Bound by birthright: who will succeed to the British throne?


KATE emerged from hospital on Thursday – thin, pale and puffy-eyed but with her trademark dimples on show – with a bunch of bright yellow roses held firmly in front of the current abode of the next royal heir.
The Duchess of Cambridge is due to spend the next little while lying low at Kensington Palace, being nursed through the difficult start to her pregnancy. William is due to return to his work with the RAF and must, around Christmas-time, decide whether to re-enlist for another three years.
He is known to be keen to stay in uniform rather than move to full-time royal duties. He knows that, otherwise, there could be decades of ribbon-cutting ahead; after all, his father, at 64, is still waiting for the big gig. If the Queen has inherited her mother’s longevity, Charles could be in the wings for another 15 years, by which time he would be 79.
The news that there is about to be a third heir to the throne has prompted royal historian Michael Thornton to suggest that, given his age and his history of improper political interference, it would be best for Britain if Charles stepped aside from the succession in favour of a much more popular younger generation.
He cites international precedent, pointing out that the Count of Barcelona renounced his rights to the Spanish throne in 1977 in favour of his then 39-year-old son, the current King Juan Carlos I.
But Charles is probably incapable of such self-sacrifice, Thornton writes in the Daily Mail: “For Charles is a man prone to self-pity and faltering self-esteem and has described his hugely privileged existence as Prince of Wales as ‘a comfortable form of inherited imprisonment’. He remains obsessively intent on claiming his birth-right as our next King, regardless of the effect this may have on his country or the institution of the monarchy.
“His behaviour in recent years has bordered on the unconstitutional. His bombardment of government ministers with interfering and meddlesome letters – known in Whitehall as the notorious ‘black spider memos’ on account of his often indecipherable hand-writing – has become a barely suppressed political scandal . . . ”
Thornton then goes on to describe a series of political skirmishes, legal changes and court battles to shield from public view a series of more than 27 “particularly frank” letters written by Charles to various departments, including the Cabinet Office. The High Court ruled in September that there was “an overwhelming public interest” in releasing them. This was overturned by the Attorney-General on the basis that if Charles “forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”. That decision is now going to the High Court.
All of which seems to confirm that Charles’ letters do constitute political interference, verboten under Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy.
Thornton, author of Royal Feud: The Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor, argues that a King William V and Queen Catherine would be cleanskins; they have no political agendas and are liked for their kindness and genuine interest in ordinary people.
Well, yes. But they are also liked because they are young; he is handsome and she is pretty; and they seem to genuinely love each other. Like the Obamas, even in public they exchange warm glances and light touches and laughter. The cameras adore them, and so do the people watching at home; the Cambridges are an embodiment of the fairytale, of happily-ever-aftering.
At least for now. But no matter what difficulties may follow, they have a huge head start on Charles and Diana, who began in a loveless marriage – at least on his side – that rapidly disintegrated into one of mutual loathing.
Diana may be gone but she is not forgotten. Chatting to English people socially, it seems that men mostly wish Charles well and think it’s fair enough he should be happy at last. But women, even younger ones, are more likely to be bitter over what they saw as the manipulation and abuse of his young first wife.
And some, like Daily Mail letter-writer Marie, despise them both, describing Charles as “an egocentric adulterer brutal enough to ground his wife so that she snaps and totally goes berserk” and Diana as “twisted and conniving”: “And now Charles wants to be king and head of the Church of England – a character like him the head of the Church of England!”
But her view is no longer that of the majority. After years of public opinion polls suggesting Britons wanted William on the throne instead of Charles, a poll just after the Jubilee found people now favour a Charles and Camilla reign. Fifty-one per cent wanted Charles crowned, although a sizeable rump (40 per cent) still preferred William.
But polls on this issue do not matter. The monarchy is not a popularity contest. There is a queue and it will be observed, barring mischance. As one male Scottish reader of the Daily Mail commented, “Let’s skip a generation because we have a shiny young attractive couple who photograph well . . . perhaps if the child is very cute we could have the Queen put down?”
So perhaps a more interesting question is the apparently trivial one of the child’s name. As Rowan Pelling pointed out in The Telegraph, this baby will lend its name to an age, as Elizabeth I did to an era, Georges III and IV did to architecture, and Victoria did to old-fashioned rectitude and empire.
“The Duchess of Cambridge . . . has to find a name that pleases her husband, her in-laws, Burke’s Peerage, the Commonwealth, Hollywood and the global army of royal-watchers. It must not sound incongruous when prefaced with the title Queen or King, which rules out a tribute to her mother Carole” – Carole, presumably, being seen as a middle-class name.
But this babe of a modern age, brought into being in a brave new world that says a commoner is fit to carry a future monarch, and a queen can rule as well as a king, will live under one old ban that has not changed. While the 16 Commonwealth countries have agreed to overturn the rule of primogeniture under which a brother always gazumped a sister in line to the throne, that gilded seat is still forbidden to Catholics.
Meanwhile, the baby bonanza has begun for the mercantile classes, with one pottery producing commemorative mugs with “A royal baby in 2013” on one side and “Hooray for Will and Kate” on the other. Along with Kate, Britain’s outnumbered republicans are reaching for the anti-nausea pills for what will be a long haul.

First published in The Age.