On her 21st birthday in 1947, George VI’s daughter and the future Queen Elizabeth II said to the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire over the radio: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” For 60 years, Elizabeth has done just that: presided at official state dinners, opened schools, visited the dominions, and endured endless small talk with her distinctive stiff smile. And wherever she went, crowds would gather just to get a glimpse of royalty.
But what exactly does a monarch do in the democratic, post-imperial age? After all, Elizabeth has no real political power (though she technically could dissolve Parliament to get rid of a Prime Minister if she wished). Gone are the days when she could declare war on Spain or chop off the head of political rivals à la Elizabeth I. But her lack of political power has no bearing on her image as a legitimate patriotic symbol. Elizabeth is still a true diplomat, even if many of her colleagues view their royalty as a birthright to party.
Fundamentally the job of the monarch is being popular — something she has always understood. And Elizabeth is: Even when the Windsors were at their least popular after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, over 70 percent of Britons still stated that they wanted to retain the monarchy, according to TIME magazine.
But for a serious monarch, being popular does not mean being a celebrity — at least not how Lindsay Lohan would define it. Elizabeth has also understood this: she’s maintained a distance from the people, and thereby differentiated herself from the throngs who populate page six. Justin Bieber gains social power by telling us what he had for breakfast on Twitter. Despite the fact that she got her own Facebook page last year, the Queen would lose her credibility if she ever actually used it. It would make her seem like us — dangerously, tragically, pathetically similar.
So what is going to happen with the next generation — William and Harry, the ones we watched in the pages of People magazine our whole lives?
In November, Prince William announced his engagement to his long-term, on-again off-again girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Britons have been given an official holiday to watch the wedding and the government has relaxed licensing laws — extending pub drinking hours from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. — on the wedding weekend. Across the realm, Britons will celebrate their monarch’s union, 1952 style.
It’s a modern fairytale: William is a prince and second in line to the British throne; Kate is a commoner whose parents worked for British Airways and now sell party decorations. Middleton’s parents saved money to send her to boarding school, then St. Andrews. Now she will be royalty.
Kate and Will’s romance has been strikingly low-key. They met at a party, became friends, and decided to live together. They got involved. They dated, broke up, got back together. Now, they live together in a house in Wales with no servants.
It’s all very modern. Princess Diana’s virginity was deemed highly important before marrying Charles in 1981. That was only 30 years ago. Now, it is O.K. that Will and Kate shacked up before tying the knot. Indeed, their relationship carries a striking familiarity to those of normal 20-somethings.
William may not be king for a long time. But the question that he will have to answer is: With modern media, how can he remain popular and connected, but also insulated? In order to be revered, he has to stay relevant. But how can he do that without falling in with the self-promoting tweeters, who carry all the social power nowadays? Queen Rania of Jordan (perhaps the only other world-famous diplomat-monarch) blogs. Will William have to? In other words — how will they prove to the world that they are regal in 140 characters?
The world likes that Elizabeth, 84 and counting, is kind of stuffy. That she dons funny hats and drinks Earl Grey Tea. She represents Britishness from a certain post-war era. And she does it extremely well: her name is world famous; David Cameron’s name is an Anna Liffey’s trivia question.
The current Queen benefits from her age. Will and Kate can’t. They face a different challenge, and a different people: one that spends more and more time staring at their computers and less time standing outside of Buckingham Palace for a mere glimpse of their betters. And in Elizabeth, if not Charles, they’ll have a tough act to follow. God save them.
Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.