NR Digital

That Commoner Touch

by Theodore Dalrymple
Of the royal wedding and the decaying British monarchy

O royal marriage, if wedding comes, can divorce be far behind? For a marriage these days, unlike a diamond, is definitely not forever, and the British royal family, though it remains somewhat different from the average or median British family in many respects, has not been able to insulate itself entirely from the social trends of the age, the instability of relations between the sexes being among them. A large dose of social realism, indeed, has been insinuated into the Saxe-Coburg-Windsor fairy story.

Prince Harry, for example, whose paternity almost everyone in the country doubts, conducts himself, at least when free to do so, as the worst (and largest) element of the young British male population conducts itself: That is to say, he is drunken, aggressive, foulmouthed, arrogant, graceless, and stupid. Perhaps he will grow out of it, as burglars grow out of burglary, but what it leaves behind remains to be seen. My guess is that it will not be very much, but I would be most happy in this instance to acknowledge prophetic error.

The last royal marriage of any consequence was that of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer, which I happened to watch on television, en directo de la catedral de San Pablo de Londres, in a cafe in Cuzco, Peru. I am myself a believer in constitutional monarchy, at least for my own country, in part because I find the prospect of any of my fellow-countrymen being head of state so appalling; but I nevertheless found the interest in the whole spectacle evinced 10,000 feet up in the Andes strange and difficult to comprehend. What was Diana to them, or they to Diana, that they should weep for joy for her? But then the whole cult of celebrity is to me utterly mysterious.

Only 30 years ago, no one thought of divorce when the supposedly happy couple appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, to the wild (and, as it subsequently turned out, the naïve and foolish) cheering of the crowd below; there was still a mildly unthinkable quality about the association of divorce and the heir to the throne. But now you could run a sweepstake on how long the marriage between Prince William and Catherine Middleton will last. It is true that the divorce rate in Britain is declining, and this for two reasons: First, far fewer people are bothering to get married in the first place, so that those who do are self-selected for maturity, and second, the economic recession has made it more difficult to dispose of the matrimonial home and divide the spoils. There is nothing quite like a flagging property market, it seems, for keeping married couples united, at least in the absence of any belief in the sacramental nature of the union.

But the royal couple, presumably, will be insulated from the preservative effect of a plunging property market, and therefore so much the more susceptible to the miasma of divorce by which they are surrounded. Their relationship (before their engagement) was already described as “on-off,” according to one astrology site on the Internet, because, “in the spring of 2007, Kate was having [such] a bunch of horrific transits including a Heartbreak Transit [that] Prince William broke off their affair.”

My experience of “on-off” relationships among my patients — most of whom in truth had no other type — is that, in the end, the “off” moiety usually prevails over the “on” moiety, or Saturn over Venus, as the astrologer would no doubt put it. It may take a few years to do so, but the fracture widens until it becomes a gulf or chasm. Such gulfs always existed in couples, of course, but in the days before divorce on demand they could be expressed only by an emotionally freezing household or violent argument, and not by public and legally sanctioned dissociation. In these weak piping times of human rights, even members of the royal family can claim their right to the pursuit of happiness, or at least to the avoidance of unhappiness, by means of divorce: Why should its members be expected to endure what no one else in the realm is expected any longer to endure?

So if Prince William and Princess Catherine discover that they need their own space, to use the psychobabble term for the hostility of one person in a couple towards the other, a divorce cannot be excluded for mere dynastic considerations or for raisons d’état. These days, nothing must get in the way of the pursuit of personal happiness; there is no quid pro quo for being maintained in the utmost luxury. A human right is a human right, and members of the royal family are human.

Of course, it is perfectly possible that the prince and princess will live happily ever after: One cannot deduce the actual fate of anyone from mere statistical probability. But there are other storm clouds on the horizon for the monarchy in Britain, irrespective of the personal relations of the prince and princess.

The first is that the intelligentsia are now hostile to it as never before. Ever on the lookout, not for new fields to conquer but for old institutions to destroy, little but the monarchy remains for their attention. Thanks to the expansion of tertiary education and the decline of industry, the intelligentsia are larger and more influential than at any time in history; and they never rest until they get what they want.

The second, and more important, is that the general population is now so disconnected from its country’s past that it has not the faintest idea of the constitutional role of the monarchy. So weak has understanding become that those who defend in public the extravaganza of the royal wedding and its expense are reduced to performing a cost-benefit analysis of it. The security and other arrangements will cost perhaps $35 million; but the receipts from the extra tourism, television rights, and kitsch industry — royal memorabilia such as plates, mugs, biscuit tins, and bogus commemorative coins — will amount to an estimated $750 million, even if most of the kitsch will be produced in China. (No junk shop in the country is free of the royal kitsch of the past, commemorating coronations, jubilees, and marriages, the mugs and plates produced to celebrate the marriage of Charles to Diana usually being relegated somewhat sheepishly to the rear of any shelf, behind even those to celebrate the accession of Edward VIII to the throne, another royal embarrassment.)

The trouble with cost-benefit analyses is that they can generally be made to suit any judgment. An ingenious and motivated economist can always find hidden costs to vitiate a conclusion that he does not care for; and so what seems like a profit can be soon be made to appear like a loss. The general acceptance of the economist’s conclusions will depend more upon his abilities as a rhetorician and propagandist than upon the truth of what he says. Besides, there is something intrinsically undignified about the use of the language of profit and loss about a monarchy that has lasted, with a short break for revolution, an entire millennium. If after a thousand years the best or only thing you can say for a political institution is that it brings in a few extra tourists, who are a market for foreign-produced junk, attachment to that institution in an age that prides itself on its rationality and ability to found itself on self-evident first principles is not likely to be very strong or to last long.

Worse still, polls among young people, especially women, show a high, even overwhelming, level of support for making Prince William king after the death of the present queen, mainly because (one suspects) he is young, is better-looking than his father, and has tastes that are more in concert with their own. In other words, he would be made king in the same way, and for the same reasons, that someone is made the winner of a TV reality-show competition.

This kind of popularity is fickle, of course. The prince is beginning to bald, and if the baldness were to progress too quickly, he would lose his support. And if it were to emerge that, far from sharing the tastes of his age group, Prince William actually spent his spare time parsing Latin poetry and abominated rock music as the solvent of all thought, he would lose his mandate for the throne and be deemed quite unfit to sit upon it, as lacking completely the common touch.

The whole point of a constitutional monarch, that he is head of state and symbol of national unity not by virtue of a popularity contest or of any personal qualities, and is therefore above the fray to whose violence his very existence places a limit, is entirely lost on young British people, who believe in their own unlimited sovereignty. If they celebrated the wedding at all, it was for them just another occasion to get drunk, like a Friday or Saturday night, for which, in all conscience, they hardly need an additional excuse.

– Mr. Dalrymple is a retired psychiatrist, and the author, most recently, of Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality.