IT is an irony of British life that we give more thought to the Royal family when they go abroad than we do when they are at home.
Weeks, even months, can go by without us giving most of them a glance.
Then, as soon as they step on a plane, they come under close scrutiny.
What are they wearing?
Will they do or say anything embarrassing?
How much has the venture cost, us the taxpayer?
The trip taken by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to India and Bhutan this week presents us with just such an opportunity. It’s all over the news. This is not just because certain tabloid newspapers get excited about how many outfits Kate is taking, but because this official visit underlines a new departure for the young Royals.
As Her Majesty the Queen approaches her 90th birthday this month, it is evidence that the heir to the heir to the throne and his wife are taking on more overseas trips. Whether they like it or not remains a moot point.
Six days of state banquets, learning about conservation and playing cricket with street children (apparently) might not sound like a set of onerous duties to most of us.
For William and Kate, though, it thrusts them right into the spotlight. If reports are to be believed, the couple are far happier nesting at their country home, Anmer Hall, on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, than in the glitzy glare of Kensington Palace, despite the recent £4.5m refit of their London HQ.
The cosy domesticity of these two has always been an attractive feature. However, what was cute five years ago when William was training to be a helicopter pilot and Kate cooked his dinner in their Anglesey cottage is not quite so endearing these days. Now 33 and 34 respectively, they have two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, and certain expectations to live up to.
Also, the monarchy abhors a vacuum. Before Christmas, rumours were flying that the Queen might abdicate, the Prince of Wales step aside and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would somehow find themselves King and Queen. Are we to spend the next however many decades conjuring up scenarios such as this, just to pass the time? It seems a terrible waste, and detrimental to the natural order of succession.
What this couple needs is a proper role. They should pay heed to the rumblings – still faint, but growing – that they might just be shirking. It is not about the actual number of public engagements they undertake, or the charities or worthy bodies which they become patron of. It is about forging their own brand. In this, they have some way to go. Perhaps this trip to India and Bhutan will help them to develop more of a multi-dimensional appeal.
It is be hoped so, because of late William seems to be channelling the pater familias style of his Edwardian forebears, rather than cultivating the modern, go-ahead style that we expected from Princess Diana’s elder son.
There was a time in his 20s when he would go and visit Centrepoint, the charity for the homeless of which is a patron, undercover. These days he turns up on an official visit to be interviewed by one of the youngsters helped by Centrepoint’s good work. It would be a shame if fear of where they fit in caused William and his wife to retreat – literally – to Norfolk, rather than reach out to people who they might be able to inspire and support.
In this, Kate would do well to take her cue from Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Her mother-in-law’s support for various charities and organisations never appears less than genuine; indeed, earlier this year she was visibly moved to tears when visiting a centre in south London which helps women affected by domestic abuse.
William, wary of the destruction which certain aspects of the media wreaked on his late mother’s life, is notoriously private. In rare public interviews, he is polite but guarded. And who knows what Kate thinks? Increasingly, she seems to be taking her inscrutable cue from the Queen, with whom she is said to be establishing a good relationship. This is dignified and fitting in the monarch; but limiting in the least for those without the responsibilities of state.
No one wants a return to the over-sharing hysterics which characterised the early married lives of both the Prince of Wales and his brother, Prince Andrew. And anyway, by all accounts, the marriage of William and Kate is built on much firmer foundations. However, what these two young Royals must remember is that they should not take their privileges for granted.
In today’s Britain, everything must have its place and that place must be justified. As things stand, it is hard to see where William and Kate are really making their mark.
It is said that travel broadens the mind. They would do well to spend some time staring out of the plane window this week, and giving some consideration to just where they fit into the grand scheme of things.