The oldest and best English joke is the length of time Prince Charles has waited — with nothing like stoicism — to become King. In their wisdom, our ancestors decided that the leadership of this nation was so minor a matter that almost anyone, so long as they refuted Rome and were the product of a family with a storied history of cousin-marriage, might do the job.
Most of us undertake thorough and detailed research when buying, say, an electric toothbrush. But when it comes to our next head of state, we don’t need to ask any questions because we already know the answer: it’s him with the ears. Dust off the crown and fetch Welby.
Sheer randomness of personnel is what makes monarchy so great. You can end up with a thug, a mystic, a gambler or, as we will eventually, a bloke who genuinely believes he can talk to plants. Greatness can be dunked into the cesspit at any moment. Royalty endures in Britain, not merely because of the pageantry, or the beauty, or its great ennobling truth, but because of its brutal, hilarious irrationality.
Republicans make the mistake of thinking the monarch rules over her subjects, when in fact she is a form of entertainment put on for her subjects, like those hardworking bears that ride motorcycles at the Moscow State Circus.
Our Royals almost understand this. “I’m not very good at being a performing monkey,” Prince Charles sadly admitted to Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994, unaware that his utter discomfort is precisely what makes him such a consistent amusement.
The monarch, her family, their flunkies, valets, chauffeurs, gardeners, manicurists, toadies, lovers, bodyguards, back-up toadies and piss-pot holders — they’re our subjects. They are more or less down on their knees at this point, existing for the increase, encouragement and maintenance of scandal, gossip and jokes. (Yes: they do fine things for charity, too.) Today’s Cromwells are usually American, and like all Republicans they fail to grasp a simple truth about the monarchy: why overthrow it when it bloodlessly overthrows itself every 25 years or so? The House of Windsor was built on a cliff edge — which is exactly where we want it.
This latest Windsorian plunge off the precipice is presented, depending on the sympathies of the storyteller, as either yet another family’s failure to assimilate an outsider, or a case of an outsider undermining that family’s domestic bliss. She stole our prince! Meghan in this version is a truculent and unsparing monster, rather than a garden-variety social climber, who, Godzilla-like, trashes our Royal city.
It is a flattering tale, in which neither the public’s gluttonous appetite for drama, Harry, nor our Crown Prince shoulders much of the blame for what’s happened. I’m not convinced that Meghan — who appears to be thoroughly consumed by a years-old argument about dresses with the Duchess of Cambridge — is really in the driving seat here. Instead, it is surely Harry in the lead; it was only when he appeared that Monday’s interview became interesting. Meghan was his convenient excuse, his getaway car, his ejector pod — in the same way that a nebulous accusation of racism is Meghan’s way of explaining why the Windsors disliked her. Both of them wanted to go. But why?
Well, it seems clear to me that Prince Harry hates his father very deeply. Watch again that moment when he says Charles stopped taking his calls. Harry’s eyes are so narrow they could be covered with a single penny. If this were the 14th century, he would be in France right now, plotting his revenge, doggedly raising an army, ready to sail back to England to seize the throne, violently torture Piers Morgan, and place the entire editorial staff of the Daily Mail in a gibbet. Alas, the 14th century is over, so Harry’s revenge is an over-bathroomed mansion in Beverly Hills and a maximum-damage television spectacular.
Surely it is oedipal fury that made Harry do this, rather than the press or racism, as he claims. How else are we to explain their move to America, where there is no racism whatsoever, and to Hollywood in particular, where, as far as I can gather, no journalists or photographers have ever been seen?
Not that much will change for them. Harry will still smile when he doesn’t feel like smiling. He will still have to mouth phrases he doesn’t understand at interminable functions. The lost Prince will continue to press through crowds of frozen faces in dire rooms, still less free to bitch and scold than the poorest Laotian peanut farmer. In short, he will have escaped into another effigy of himself. The only thing that must make it worthwhile is the knowledge that he has humiliated his father, the man who forced him to walk behind his mother’s coffin.
The roots of Harry’s rage are, however, far less important than the inevitability of such bitter feuding among our Royals. It has all happened before, and will happen again; this pair of keys comes with the property. The Oedipal skirmishing of the Hanoverians, for instance, lasted for more than a century. George I hated his eldest son, the future George II, who hated him right back. George II hated his eldest son Frederick, whose hatred for his father was only interrupted by a fatal cricket accident (well, perhaps). George III’s eldest despised his father so greatly that… you can see the picture here. The inhuman requirements of monarchical life — Virginia Woolf once compared being a royal to living like a single ant “struggling with a pebble” — make bitter squabbling unavoidable.
Even so, the griefs and frustrations and embarrassments of Charles do seem like they will stand out in the annals. Even the rare notes of sympathy he receives — such as this Washington Post column by Ben Judah — are fairly worthless. Charles, Judah writes, is not a villain. The Prince has been right about many great issues of the day. He thought the Iraq War was a bad idea. He was a green before it was trendy. Plus, Charles is broad-minded — he gives diplomatic speeches to worthy Europeans every now and then. (Judah forgets one of Charles’s key strengths: he looks authentically comfortable holding a pint of beer — once the kind of trait that swung general elections, before we discovered the joy of calling our political enemies racist.)
The problem with all this is that it does not matter if Charles is “right” about organic farming or interfaith dialogue or anything else. Nobody cares what Charles thinks — he was born to be a symbol, not a newspaper columnist.
As a father and a husband (the first time around), it is fair to say that Charles failed. Standing behind the curtains of history for decades, with all his charitable toiling undone by the simple phrase “God forbid, a Tampax”, has not left us with a dynamic, prudent Crown Prince who is capable of holding his family together. “Nobody knows,” he once moaned, “what utter hell it is to be the Prince of Wales.”
But being put through utter hell is exactly what the public wants from him, and all the rest of them, as this week has shown. Monarchy does not survive on laws and abstractions. The unfair truth is that as long as the Windsors dish up an unpleasant family disaster every generation or so, they will endure. The Firm will keep winning, even when it’s losing. That’s why Charles, when he at last dusts off the crown, will be thinking not the resentments of his son, or the cruel attentions of his subjects, but of his face on the coins.