionary — of course, that’s another word which gives the Windsors a funny turn. Like the Queen, Prince William is unlikely to be an instigator of major change. As one person who’s worked for the royal family put it to me, “You can’t have a sovereign fizzing away like a human Catherine wheel.”
We’ve only had glimpses of how William might tackle the role. We have no sense of what type of Queen Kate Middleton will become. She too, post-wedding, will have to embrace charitable causes. She’s likely to work with ones that are involved in sports and the arts.
At the moment, the couple is mastering the art of doing public engagements together. They’ve visited Wales, Scotland, and now Northern Ireland. Canada beckons. The focus on them is, and will be, intense. With their advisers, William and Kate will want to prepare for the future without detracting from the work of the Prince of Wales.
Charles was overshadowed by Diana. He won’t want history to repeat itself.