It’s a prince! Many congratulations to Their Royal Highnesses on the arrival of their third child and, indeed, their fecundity. The UK’s birth rate fell to a decade-low last year – 1.79 babies per mother – so the Duke and Duchess are picking up the slack for the rest of us.
Yes, it’s a grand day for fans of babies, royals, and above-replacement fertility rates. But none are as jubilant as Britain’s republicans who get to joy-hate an institution that fills them with a rage and disdain the rest of us reserve for Isis or possibly the Labour Party. Anti-monarchists secretly love events like this because, for a few days, the Firm (or rather its most colourful admirers and royal correspondents with an excitable newsdesk on the phone) comes close to the half-circus, half-cult its most loyal antagonists sincerely believe it to be.
The worst kind of republican – generally, those who identify themselves as such within three minutes of acquaintance – regards Britain as a tacky, forelock-tugging dystopia, one more commemorative Queen Mum porcelain range away from pre-modern despotism. The monarchy, and our unseemly attachment to it, are at best an anachronism and, at worse, a dangerous repudiation of the Enlightenment, parliamentary democracy and self-governance. In those sinister matrons who gather outside Buckingham Palace with their felt tip banners and Union Jack cardigans, they see the eager crowd for Thomas More’s beheading.
Republican bores are one of the monarchy’s secret weapons. Whenever there’s a protest about the not insubstantial cost of keeping roofs over the heads of Mrs Windsor and her disparately talented offspring, it’s never a reasonable-sounding type who ends up on Sky News. ‘Lovely people, I’m sure, do tonnes for charity, no doubt, but it’s probably time to downsize the operation’. No, it’s always some three-name Guardian letters page botherer who runs an alternative healing boutique and is standing for the Greens in the local elections.
An Opinium poll last year put support for a republic at 19 per cent. The premise of the monarchy is that Jesus sent a family of Germans to open our garden centres, tour countries we once oppressed, and sack Australian prime ministers from ten time zones away. How do you struggle to convince a fifth of Brits that there’s something a bit off about that?
How you do it is by having a republican movement arrayed against the monarchy in its head rather than the one most of us experience. Yes, public backing for the Royals is staunch (though stauncher among the old than among millennials) but most are not shortbread tin royalists who blow the grandchildren’s inheritance in the Balmoral gift shop. All but diehards with framed Princess Anne tea towels above the mantlepiece spend little time thinking about the Royals between big events and scandalous revelations.
The monarchy survives in 2018 as a bit of pageantry, a chance to get a nosey at Her Maj’s living room every December 25, the occasional clutch of national unity, and an endless content generator for Hello! magazine. When the Queen went to meet the Grenfell Tower survivors, while the Prime Minister huddled coldly with police and officials, it was a reminder of what the monarchy means to most Brits. Few of us believe in the divine right of kings; it’s the stoicism, sense of duty, and comforting smile for the afflicted that draws us in.
Of course the institution is anti-democratic. That’s what’s great about it. The public are fickle pickles, latching onto one shiny-faced Question Time bore after another. The monarchy has saved us the national indignities of presidents Tony Benn, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. If you harbour any dreamy notions about the republican system of government, I invite you to picture Jamie Oliver in a red baseball cap, promising a wall around every Greggs, and denouncing Mary Berry’s over-reliance on butter while rallies of sustainability leads and amateur foragers with names like Hugo and Allegra chant ‘lock her up’.
And what happens when the Sovereign isn’t content to cut ribbons and feign awareness of X Factor winners and panel show comedians? What happens when they have… ideals… and want to… change things? That’s not been a problem with Elizabeth II but her son is a different kettle of responsibly-farmed fish. Charles has lobbied ministers for homeopathy on the NHS, lectured the last Labour government on defence resources, wanted to set the Royal Navy on illegal fishers, and tried to get Gordon Brown’s administration to adopt his superstitions about GM crops.
Republicans should join the rest of us in wishing the new prince well. They have a task on their hands turning British public opinion against the monarchy and greeting a newborn baby with sullen snarling isn’t going to help. Better to keep their heads down and let the heir to the throne do their work for them.