It’s been a big winter here in Cambridge for fans of the Royal Family. First we had the Duke and Duchess themselves, Will and Kate, making their debut visit to the city, bringing some welcome cheer to a grey week at the end of November. And then the happy news that there’s another little Cambridge on the way. It was enough to take the chill off an old republican heart like mine – at least one old enough, like Prince Charles’, to have been charmed by the prospect of grandchildren of its own.
Some well-meaning commentators have also been cheered, apparently, by the news that the royal succession is now to be gender-blind. Girl or boy, the new baby Cambridge will be third in line for the British and hence Australian throne, after Charles and William.
I hate to rain on such a well-meaning parade, but I have trouble making sense of this reaction. Presumably folk who regard this as a step forward are thinking that it removes a form of discrimination against girls. But what blinkered vision of equality could be troubled by this “discrimination” against girls, but not by the outright exclusion of all babies who don’t happen to be called Cambridge?
One step at a time, perhaps, but celebrating this change as a victory for equal rights for women, as the BBC put it, seems a trifle, well, premature. It is hardly a victory for female suffrage if the President’s wife gets the vote. (If it’s equality you care about, that’s more like a slap in the face.)
But that’s not the main thing that perplexes me about recent reactions to the news of the royal pregnancy. My main puzzle – about everyone who expresses views on these matters, from the most loyal monarchists all the way through to staunch republicans – is their apparent indifference to Baby Cambridge’s own views about whether she or he wants to be Queen or King of England (let alone Australia).
“That’s ridiculous,” you say, “The baby is not even born yet – how could we ask her?” Of course not. She (let’s call her she) won’t be in a position to decide for the best part of twenty years, at the very least – and perhaps not for years after that, since many young people don’t make up their minds how they wish to spend their lives until well into their twenties or thirties.
But that’s the point. Baby Cambridge’s peers – your children and grandchildren – will all have the opportunity that we now take for granted, to decide for themselves what to make of their lives. On what possible grounds are we, or the state, or even her parents, entitled to deny the same opportunity to her?
That’s the real question we should all be asking, in my view, and it is not about discrimination in favour of royal children. It is about discrimination against them – about the denial in their case of basic freedoms we take for granted for everyone else.
To make it personal, imagine the prime minister turns up on your doorstep, with the joyful news that your child has been selected for future public office. She or he is going to be brought up to be Archbishop of Canterbury, or something equally splendid – excluding other careers, of course, and other activities in general, to the extent that they would be inappropriate in one destined to be so distinguished.
Are you delighted? Or off to the European Court of Human Rights, or its nearest Australian equivalent, to defend your child’s right to decide for themselves what they do with their life?
If you’re like me, you’ll have the latter reaction. You’ll be horrified. And you won’t be mollified by the prime minister’s assurance that of course your little dear will have the right to abdicate, if she really insists, when she grows up.
“Nothing simpler!”, says the prime minister. “True, millions would feel that she’s letting the side down, but legally speaking all it would take would be an Act of Parliament. And your second child in her place, of course.” Some choice!
But that’s precisely the situation facing Baby Cambridge and her future siblings. The only difference is that the prime minister doesn’t need to make a house call – the entire nation just takes for granted that that’s the deal.
Is this really acceptable? Do these children really have fewer rights than all other children to be born in Britain and Australia over the next few years? If not, then we are simply not entitled to presume that they will wish to spend their lives in our service, with all that that entails (a public life, with many restrictions, among other things).
We are entitled to request that they do so, of course, but not until they are adults, and only then without pressure or presumption. We may hope that they will say “yes”, but our duty as a nation – a solemn duty, surely, to the children of a family to whom we owe so much – is to guarantee them this basic freedom.
So the way we select our monarchs needs to change. If the monarchy is to survive, its days as “a comfortable form of inherited imprisonment”, as one of Prince Charles’ biographers described it long ago, must be numbered. It must become an opt-in system, without any presumption that particular individuals will choose to volunteer. Baby Cambridge and her siblings must be given the same options as their non-royal peers, even if they also have one more option, to put their names on the list of potential successors to the throne.
They must also have a clear entitlement to remove themselves from the list, of course, with no unfairly binding presumption that they will not do so. So long as everyone else on the list is a volunteer, they could resign from it without transferring an unasked-for obligation to a sibling.
The moral case for this change is so clear, in my view, that I find it hard to believe that the present system will survive for very long, either in Britain and the Commonwealth or in other modern democratic monarchies with a similar respect for human rights, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain.
But some truths have a way of hiding in plain sight, so obvious that it is hard for us to concede that they are truths. If things were that straightforward, we think, why didn’t we see it all along?
Intelligent people go to considerable lengths to deny this one, in my experience. Many insist that the royal heirs do have a sufficient choice after all, though it is as plain as day that to the extent that they have any freedom at all to decide what to do with their lives, it depends on a difficult, highly public and personally costly process of opting-out.
To take herself off the list, a royal heir would have to be prepared to disappoint a nation’s expectations, inculcated throughout a childhood in which she had been taught that this is her duty, her lot, her role in life. (There’s the small matter of putting a sibling in the hot seat, too.) In my view, it is both ludicrous and a little callous to suggest that this is choice enough, when it is so far from the freedom we take for granted for our own children.
Other people respond that while it’s true that the royal heirs don’t have a real choice, the benefits to the nation outweigh any concerns about the children’s rights. After all, they might be needed again, as in the Blitz, to raise the nation’s spirits by remaining in London in time of danger. Yet others say that choice is greatly overrated, and more children should be deprived of it. (I’m not making this up.)
Eventually, the fish will stop flapping. As in cases like gay marriage, fair-minded people will agree that the point is obvious, and that tradition needs to make way for simple justice. Steps will be taken to make the monarchy less unfair to the family on which it depends. No doubt it will survive, like marriage, more robust and popular than ever for dealing with the injustice at the heart of its present incarnation. Australia will still face the choice as to whether it wants to continue to play this traditional game, of course, but that’s a different matter.
If we moved quickly, this change could be in place in time for the new Baby Cambridge to benefit from it – before she goes to school, for example, and learns that her opportunities are different from those of other children. So here’s my question to all those folk in Cambridge and elsewhere, whose hearts have been warmed by the news of the royal pregnancy: don’t we owe it to this welcome child to make this change, and to do it soon?