The news of the Royal Pregnancy was probably greeted with celebrations down at Number 10 Downing Street. It’s easy to imagine the unholy trinity of Cameron, Osborne and Gove popping open a bottle of vintage champagne in the Cabinet room, filling their glasses and raising a toast to the pending arrival. I imagine such a celebration wouldn’t be solely animated by royalist ardour, rather, I suspect that it would also be an example of the kind of elation experienced by drowning men who had just been saved. No more lurid tales of economic failure and of axed Remploy workers being forced to work for no pay. Now the news will be filled with fluff about the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy: the Daily Telegraph fired the opening salvo of silliness by suggesting that she might be pregnant with twins. In that instance, who is heir to the throne? Presumably, it’s whoever arrives first.
Other outlets focused on the fact that the Duchess has been hospitalised for morning sickness; this is a prime example of lazy journalism. In some instances “morning sickness” is an inaccurate label for a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, which is very serious. According to Wikipedia, it can cause “renal failure, central pontine myelinolysis, coagulopathy, atrophy, Mallory–Weiss syndrome, hypoglycemia, jaundice, malnutrition, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, pneumomediastinum, rhabdomyolysis, deconditioning, splenic avulsion, and vasospasms of cerebral arteries”. Her hospitalisation is thus probably prudent and justified.
But if it’s unfair to suggest that the Duchess has been unduly cosseted because she received treatment, it is not unjust to state that she lives at a remove. No doubt, she is receiving the best of care at the King Edward VII hospital. This is a private facility, not part of the NHS. According to the Daily Telegraph, “it boasts over 200 handpicked consultants from around the world who are leaders in a wide range of medical fields”. I am certain that she has a private, quiet and comfortable room. Yes, there is a persistent inconvenience associated with being constantly in the public gaze, but when it comes down to something serious like needing the best of medical care, no expense will be spared, no treatment denied, no expertise closed off to her. Her world possesses a velvet lining which softens most of the rough edges. All she has to do is be publicly pleasant and duck the paparazzi.
There is, however, a second country, whose tales are being obscured by the pomp and pageantry. Last week, I saw an item on the news concerning an upsurge in whooping cough cases. One breakfast programme featured a small boy and his mother who had to repeatedly pester their GP in order to get it treated: despite going to see the doctor every day, it was only after the child was admitted into hospital for tests that he finally received appropriate care. Had the mother listened to her doctor as opposed to her parental instincts, it is entirely possible that the boy would not have regained his health; the doctors had kept on telling her that her son was “fine” and it was something from which he would recover on his own. It may have been the doctors in this instance were merely incompetent; however it could also just has easily have been that their incentives, and thus their biases for treatment, may have been skewed. Despite Cameron’s pledge to protect the NHS, it’s clear that the vapid and pernicious directive of “do more with less” has descended from on high to hospitals and GPs throughout the land. Medical professionals and managers will look at their scarce resources and do their best to conserve them; this will not always be to the benefit of patients. On the other hand, if the Royal infant (or infants, as the case may be) ever shows any sign of illness, it will be straight to the King Edward VII hospital he or she will go, and whatever ails him or her will be treated with every ounce of solicitude and skill that can be mustered. What is more, the media will ever be much more interested in this latter story rather than the injustice engendered by the former. The public, by and large, will likely acquiesce in this prioritisation.
No wonder the champagne likely flows down at 10 Downing Street; their thoughts need not focus so much on places like the Bradford Royal Infirmary, where queues for non-emergency treatment can lead to four to five hour waiting times. The doctors there are under pressure, the nurses as polite as endless tension allows. Patients sit in quiet agony in the waiting room, awaiting healing hands to be free to alleviate their suffering. The funds to ameliorate this situation are not there, allocated not just to Royal priorities through the Civil List but also towards providing sustenance to banks whose commitment to civic responsibility is as absent as their common sense. A Royal infant averts the gaze of the second country from itself: it doesn’t look at the back streets of Manchester in which young unemployed men sit on doorsteps and smoke cigarettes and mothers hang their washing on clotheslines in the uncertain December weather. The first country is all show; the second country looks up, sees it, smiles and infrequently considers the contrast.
This is not to say that the nation should not wish Kate and William well; pregnancy and parenthood are generally joyous events and a bold statement of confidence in the face of an uncertain future. But this spectacle may also provide the strongest rationale yet for ditching the monarchy: it prevents Britain from viewing itself with clear eyes. What should be the nation’s priority, the crisis in health care or a Royal child? What should the media cover, the plight of the unemployed or the Duchess of Cambridge visiting her old school? What proved to be more relevant and lasting, the Diamond Jubilee or Danny Boyle’s inspired Olympic Opening Ceremony extravaganza? Should those of us who reside in the second country look at ourselves and address our problems or quaff more champagne, either vintage or that acquired on special from Aldi? What will make us a better nation, continuing as two countries, or proceeding together as one, in which we are indeed “all in this together” and every citizen is equal before the law?
To be resolutely fair, these questions are germinating in fertile soil: Royal propaganda is not as potent as it used to be, and the second country’s appetite for ceremony may not be what it once was. Perhaps by the time the Royal infant comes of age, he or she will no longer be Royal, but rather will find the springtime of their childhood spent in country gardens and schools not surrounded by intrusive cameramen, their unblinking glass eyes ever watchful. Perhaps he or she will go to university and come to meet those who come from the back streets of Manchester or Bradford. Perhaps he or she will realise that accident of birth is merely that, a happen-stance, and one should neither be elevated nor imprisoned by it.