As I have recounted elsewhere, family legend has it that my grandmother and her sister were responsible for King Edward VIII giving up the job of Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty to become the third mate of an American destroyer. Being friendly with the headmistress, the baby prince’s nanny would sometimes wheel the royal pram round to the school in London that the two sisters attended in the 1890s and invite them to pick up the infant. “You can tell them at home you held your future king-emperor!” she would say. My grandmother’s brother blamed the traumatic effect of that experience of two dark young girls for the future Duke of Windsor’s marital waywardness.
Baby Edward was then third in the line of succession. So will be the child the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting. But the next third-in-line isn’t likely to suffer from race shocks because though the royal households still don’t include people of Asian, African or Caribbean origin, there’s plenty of evidence of multiracial Britain floating around. The pregnant former Kate Middleton invited the Indian owners of the corner shop near her parental home to her wedding. Prince Charles’s guests, when he remarried, included the Kumars of the highly popular Kumars at Number 42 fame as well as a couple of Bombay dabbawallahs. A Sikh’s beard and turban will soon figure among the beaver hats of the guardsmen on duty at Buckingham Palace. Five of the nine realms that want the baby to succeed to the throne, even if it is a girl, are not white. Great Britain might have disappeared if this genuflection to Women’s Lib had taken place in the 19th century for it would have made King George V’s cousin and arch enemy, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, king of England. The kaiser’s mother would have succeeded Queen Victoria as her firstborn child, displacing her younger brother who became King Edward VII.
Britain’s royal family would probably have found a way round such a calamity. It always comes up trumps. Whether it’s a baby, a marriage, a change of name or even a fire, it pulls off a coup to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The irreverence the monarchy thrives on doesn’t quite conceal the underlying affection. A cartoon during a period of stringency before the euro was invented showed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in their regalia riding in an ornate state coach under a shower of francs, marks, pesetas and other foreign bank notes. “My dear, we are the only nationalized industry to make a profit!” the consort mutters to his spouse.
He could get away with saying the royal family lived above the shop and with throwing peanuts at press photographers. There are volumes of such anecdotes, suggesting the Duke of Edinburgh opens his mouth to put his foot in it. But what might be regarded as loutish in lesser mortals often has a resonance with what Churchill called the “inevitable genius of the English people”. David Cameron might kowtow to China in public and let it leak out that he ordered his ministers not to break bread with the Dalai Lama while he was begging Beijing to bail him out, but there must have been a certain sniggering delight in the duke’s warning to British students not to tarry too long in China lest they become slitty-eyed. The New Zealand typist was dead right when she told the queen’s lady-in-waiting on the first royal tour of the Commonwealth, “The best investment that the royal family has ever made in all its history is the Duke of Edinburgh.” Even New Zealand’s roadside placards reading “God Bless the Queen and Keep an Eye on the Duke” hinted at his role as a foil to his wife’s service-before-self earnestness.
Investing in the future is essential to the monarchy’s strategy for survival. Faced with the surge of anti-German feeling in 1914 when pet dachshunds were being caught and strung up from London lamp-posts, George V transformed himself into an English Windsor. The name change caused great merriment in Berlin where the kaiser announced he was off to the theatre to see The Merry Wives of Saxe Coburg Gotha. Those were the years of revolution and republicanism. After denying his Germanic roots, George V denied his Russian relatives. He feared that the asylum in Britain that might have saved the tsar and tsarina from murder might imperil his throne. Lord Mountbatten’s mother, who was the tsarina’s sister, wasn’t allowed to invite the lesser Romanovs lest this, too, might incur radical wrath.
Perhaps the Windsors did have to tread carefully. Clement Attlee’s report that the Danish prime minister had said they had to walk out backwards after an audience prompted Harold Nicholson’s comment that Britain would have become a republic if any modern monarch had insisted on similar protocol. Much hinges on the public perception. Forty years on, the conquest of Everest was stage-managed to make it appear part of the Queen’s coronation celebrations. As daylight flooded in on the magic and mystery of monarchy, and pundits like Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Altrincham wondered aloud if the royals were famous only for being famous, the hallowed ritual of debutantes being presented at court was abandoned. It was too elitist for the democratic age. It also gave the entrée to every tart in London, according to Princess Margaret.
All that and more was wiped out when the octogenarian queen took in everyone by appearing to jump out of a helicopter. The applause for that demonstration of trendy courage confirmed that the queen’s imaginative management has not only rescued the monarchy from the slough of annus horribilis but reinvented it in glowing modern terms. Like the conquest of Everest, the pageantry of the Olympic Games and the golden jubilee (bringing Prince Edward to Calcutta) also seem to have been specially designed for the greater glory of what Farouk of Egypt famously predicted would be the last monarch outside the pack of cards. From being the first heir to be born in a hospital to the first since Henry VIII to marry an untitled commoner, William has packed so many firsts under his belt that an altogether different monarchy seems to lie ahead.
A recent survey claims that William is by far the most popular member of the royal family, more popular even than the queen is or his captivating mother ever was. His father ranks fifth in the list, after William, the queen, Prince Harry and Kate. Prince Charles’s rating has been falling since 1984. His present wife scrapes the bottom of the barrel. These statistics have prompted comparison with the Count of Barcelona who surrendered his right to the Spanish throne in 1972, thereby ensuring that his son, King Juan Carlos, could revive the monarchy. Jumping a prince would be a small step compared to the giant one of jumping an entire dynasty as happened after Queen Anne’s death.
George Osborne — the harassed chancellor of the exchequer, grappling with a sluggish economy and rising joblessness — must have welcomed the news of a new heir, which drove everything else from the front pages of British newspapers. It banished talk of dire economic straits and is expected to give a tremendous boost to tourism and the heritage and culture industries, which earn billions of pounds. The baby might also give just the handle they need to members of the establishment who feel a less orthodox succession would reinforce the monarchy. It would be a bonus if the Duchess of Cambridge produces twins. If the royal pregnancy hadn’t been a medical fact, the ever resourceful royal family might have found it necessary to invent it.