Wedding’s Over, but Task of Charting Monarchy’s Future Lies Ahead

Weddings are about the future. So it’s worth contemplating what Kate and William face in the short-term and in the long-term. It must be said at the outset that these sorts of forecasts, in retrospect, make their authors seem like idiots. This rule is especially true when an American writes about a British institution.

For the short-term, the focus is on Ka — er, the Duchess of Cambridge. Whether she becomes a fashion icon, how she adjusts to royal life, or whatever else becomes the story du jour are trivial next to her central task: producing an heir and a spare. Kate is among the oldest brides to marry a king-in-waiting in royal history. She turns 30 in January. If she is not pregnant by then, expect charts in UK papers detailing declining fertility in a woman’s fourth decade. Reproduction is the essence of royalty. Heredity is its foundation. The pressure on Kate will be immense. Should Kate have trouble conceiving, she will be blamed, not William. It is also possible Kate will give birth to two males in quick succession. Given her unblemished record of absolute perfection, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's Prince Philip, and Britain's Prince Charles.

The long-term challenges facing William are far more daunting. It will fall to him to guide the monarchy through the 21st century and set it on course for the 22nd. A little actuarial arithmetic: William’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, is 85. By all accounts she is in good shape. Although his great-grandmother, the late Queen Mother, lived until age 101, the chances that Queen Elizabeth can continue to function as the reigning monarch in five years are slim. Prince Charles, William’s father, is 62. He has waited longer to inherit the crown longer than anyone in British history. If his reign begins five years from now, in 2016, Charles will be 67. He could stay on the throne for 21 years, relinquishing the crown in 2037, at age 88. William, who would be 55, could rule for 33 years, until he’s 88. In other words, William could be king roughly from 2040 to 2070. He must steer the monarchy in the middle of this century and begin laying the foundations for the next.

Prince Charles

The notion that the crown will somehow skip Charles and pass directly to William is, at best, fanciful. It would up-end the entire notion of royal succession. It would bring chaos to a pre-ordained order. (In U.S. terms, it would be like having nine unelected people determine the outcome of a presidential election.) Charles is a traditionalist. When he offers an opinion, it is often couched in a wistful longing for the past. He has condemned modern architecture. He favors organic agriculture. He’s a critic of modern medicine. Moreover, his opinions are strongly-held. In 2008, he gave a speech before a group of osteopaths. Osteopaths believe muscle manipulation can treat ailments such as asthma and migraines. A snippet from the address sums up his attitude well: “I daresay I shall get into frightful trouble from the Ministry of Magic [Health] for even suggesting that something as ‘alternative’ as osteopathy might be ‘a good thing’!” This is not the personality of someone who will forgo the opportunity to be king.

So William will wait. And prepare. The world – and his country – will look very different than the one today. By 2037, China will have the world’s largest economy. By 2050, the UK’s economy will have slipped from seventh-largest to tenth-largest. Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil will have larger economies than the UK, according to projections by Pricewaterhousecoopers. Today, Indonesia has an economy smaller than Turkey’s and the world’s largest Muslim population. Few Americans understand (or care) that the sovereign not only presides over the UK, but 15 other states in the Commonwealth. (The Commonwealth is a group of 53 nations, almost all of which were once British colonies. The Queen is the ceremonial head of this organization.) Most of those 15 states are tiny. Tuvalu. Belize. But some are not. New Zealand. Canada. Australia. If St. Lucia wants the monarch as a ceremonial head of state, no harm done. But can it possibly make sense for a head of state, even a ceremonial one, to reside roughly 11,000 miles away from Australia and New Zealand, and roughly 4,300 miles away from Canada and Jamaica?

Queen Elizabeth II

Although she does not exercise this power, Queen Elizabeth can veto any law passed by Australia or Canada’s parliaments. Americans tend to think of those who resent the royals as spoilsports. What’s the harm? The harm, ceremonial or not, is that these countries lack genuine self-determination. Seems we had a revolution about that one. It is impossible to believe that, in a quarter century or so, with William as a new king, some of these nations won’t start agitating for total independence. Indeed, it is quite possible a few of these countries, particularly Australia, a rising Pacific power, won’t wait that long.

Those are the external challenges. William can toss those roles overboard like so much excess ballast. When the objections start coming from his home subjects, he will face his most difficult test. Today, roughly 11 percent of the UK’s residents are foreign born. The three countries supplying the most immigrants are India, Poland and Pakistan. The UK does not assimilate newcomers as well as the U.S. The notion of a “melting pot” is alien. William will contend with the demographic consequences. By the time of his coronation, a substantial part of the UK population will trace its roots not to some verdant ancestral home on the scepter’d isle, but to Europe or Asia. Somehow, William must persuade this growing ethnic population that the royals’ historical legacy is worth preserving.

The royals believe they are the structural beam supporting British civic life. The sovereign stands, unmovable, amid political squalls. UK politics is robust in a way the U.S. version is not. Imagine Barack Obama visiting the well of the House of Representatives each week for questioning by John Boehner. Imagine a governing coalition of Steve Forbes and Howard Dean. Imagine no set schedule for elections.

“The system of constitutional monarchy bridges the discontinuity of party politics,” is how it’s described on the Queen’s website. “While political parties change constantly, the Sovereign continues as Head of State, providing a stable framework within which a government can introduce wide-ranging reforms.” To American ears at least, not only is this rationale anachronistic, it is patronizing. The word “constitutional” especially grates. The UK does not have a constitution per se. What we think of as a constitution — a single, written document enumerating the powers of the government and the rights of the people — does not exist. Instead, “constitutional rights” arise as a result of “usage, custom, convention,” as well as through statutes and court judgments. The crown has been losing power since the end of the 17th century. In 2030, the modern office of Prime Minister will be 200 years old. Just how much stability will the UK electorate want or need to buffet it from political turmoil?

Yet William cannot relinquish his role as head of state. Royals study other royals. The monarchies of Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, all function, to varying degrees, as heads of state. Additionally, without his formal government role, all his informal roles — as patron of this charity and that — are also decreased. William must formulate some new and diminished form of sovereign power. A reduced role that can win popular support, yet one that provides the monarchy a reason for being.

It’s a good thing he’ll have 30 years to consider it. He’ll need it.