The power behind the throne

The power behind the throne

By M.J. Akbar | 1 May, 2011
Prince William and his bride Kate Middleton leave Westminster Abbey, London, following their wedding on Friday. AP/PTI

Power changed hands in the third living generation of Britain's House of Windsor through the touch of a finger. It happened during the most dramatic part of a wedding ceremony, when Prince William began to place the ring on the finger of Kate Middleton, a beautiful young lady of common rather than aristocratic birth. Either the jeweller who fashioned the ring is an ass who couldn't get the measurement right, or the very happy Kate had put on weight since her meeting with the jeweller. Since the latter is unlikely, the first must be true. The groom struggled to get the ring onto his bride's finger while a breathless world watched on television cameras.

There is not much distance between awe and farce; a few more seconds of struggle and the magic would have begun to peel. Judging the dilemma perfectly, and without losing an iota of composure, Kate deftly took William's hand and brought the ring home to what should be, if all goes well, its final resting place.

We know now who will be in charge when Kate and William become Queen and King of Britain and those former bits of the old British Empire that will have them.

There are at least three firsts in these nuptials. This is the first British royal wedding in which 50% of the union is not royal. This is the first time that the bride is older than the groom: William's mother, Diana, was only 19 when she married the much older Charles. And, unlike in the case of Diana, no one is interested in whether Kate is a virgin, or indeed whether she lost her virginity to William. The British royal family has joined the egalitarian spirit of its 21st century subjects.

We know now who will be in charge when Kate and William become Queen and King of Britain and those former bits of the old British Empire that will have them.

The extraordinary, and even moving, success of the British royal family lies in its unique ability to step back in order to move forward. If their remaining peers around the world understood just this much they would not be in the trouble they are now. No period in history has seen as much change, evolution, war and upheaval as the last century. The Windsor genius has enabled this dynasty to change before they were changed by tides outside their control. They stepped away from supreme, "divinely-sanctioned" authority, in gradual stages, without any fuss, and blossomed into an imperturbable institution that is a magnet for national social cohesion. No elected British Prime Minister would be so foolish as to test his will against theirs.

There is something about this royal, even majestic, aura that supersedes reality. Would anyone be caught wearing trousers with a sergeant-major's red vertical slash running down the side from waist to shoe? But there they were, William and daddy Charles, at the wedding dressed in what is surely the very opposite of a pinstripe, and managed to look elegant. So much of British royal procedure, from decor to decorum, not excluding the faux haughtiness of underlings who populate the palace, is the stuff of potential cartoons that, from a distance, it looks immensely fragile. But it is as strong as silk.

If you or I tried a display of pomp, we would merely look pompous. On Friday the Windsors turned out all the pomp in the world and it seemed totally befitting. The one area that they might want to tweak towards modernity could be in their names. It is still all Henry Arthur Louis Witherspoon-Cutlery in the guest lists. Research reveals that one of William's pre-Kate girlfriends was called Davina Duckworth-Chad. No judgement on the girl, but it is a relief to the rest of us that he didn't marry a surname which was a combination of a publishing firm and African nation. Some leeway is possible in titles, of course. The moment that the heir but one got married, William became, thanks to the gracious generosity of mummy, the Duke of Cambridge, the Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus. The Cambridge bit is quite nice; after all it has a great university. But by the time you descend to the Barony of Carrickfergus you are competing with limericks.

A marriage is an occasion for tradition and sentiment, and one's first wish is of course that the marriage is blessed with happiness. The track record of Queen Elizabeth's children, or her sister, is not a triumph of marital bliss. William is a child of a family that broke in the glare of a merciless media. His mother Diana took revenge against real or imagined slights with a ferocity, and a succession of bizarre boyfriends, that became the subject of relentless gossip. But tradition, the plasma of this bloodline, is not about mistakes but about recovery. Kate, it seems to me, is steely and level-headed enough to nourish a functional family as her contribution to Windsors. Thank God she comes from "common" stock. She has, thereby, common sense.


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