Updated after the royal birth.
Welcome to the universe, Royal Baby. We don’t know your name, but we do know one thing — your timing is terrible. Yeah, yeah, you’ll be a millionaire with courtiers to serve your every need. So in any objective sense your life will be pretty sweet. But compared to any previous heir to the throne — including the three folks (your great-grandma, granddad, and dad) ahead of you in line — you’re going to have a rough go of it. Here’s why.
Your vast empire isn’t so vast anymore
You’re only a baby so I’m going to break this down with an animated GIF:
Take a closer look at 1919:
That was a great year for you! After beating back the Germans, Austrians, and Ottomans, you had much of the Middle East, half of Africa, the northern chunk of North America, India, Burma, Australia, and Malaysia. Terrible for the people you were oppressing, but pretty great for you.
Now take a look at 2007:
Now you basically have…the Falkland Islands. “But what about the Commonwealth?!?” you ask, because you are a very precocious baby for the purposes of this rhetorical exercise. Yeah, what about it? Let’s take a look at your precious Commonwealth:
First of all, let’s note what’s not here. There’s no Burma, no Iraq, no Oman, no Egypt or Sudan. Most pertinently, there’s no United States. They’re your most successful former colony, and they won’t even join your stupid club.
But yeah, in fairness, this does look very much like your 1914 map. Check out the colors, though. The blue countries are in the “Commonwealth of the Realm.” Those are the ones you’re actually going to be King or Queen of. But the dark red ones are just in the “Commonwealth of Nations,” a club your ancestors put together for those countries that don’t actually want a British person ruling them. Those include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa — you know, the countries with all the people. You don’t even have fake power over them.
And oh, how fake is your power
World history decided to rub the powerlessness of Papua New Guinea governor-general Michael Ogio (seen here getting an honor from Camilla Parker-Bowles) in his face. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images AsiaPac)
So fake! Let’s start with the colonies, where your impotence is most on display. Assuming they don’t become republics before you assume the throne, you’ll control Canada, Australia, New Zealand, et al by way of “Governors-General” (they used to be called “Viceroys” but that has a well-deserved negative connotation at this point).
Mostly, it’s a ceremonial role. You host dinners, give soldiers medals, eat the raw hearts of Canadian seals — you know, standard stuff. But occasionally, governors-general exercise real power. Never, however, have they done so on the instruction of the Crown. They were always going rogue.
Let’s run through the major incidents:
- In 1926, Lord Byng of Vimy, the Governor-General of Canada, refused the request of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to dissolve the parliament and call new elections. Byng refused, and instead had the Conservative opposition leader, Arthur Meighen, form a government. But he did so on his own and without orders from the British government.Indeed, it was King who appealed to the British government — specifically the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery — to overrule Byng’s decision, on the grounds that the governor-general’s power hadn’t been used that way in 100 years. They refused, thinking it improper for the British government to interfere in Canadian affairs in such a way. The move was so unpopular that King, who had previously been mired in a corruption scandal, trounced Meighen in the subsequent election, and no Canadian governor-general has tried anything like it since.
- In 1953, the Governor-General of Pakistan, Malik Ghulam Muhammad, dismissedthe government of Khawaja Nazimuddin. Ghulam Muhammed, who was close to the Pakistani military, as he didn’t like Nazimuddin’s proposal to cut defense spending. Nazimuddin tried to appeal to the newly-enthroned Queen Elizabeth II, but Ghulam Muhammed’s word stood.Then, in 1954, when Ghulam Muhammed disapproved of pro-Bengali measures being adopted by parliament, in particular a push for true parliamentary democracy, which would have empowered the Bengal population in East Pakistan (which has since become Bangladesh).So he declared a state of emergency, imposed press censorship, and refused to let members of the National Assembly take their seats. The Supreme Court, led by an appointee of Ghulam Muhammed, ruled in his favor. Eventually, the position of governor-general was abolished in 1956 and most of the powers Ghulam Muhammed exercised were granted to the President. Ghulam Muhammed probably had more power than any other Commonwealth governor-general in modern memory. But he used it on his own, rather than on the instruction of the Crown, or even of the Prime Minister of Britain.
- In 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, John Kerr, dismissed the government of Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. While Whitlam and the Labour Party controlled the House of Representatives, they did not control the Australian Senate, where the right-leaning Liberal Party (it’s confusing, I know, don’t worry about it) had a majority and used it to gum up the works on appropriations bills. Whitlam wanted to resolve the matter by dissolving half of the Senate and holding new elections, but Kerr instead dismissed him and asked Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser to form a government.It’s normal for a government in a parliamentary system to fail when it can’t pass appropriations bills, but that hadn’t actually happened yet when Kerr dismissed Whitlam, prompting controversy. An election ensued, which Fraser won. The event prompted protests throughout Australia, and to date a governor-general has never removed a prime minister, nor has the Senate failed to pass appropriations bills.But like Byng, Kerr wasn’t acting on the advice of the Crown. He was freelancing. Indeed, his main worry during the crisis was that Whitlam would ask the Queen to replace him, which is within the Australian Prime Minister’s powers to request, and which the Queen, by custom, is obligated to grant. Even if stuff gets really real, little Royal Baby, you’ll ultimately be somebody’s lackey.
- The most recent such crisis occurred in 2011 in Papua New Guinea. While Michael Somare, the Prime Minister, was out of the country, Peter O’Neill was elected by parliament to replace him. Later the Supreme Court ruled that this was illegitimate, as the office was not vacant. That led Michael Ogio, the governor-general, to reinstate Somare. For his troubles, Ogio was suspended by O’Neill loyalists, who put their own man in as governor-general.Ogio got his job back once he reversed courseand said he thought O’Neill was the legitimate Prime Minister.This is a perfect illustration of how powerless governors-general are, generally. Ogio tried to matter, lost his job as a consequence, and only got it back once he agreed not to matter anymore.
You don’t even matter at home
Asquith (left) and Lloyd-George (right), a few years after they humiliated the House of Lords. (Bonham Carter Trustees)
What about in Britain? Surely you matter there, at least a little bit? Nope!
The last time you kind-of-sort-of mattered was in 1909-1911, during the premiership of the Liberal H. H. Asquith. When the House of Lords was giving him trouble when he was trying to pass the People’s Budget, Asquith went to the King (Edward VII) to ask if he would agree, upon Asquith’s request, to appoint enough Liberal life peers — a kind of noble rank in Britain that only lasts for the holder’s life; those who hold it get to sit in the House of Lords — for the budget to pass the House of Lords.
The King’s adviser, Lord Knollys, stated that “the King regards the policy of the Government as tantamount to the destruction of the House of Lords.” He refused to agree to create the peers unless the Asquith government were dissolved again, and reelected, and the House of Lords still refused to pass its budget. But he did concede that he’d create them if that happened. It didn’t have to, as the Lords allowed the budget to take effect in April 1910 without any action by the King.
One month later, Edward died, and George V took the throne. In November, Asquith asked George to make the same promise his father had, this time about the passage of the Parliament Act, which permanently enshrined the House of Commons as the dominant house. It said that bills certified as “money bills” (those dealing with taxes, spending, debt, etc.) could only be delayed by the Lords for one month, not blocked entirely. Other bills introduced by the government could only be delayed for two years.
The Lords, unsurprisingly, didn’t much care for this development. So Asquith wanted to know that George would have his back when stuff got real. George agreed, reluctantly. In July 1911, Asquith informed the King that the Lords were insisting on unacceptable amendments to the Parliament Act, and so the King agreed to appoint the peers. However, the threat was enough to cow the Lords into passing the bill, so the peers didn’t have to be appointed after all.
Since Asquith used your great-great-great-grandfather as a pawn, the Crown hasn’t even been that involved. When your great-great-granduncle abdicated the throne, your great-great-grandfather couldn’t take over until the parliament passed a law letting him. The last time the Crown actually interacted with the Prime Minister in a real way was in 1997, when Tony Blair impressed upon your great-grandmother the importance of not being a jerk in the wake of your grandmother’s tragic death. There was a pretty good movie about the whole thing.
Opposition to you is growing
The worst thing is that, even though you have no power over them, many of your subjects still want you gone. Forty percent of Canadians want an elected head-of-state, and only 28 percent want you to stick around. What’s worse, the trend is against you:
In New Zealand, you still have a plurality, but the trend is against you, as this polling compilation put together by The Republic Movement (an organization devoted to freeing New Zealanders from the British yoke) shows:
The most recent poll, which finds that 62 percent of New Zealanders support keeping the monarchy to 28 percent supporting a republic, goes against that trend somewhat, but even that poll finds that young people are more likely to support a republic, suggesting it could gain support as the years go on.
Australia actually came a hair’s breadth away from rejecting your rule in 1999. Fifty-five percent of voters in a referendum backed the monarchy, to 45 percent who wanted a republic. Public opinion is pretty volatile. As recently as 2008, republicans outnumbered monarchists, but today Australians prefer monarchy by a 60-34 split.
So you’re not safe in ANZAC either, even if they aren’t as eager to see you go as Canadians are. But at least your countrymen still want you — 80 percent of them, anyway. When you’re walking down the street, one in five of the people you see will think your rule is illegitimate. Just kidding — you don’t walk down streets, you have people chauffeur you.
Your financial situation is only getting worse
Blame this dude, Chancellor George Osborne, who championed the Sovereign Grant Bill. (Jon Super/AP)
In 2011, the Sovereign Grant Bill took effect. It set a fixed budget for the royal family at 15 percent of the annual profits of the Crown Estate. That’s a body of the British government that owns a whole bunch of properties — shopping centers, residential and commercial buildings, fishing and logging rights to a bunch of bodies of water and forests, etc. — and generates a fair bit of money as a result.
As a result of that, and spending decisions of the Crown, spending is down 26 percent in real terms over the past three years. This is not good for you, Royal Baby! Your family is already getting less than the Royal Family of Netherlands, which you may know about from bar trivia. If the Crown keeps letting spending increases be outstripped by inflation, you’re going to be enjoying a standard of living more like that of Norway, or even — perish the thought — Spain, which gives its royals less than $10 million a year.
Also, you don’t own half the stuff that makes royal life so cushy! Let’s say you rack up insane gambling debts at Ladbrokes because you’re really bad at predicting how cricket matches will turn out. Can you sell Buckingham Palace to pay them off? No! Same with Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, and St. James Palace. When push comes to shove, there’s only one castle and one mansion that belong to the royal family personally.
But here’s the thing – you’re not guaranteed those! When Edward VIII abdicated, his brother, George VI, had to buy them off him, since merely becoming King wasn’t enough to claim them (see page 285 here). If Will and Kate decide to disinherit you, you could end up as King or Queen but not have your personal castle and mansion.
In conclusion, history hates you
Face it, Royal Baby – the last 100-odd years have not been kind to the British monarchy. You guys have gone from pretty powerless to totally powerless, and the realm over which you can exercise your total lack of power has shrunk too. And the Queen gets to live on less than her predecessors did.
If the next 50-odd years stay that course, be prepared to take the helm of a much-diminished royal family after a life spent being scrutinized by the British media, and without the opportunity to have a normal career or a normal, small wedding, or, really, a normal anything. Your fate is sealed. The coping begins now.