Expecting the best: The significance of the new royal baby

by The Listener / 22 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - royal baby

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Photo/Getty Images

It’s tempting at times to view the royal family as being trapped in their own destiny. Certainly, Charles has had the awkward fate of having the longest gap year in history before taking up a Proper Job. William, too, will probably have a long wait before he succeeds to the throne.

But it’s important sometimes to stand back and look at the wider role of the royals, which from at least the time of Queen Elizabeth’s childhood has been to represent an idealised family life.

They may not have always upheld traditional values – looking at you, Charles – but in many ways that has made them all the more representative. Though much maligned as a husband to Diana, at least our future king has, to his credit, been a prescient advocate for causes that do resonate with ordinary families, such as sustainability and environmental issues.

And just occasionally, even a republican would have to admit, events within the Windsor firmament have a profound social significance.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s forthcoming baby is just such an event. Prince Harry’s marriage to a woman of African-American heritage is, like the ascendancy of the Obamas to the White House, a resonant milestone in racial equality. Those who affect to disdain news of the royals will sniff that hereditary celebs are especially irrelevant, but they miss an important point. For powerful and ancient psychological reasons, the famous have a huge social influence on us, and a brown face joining the British royal family in wedlock is a big deal. A biracial baby being welcomed into that family is an even bigger one.

Like so many other social breakthroughs since modern societies began to question Anglo-Saxon dominance and privilege, this marriage and this baby signal to people of colour that there is nowhere they do not now belong.

It’s true inherited privilege and, in the Windsors’ case, immense inherited wealth are anachronistic and hardly socially progressive. It’s also possible this won’t remain “our” royal family, or even, in time, Britain’s.

But as an institution, it can still have a hugely positive influence. Diana, Princess of Wales is the poster girl for this, her hands-on compassion for Aids victims doing much to remove the stigma of that cruel disease. Her searing public honesty about personal struggles with an eating disorder removed much shame and damaging secrecy from that growing affliction as well. The family has continued her advocacy against landmines.

Now, Harry is showing the potential to be at least as positive a force. It’s easy to focus on his youthful party-related judgment lapses, but it was that same young larrikin who founded the Invictus Games for injured armed services personnel – an event that has both helped rehabilitate disabled vets and, by its existence, given them deserved recognition and status for their courage and service.

He also chose to serve on the Afghan front line, confounding cynics. He has championed those with mental-health issues. And he has confounded the near-compulsory cliché of the powerful man marrying a composite of glossy/blonde/aristocratic/socialite.

Meghan is rather more than Harry’s equal, successful and wealthy in her own right and by her own efforts. She stepped away from a burgeoning acting career citing despair at the trivialising portrayals of women, and a desire to do something constructive for others.

Her life as a royal may fulfil this wish, with lashings of perks, but it also entails self-sacrifice and long hours. There are times she’ll be bored rigid, exhausted or irritated but required to radiate delight and encouragement. She’ll have her every choice micro-critiqued by spiteful and prurient onlookers. Her cheerful poise thus far suggests she has the temperament to survive the worst of it – even having to wear beige pantyhose.

She and Harry, like Kate and William, have already done much to change the way the fusty, frosty royal family interacts with the public. They’ve put the Commonwealth – arguably long neglected – at the centre of their activities, and lost no time in booking a visit down under.

Their focus is the youth of the 53 multicultural countries, and the fact they’re due in April to contribute a little one of their own not only helps safeguard the position of the royal family, but is perhaps the most potent, affirmative boost they can give to the world.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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