As Britain segues seamlessly through feelgood summer heat from Andy Murray mania to royal baby euphoria, let us at least spare a thought for the unfortunate newborn caught, through no fault other than his ancestry, in the global spotlight.
No royal arrival has been so closely scrutinized since 1688 when Mary of Modena, wife of the widely disliked James II, gave birth watched by dozens of officials amid speculation that her pregnancy was a Catholic conspiracy intended to fabricate a male heir.
Even their presence was not enough to quash rumors that the child had been smuggled into the birthing chamber in a bedpan, and within months James had been deposed; his son was destined to spend his life in bitter exile in France and Rome.
At least the newborn prince and his parents are unlikely to be run out of the country, even if the flag-waving royalists celebrating the birth are hardly representative of a silent majority largely apathetic about the monarchy and more inclined to treat its modern incarnation as a publicly-subsidized soap opera largely staged for the amusement of American tourists.
Nor did his mother suffer the indignity of having the home secretary in the vicinity of the delivery room, a custom for royal births only formally ended in 1948.
And there have undoubtedly been worse times in history to be born into one of Europe’s great royal dynasties. Paris in 1789 springs to mind, or St. Petersburg in 1917.
Yet the life prospects of a boy now third in line to the British crown who, if as lucky in longevity as his paternal great-grandparents, might reasonably expect to see in the 22nd century on the throne, are hardly something to be envied.
The Windsors may have recovered some of their respectability after the nadir in their fortunes in the 1990s that culminated in the 1997 death of Princess Diana, thanks in no small part to the fairy-tale mega-wedding of William and Kate in 2011 and Oscar-winning propaganda such as “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech.”
To question the role of the monarchy and Britons’ attachment to it is still to risk a public flogging from more reactionary sections of the British media, as author Hilary Mantel discovered when she found herself pilloried earlier this year for describing the Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic princess designed to breed.”
The resulting furore missed the point that Mantel was trying to make, which was that members of the royal family, however privileged and luxurious their lives, are essentially prisoners of their own circumstances, trapped by their supposed obligations to an archaic and largely redundant institution.
“Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at?” said Mantel.
If Mantel’s point was essentially true of Kate Middleton, who, like a mafia wife, married into the firm of her own volition, how much worse must the situation be for her offspring, who will become public property from the moment he is displayed to the assembled world media on the hospital steps.
The mainstream media may feign responsibility, keeping a respectful distance as the young family find their feet and honoring royal requests to leave the child alone, but he will still face near constant public intrusion, living a life framed by the ubiquitous lens of the camera phone.
And in an age obsessed with the oxymoronic phenomena of “reality” and celebrity, the young royal will be forced to perform a gilded simulation of a normality that he will never experience for real, ultimately embracing the stiflingly conservatism of a British establishment of which the monarchy remains the apex, and allowing their personality to be airbrushed according to public tastes. It will be “The Truman Show” with footmen.
Royals, for better or worse, once inhabited worlds of intrigue, conspiracy and high drama, their lives, relationships and deaths entwined with the rise and fall of nations and empires. The feats and misdeeds of kings, queens and their progeny were fodder for Shakespearean epics.
Yet it is centuries since the British royal family played anything more than a decorative role in the life of the nation — and this new heir may have to wait the best part of this century before assuming even those diminished duties.
Royal heirs have traditionally passed the years waiting for their relatives to die by becoming champions of worthy causes. Prince Charles is famed for his woolly opinions on environmentalism and architecture, while Prince William has leant his support to the campaign to tackle homelessness.
Perhaps, out of enlightened self-interest alone and with time on his side, the prince could one day become the first royal to embrace the cause of republicanism.
This article was originally published under the headline “Why I wouldn’t want to be royal baby” on CNN.com on 23 July, 2013.