Prince William and Kate Middleton are 'last chance' for royals to keep Britain's affection

Many British are tired of the pomp, circumstance, and scandal of Britain's royal family, but Prince William and Kate Middleton's understated courtship could restore the royal family's image.

In this image taken from video, Kate Middleton waves as she arrives at Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding in London on Friday, April 29.
Tim Hales/AP/File
This April 11 file photo shows Britain's Prince William accompanied by his fiancee Kate Middleton, as they arrive at Witton Country Park, Darwen, England.

Prince William and Catherine Middleton are a royalist’s dream. Glamorous and popular, they exhibit a normality that plays well with a nation weary of Britain’s more wayward royals.

The young couple’s wedding, in this age of austerity, will also provide a much-needed boost both to the economy and to the mood of a country still feeling the pinch in the wake of a vicious recession.

But beyond the celebrations, slightly toned down to reflect hard times, there is much more at stake than the feel-good factor generated by a jolly good party. Many Britons believe it’s essential that William and Catherine restore some of the dignity that has been chiseled from the monarchy in the past 20 years. And their union – its success or failure – may have profound implications for the future of the royal institution.

“It’s vital that their marriage works,” says David Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King’s College London. “The failure of Charles and Diana’s marriage, in particularly ... unpleasant circumstances, destroyed the role of monarchy as iconic family unit. That role must be restored.”

The fate of the monarchy seems a mighty burden for a young couple to bear. Yet unlike Charles and Diana, William and Kate appear a much better fit. As Lawrence Goldman, fellow in modern history at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, points out, their marriage has not been manufactured. “It feels more natural,” he says. “It looks to the public that it has the basis of success to it because of that.”

Royalists everywhere will hope so. Stefano Bozzi was born and bred in Windsor, a stone’s throw from the castle, an official residence of the queen. He describes his mother and grandmother as staunch royalists and is a monarchist himself. But he sees this marriage as the “last chance” for the royals. “The relevance of the royal family is being diluted by the day,” he says. “It hasn’t ever recovered since Diana and Charles broke up.”

Relevance and the ability to connect to the people will play a crucial role. The couple have advantages here. The charges of elitism and aloofness often leveled at the royals are harder to pin on Catherine, the daughter of a flight attendant.

Even William has led a more normal life than previous heirs to the throne, attending university and training as a helicopter pilot. His grounded attitude, plus the untimely death of his mother, helped endear him to the nation long ago. As Mr. Bozzi says, “You don’t meet many people who don’t like Prince William. There are plenty of people who don’t like Charles. But William always comes across as such a nice guy.”

Nice or not, the couple have work to do to appeal to those disenchanted with the monarchy or uncomfortable with hereditary privilege. But William and Catherine seem acutely aware of the need to reach out. The live broadcast of the wedding via YouTube speaks to that commitment.

If they succeed, the monarchy’s future looks good, says Dr. Carpenter. “I think the best-case scenario is also the most likely scenario,” he says. “The monarchy will rebuild a major place in the life and affections of the country.”

Even if the worst-case scenario transpired, many experts refute the idea that the monarchy would fall apart with it. “There have been many scandalous monarchs but the monarchy has sailed on,” argues Dr. Goldman. “George IV drank and gamed and divorced his wife, but it didn’t affect monarchy. Queen Victoria disappeared for 10 years after Albert died and people worried about the monarchy then. There was the abdication crisis.... History rather defeats that proposition that a bad king will destroy the monarchy. The institution is bigger than any individual.”

In any case, despite the odd grumble or the disinterest in some sections of society, there is simply no great appetite for a republic. “If you abolish the monarchy, what takes its place?” asks Goldman. “You enter a world of elections, of the politicization of the head of state. I think the British people think monarchy is undoubtedly better than all the alternatives.”

Be that as it may, if William and Catherine misstep, expect the protests to begin. “We apply to the royals quite impossible standards,” says Goldman. “We somehow imagine that they’re going to be a perfect family and do everything right. The problem lies not with the monarchy or the royal family but with us,” he says.

Nonetheless, that is the way of this modern world. “Everyone looks up to William,” says Bozzi. “People see him as the savior of the royal family. If he gets it wrong, he’s going to destroy the hopes of a nation.”

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