11.29.10

Prince William's Early Chance at the Throne

Princess Diana first made the case for skipping Charles, and now Brits are saying they’d prefer William wear the crown next. Andrew Roberts on why they shouldn’t mess with tradition.

The ghost of Princess Diana still hovers over the House of Windsor, sometimes benignly—as in the Adonic good looks and natural charm of Prince William—but also occasionally malignly, as in the latest ICM and YouGov opinion polls that say that 56 percent of Britons would prefer Prince William to succeed the queen, rather than his father Prince Charles. It was Diana who brought up the whole idea of the monarchy skipping a generation in her notorious TV interview with Martin Bashir in 1995. It was intensely mischievous of her, as she knew that constitutionally such a thing could never, ever happen, but it means that even 15 years later, and on the eve of her son's wedding, the subject still comes up.

“There is no question in Prince William's mind that the Prince of Wales will be the next monarch,” says Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, William's private secretary and public spokesman. “Prince William is aware of the speculation, but he is very thick-skinned. He knows his place in the Royal family and he considers himself to be very low down the food chain. He has no desire to climb the ladder of kingship before his time.” Major Lowther-Pinkerton also has over a thousand years of British constitutional history behind his statement—the Saxons adopted male primogeniture centuries before the Norman Conquest—and Britain is not about to adopt a different system of choosing monarchs anytime soon. Especially not by adopting a popularity contest, like American Idol or The X Factor.

Feminists have for decades complained that daughters of the sovereign should inherit the throne if they are older than their brothers, thinking that modern political correctness and equal opportunities legislation can somehow be grafted onto a process that derives its legitimacy solely from tradition. If the Church of England can admit women priests after five centuries, they argue, why can't the laws of succession admit equal opportunity queens? Since all Britons are subjects of the queen but not members of the Church of England, the analogy falls, but the fact that several of the finest monarchs in British history—Elizabeth I, Queen Anne, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II among them—have been women only seems to strengthen the feminists' case. (Equally, it can be pointed out that had that system been in place in 1901, the psychologically warped Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would have become King of England.) Yet the authority and legitimacy of something as fundamentally irrational as a monarchy is intimately bound up with ancient custom and usage. Tinker with that and you might as well hold a lottery for the Crown.

Gallery: Photos of William and Kate

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Complete Coverage of William & Kate The queen's longevity—she is a very healthy 84, and her mother lived to be 101—means that all this discussion of succession is wildly premature. It is also deeply insulting to Prince Charles, who will one day make a very fine king, after over half a century of training for the role. As well as igniting the debate over human-sized versus ideological Modernist architecture, the Prince of Wales has led the charge over organic agriculture against GM crops, traditional history teaching in schools, complementary medicine, defense of the Prayer Book, anti-Islamic prejudice, fox-hunting (despite not overtly wanting to), environmentalism (along with his father Prince Philip), community business, human rights abuses in China, and many other causes close to his heart. Few will agree with him on every single issue on that list, but none can doubt that he is a rain-maker in public affairs. (My house in Belgravia in London lies almost in the shadow of where 17 identical neo-Brutalist steel-and-glass high-rise apartment buildings were due to be built, which Prince Charles used his influence to prevent in the interests of preserving London's beauty.) The fact that few people, even 13 years after Princess Diana's death, seem willing to accept is that the Prince of Wales is a great man who should no longer be haunted by his ex-wife's poltergeist.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the UK in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.