Leading Article: Son, don't believe in fairy-tales

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The Independent Online
Dear Wills,

Your mother will already have told you that she and I have decided to live apart. We feel wretched about it, but it is one of the hazards of modern marriage and no one, not even two people who love you as much as we do, is immune. Separately, we will be happier people and, we hope, better parents. These are our present worries, but, as the years go by, other questions will trouble you. Young as you are, I must do my best to explain them now.

I should come straight to the point: the future of the British monarchy depends on you. No doubt the constitutional experts are technically right in assuring us that nothing has really changed. But experts are almost invariably wrong in practice. The likelihood is that I am never going to be King. Ignore the precedents of divorced or separated people ascending the throne in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Then the monarchy survived periods of great unpopularity. But our ancestors played a more political role; the mob could be dispersed at bayonet-point; our subjects had yet to feel the full power of egalitarianism as an ideal; the rotary printing press had not been invented. Today we have been stripped of much of our power and authority. The result is that, if the next monarch is to be more than a hand-shaking machine, he (or she) must evoke something like admiration or respect or affection or excitement. The brute equation for the likes of us is this: popularity equals survival. And so a monarch must stand for something other than the ability to read speeches or to dress up in preposterous clothes. He must, in some sense, represent popular aspirations; lacking a role, he must justify his existence through character and personality.

As all the world knows - or at least has been led to believe - your mother and I have separated somewhat acrimoniously. I am accused of being uncaring and indifferent and of continuing affairs with other women. One day I may tell you the truth about this. In the meantime I point you towards an old adage which particularly applies to marriage: there are two sides to every story. But, as people used to say, how unlike the home life of our own dear Queen. Your grandmother and her parents made family life central to the monarchy - this was what they were for. Today it may be that our subjects will forgive us our domestic frailties because they resemble their own. The truth is that your mother is more popular than me, I have been accused of treating her badly, and mud sticks. If I had a more common touch, I might, in time, overcome this. But I am, I suppose, a complicated man whose interests and enthusiasms frequently fly above the heads of those who write (and read) about us most.

So, Wills, I probably won't be King. But can you be? All children have to bear the burden of their parents' expectations, but you have to meet the expectations of a nation. The British are in febrile mood. Somehow, our family tribulations have become a symbol of a desperate national uncertainty. When I married your mother in 1981, the country was torn by inner-city riots, unemployment was soaring to a post- war high, manufacturing industry was collapsing. Our wedding served as a national therapy. At least, the royals did not let anybody down; this was one thing the British still did well. In that sense, our wedding (as even the Archbishop of Canterbury was moved to suggest) was a fairy-tale.

Now that you are out of kindergarten, Wills, you will know that fairy-tales aren't true. The fairy-tale of our marriage wasn't true, the fairy-tale of the British economic miracle wasn't true, either. But the British never tire of fairy-tales and they want a new one. They have already cast you in the central role. The Crown can skip me, they confidently assert, and then they can have a King William V, an upright, handsome young man for the 21st century, bringing a new era of peace and prosperity. The Daily Mail - a sure guide to the mood of middle England - published a futuristic story on Friday, set in 2018. It had your grandmother, still on the throne at 92, looking on you with pride as her successor: you were 'happy and well-balanced', you had graduated with honours from Oxford, you had 'completed a stint in all three services', you had married successfully and sired three beautiful children, and, because of your expertise on 'green' issues, you had become a 'heavyweight figure on the world stage'. I know the writer - Anthony Holden, a one-time biographer of mine - too well to believe he was serious. But that's what they expect of you, Wills.

It is an awesome responsibility. But let there be no doubt: if you renounce the throne or prove yourself unfit for it, you will be the third male in four generations to fail the exacting standards set for a monarch. The House of Windsor cannot survive that. You have a few years yet to make up your mind, and so does the nation. Your grandmother will never vacate the throne and nobody will force her to do so. In any case, a thousand years of history is not to be thrown away because of a few embarrassing newspaper headlines.

If you do become King, you should certainly insist on a greatly reduced profile: get your head off the stamps, resign (or whatever) as supreme governor of the Church of England, decline to have MPs swearing oaths of allegiance to you, turn over a castle or two to the Department of National Heritage. But you may in the end decide that your people would be better off without you and your heirs, that the British must learn to live without fairy-tales. The burden of their disappointed hopes, their unreal expectations may be far too great for any one head to carry.

Your ever-loving father,

HRH The Prince of Wales.

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