A poll published in the Sunday Times just after the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton was announced showed that 56 per cent of respondants believe William would make a better king than his father Prince Charles. If one were to set aside for a moment all considerations of constitutional subtleties, there is no doubt that, in many important respects, Prince William would be the institution’s dream ticket. In his person is united traditional support for the monarchy and that still extant, disaffected rump of support for a “wronged” Diana. And he is about to marry a beautiful and stylish young woman, emphatically not of the aristocracy but from a solidly self-made family who, one day, could become Britain’s first genuinely middle-class Queen. On the evidence of that poll, more Britons than not would prefer that day to be sooner rather than later.
Kate Middleton (or Catherine, as from now on she should apparently be called) is just about the best thing that could have happened to the British monarchy in generations. That was once said — erroneously — about Lady Diana Spencer. The difference between the two women is instructive. When she married Charles, Diana was also technically a “commoner” but her aristocratic pedigree meant that she had already by that point had a lifetime of close proximity to the royal family and all it entailed. That she should then have been so unprepared for the rigours of royal life says more about her than the supposedly cold and unfeeling establishment about which she was to complain so much later on. Kate Middleton, on the other hand, came from a milieu distant from her future husband’s circle but seems to be made of sterner stuff. She has been on the scene for seven years, and from the start never seems to have put a foot wrong — and there must have been some provocation during that time.
When the couple had their first media interview together, she revealed herself as both poised and informal. The realisation that we hadn’t really heard her speak in all those years came as a surprise (quite a posh voice, but not “objectionably” so). She has a more sophisticated type of beauty than Diana’s, more open, less coy (or, if you like, less passive-aggressive). She has continued, in the run-up to the wedding in April, consistently to strike the right note. She has more natural grace than the Queen’s own granddaughters, combined with a sense of wanting to please, as was shown on her recent trip to Belfast. In these respects she is more in the tradition of the late Queen Mother than the other non-royal brides who’ve married into “the firm” in the past few decades.
To the dismay of republicans, the British monarchy has a knack for reinventing itself, often just in the nick of time. The importance of Kate Middleton’s background, the plainness of it, cannot be underestimated for the benefit it brings to a royal family still often accused of being in some kind of exclusive social time warp. Not since the future James II married Anne Hyde has there been a consort from such an ordinary background — and even Anne was from what used to be called the gentry. Recently there have been a few attempts to find for Kate more august ancestors-the possibility that she might be Henry VIII’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter was floated in the Spectator, and roundly ignored. For this is neither the point, nor the strength, of Kate Middleton. It is the fact that her parents are prosperous due to their own efforts — not fallen gentlefolk, nor “county” in the old-fashioned sense, but people who started up a company which went on to be very successful, and who produced a daughter who went on to university like countless others from similar backgrounds.
Some commentators have complained that William’s future bride has achieved very little since in terms of a career, but this misses the point, which is that what she is, and what she symbolises, is of far greater importance when it comes to her future role, which by its very nature relies on the power of the symbolic. Her presence at the very heart of the monarchy will, in itself, show that the institution can respond and adapt to changing expectations.
People sense this, and there is enormous popular goodwill towards Kate Middleton, which cuts across generations. Late last year, when the car carrying Charles and Camilla was attacked during anti-government demonstrations, there was headline shock at the sight of the limo splashed with paint, as well as at the breakdown in security. When it became clear that the duchess had actually been poked with a stick through one of the car’s open windows, a note of wry humour crept in. But what if it had been Prince William and Kate Middleton in the car? Would there have been muffled giggles if Kate had been prodded? It is highly unlikely: the outrage would have been unequivocal. Is it also too fanciful, too romantic, to suggest that, had it been the young couple, the protesters would have backed off anyway?