(Reuters) - Could Prince Charles finally get his crown? And if he does, could it mean the end of the United Kingdom?
Abdication in favor of the younger generation seems to be something of a trend in Europe — if two cases can be considered a trend. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated last year so that her son, Willem-Alexander, could bring some youth and vitality to the largely ceremonial role.
More recently, King Juan Carlos, widely credited with having assisted the end of the Franco dictatorship in Spain in 1975 and with puncturing a rather feeble coup attempt in 1981, vacated the throne in favor of his son, Felipe. The announcement was followed by large demonstrations calling for an end to the monarchy entirely, with Cayo Lara, leader of the United Left Coalition, quoted as saying, “We are not subjects, we are citizens.”
And that’s the problem. While individual monarchs may be popular in Europe, monarchy is something else.
To be sure, Spain is its own case. There is 25 percent unemployment, with 50 percent of the young unemployed. Leftists did well there in the recent European Parliament elections.
Britain, on the other hand, has an economy that is growing quite strongly, and people who are doing well are less likely to look to upset a centuries-old apple cart.
But a transfer of power, now much forecast, could change that. Power transferred is power in peril.
Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday (her real one was in April) was celebrated this past weekend with the Trooping of the Color, a ceremony first invented in the 17th century.
The British monarchy, enthroned without break since that time, is surrounded by such rituals – archaic, mysterious to many and still treasured — which the British perform with a solemn and meticulous concentration.
Elizabeth is now 88. Her son Prince Charles, 66 this winter, incautiously admitted two years ago that he was “impatient” to rule, adding with his customary self-deprecation, “I’ll run out of time soon. I shall have snuffed it (died) if I’m not careful.”
Charles’ adulterous (on both sides) marriage to Diana was splayed across every newspaper in the world. The queen, apparently much disturbed by it, appears to have decided that she must continue to bear the burden of the crown, perhaps to punish him, perhaps to ensure that her popularity buoys the monarchy for as long as possible.
When Charles’ son, Prince William, married Kate Middleton three years ago and was seen to have a nice smile and a pleasant way with saying nothing memorable, there was much speculation about “skipping a generation.” The palace press relations people moved to kill that one. Charles’ press secretary underlined that his master would not be “a shadow king.”
The only person in the royal family less popular than Charles is his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, with whom he continued a long affair while both were married to others, and whom he married after Diana’s death.
So, what might happen if Charles were to take the throne, through inheritance or abdication?
A further weakening of the United Kingdom. It’s possible that if Scotland votes to remain part of the UK in the fall, an unpopular king on a London throne could renew the independence push.
A vote to discontinue the British monarch as head of state in Australia – a referendum to abolish the monarchy only just failed 14 years ago — and perhaps, too, in Canada.
A surge of republicanism, which is presently weak as a movement, but likely to appeal to a younger generation with little loyalty to a monarchy.
A fading of Britain’s largest tourist attraction, as the royals lose their allure.
Now, that allure still very much moves the wheels of the press in the UK, and two recent incidents demonstrate the very different treatment queen and prince receive. The stories come from behind the British royal family’s closed doors, and both are well attested. Both were told off the record.
Word was out – perhaps put out by one of the palace servants who adds to his or her income by informing newspapers of royal tidbits – that one of the queen’s corgis had died. The queen often seems to believe, along with the revolutionary animals in George Orwell’s 1984, that four legs – horses, corgis – are better than two: and in dog-loving, horse-betting Britain, that’s part of the reason for her endearment to high and low. So the story was hot.
A royal correspondent of the most popular tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, called in some excitement to the palace duty press man, and asked for the queen’s reaction to this. It was late in the evening; the press man doubted the queen would unburden her grief for The Sun: he refused to ask.
The reporter, feeling a chill wind readying itself to blow from the news desk were he to return without a quote, insisted, asking finally – how would you feel if your dog died? Well, said the press man, I guess I’d feel pretty upset. The reporter rang off and the next morning’s banner headline stated that according to palace insiders, the queen was quite distraught.
Charles gets no such benefit of the doubt, as the second incident shows. A story about the prince, perhaps leaked by another palace tipster, revealed that Charles had a valet put toothpaste on his toothbrush of an evening. The story continued on to say that Charles had no clue as to why that might strike people as funny.
The stories are neatly juxtaposed because the first spurs, in the breast of many Brits, affection: the second scorn. They are the core of the First Family’s present dilemma.
The best minds in British public relations have helped bolster the monarchy for decades. They have had a good product to present. The famously aggressive tabloids, knowing their readership would punish them if they turned against Elizabeth, showered her with sugary love. Charles III, as he will be known if and when he is crowned, has been much bloodied by tabloids. God will have to work hard to save a none-too-gracious king.