A right royal hullabaloo

Mon, Jun 14, 2010, 01:00

The upcoming nuptials of Sweden’s crown princess have shone a light on the country’s monarchy, which many believe is at odds with its staunchly progressive democracy, writes DONALD MAHONEY

‘OY,” COOED Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria after her first glimpse of the 1,000-piece glassware set given to her as a wedding gift by Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, last Sunday. Reinfeldt said the €30,000 present was Sweden’s offering to the royal couple, who will marry on Saturday.

Reinfeldt did not mention Sweden’s other present to the crown princess and her fiance – who is also her personal trainer – Daniel Westling: their lavish 20 million kroner (€2 million) wedding.

With final preparations underway across Stockholm for a spectacle to rival the wedding of Charles and Diana, Swedes are finding themselves both fascinated and troubled by the prospect of the first royal nuptials since 1976.

The enduring prominence of the royal family is one of the most perplexing contradictions of Swedish society. On so many political issues – environmental activism, social inclusion or gender equality – Sweden is proudly, almost painstakingly, progressive. Yet the house of Bernadotte remains entrenched in Stockholm’s many fine palaces, as it has for the past 200 years.

Over time, Sweden’s royals have ceded most of their power, though little of their wealth or status. When Sweden reformed its constitution in the mid-1970s, it reduced head-of-state King Carl XVI Gustaf’s role to little more than a ceremonial figurehead.

Former prime minister Olof Palme once said Sweden was one stroke of a pen away from becoming a republic. But abolishing the royals is “a step too far” for Sweden, according to Cecilia Åse, political scientist and author of The Power of the Monarchy. Åse believes that by removing its monarchy from politics, the Swedish government inadvertently emboldened it.

“The royals give Sweden political innocence,” Åse says. “They have no real impact on society and that keeps them popular.” As is the case with Britain’s monarchy, interest in Sweden’s royals is stoked by a gossip-hungry media. And in a country short of celebrities, the private lives of the king’s three children, Victoria, Prince Carl Phillip and Princess Madeline, dominate the front pages on a daily basis.

In 2002, Victoria handed the tabloids a story worthy of a Disney film when she began dating a personal trainer and luxury gym owner from the small town of Ockelbo, Daniel Westling. The future Duke of Västergötland and Sweden’s reigning “hottest hick”, Westling, 36, couldn’t be any less royal, which confused both the king and the Swedish people.

“In the beginning, the public was a little hesitant about Daniel. Because he was not royal, because he was a personal trainer. He had this slacker style, he wore trucker caps and jeans,” says Daniel Nyhlen, royal correspondent with Svensk Dam magazine.

Yet, Westling eventually won the country over and his wedding will feature more than 1,100 guests, an 80-horse procession through Stockholm and a royal barge ride.

Abba famously performed Dancing Queen at King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia’s 1976’s wedding and this time around, Benny Andersson of the group has been commissioned to pen a song for the young couple.

The princess and Westling announced their engagement in February, 2009, and in recent weeks anticipation has turned into frenzy. The wedding will be the culmination of Love Fest, a two-week festival featuring romantically-themed tours, exhibitions and dating events around Stockholm. With Victoria and Daniel-themed stamps, cakes, chocolates, candles, mugs, plates, postcards and paper weights flooding into shops – there’s even a Victoria and Daniel iPhone app where fans can test their knowledge of the couple – a royal backlash is afoot.

This is partly because of the mounting bill for the wedding, which does not include the costly refurbishment projects on Stockholm cathedral or the couple’s future palace. The king has pledged to pay half the bill, a strange concession since most of his money comes from the state anyway. Anger is being channelled through Facebook, where more than 56,000 people have joined a group called “Refuse To Pay For Victoria’s Wedding”.

Princess Victoria also somehow managed to upset feminists, conservatives and the Church of Sweden all at once by insisting on being given away by her father. A typical Swedish bride is accompanied down the aisle by her groom, in a gesture of equality of the sexes.

Lars Ohly, head of the Vänsterpartiet (Left Party) recently declined his invitation to attend the wedding.

“I have better things to do,” he said. “I am not one of their friends or family, so why should I go to their wedding?” Ohly claims the royals’ popularity is on the wane, as the mounting cost of the royal wedding clashes with mooted cuts in social welfare.

“People are getting tired of it, this hysteria,” he says. “They are rich people. Let them pay for their own wedding. A monarchy is not a proper way to run a democracy. We prefer that it would be abolished and replaced with an elected president.”

Republikanska Föreningen (RepF), a group campaigning for Sweden to abolish its royal family and become a republic, claims membership has doubled in the last year, thanks mostly to the hype surrounding the wedding.

“We’re riding a republican wind. A lot of people are really fed up. They think it’s really un-modern,” says RepF secretary general Mona Broshammar, who says she would like Sweden to become the first republic in the world without a head of state. “It would be easy for us because the king does nothing anyway.”

Yet, at government-level, change is elusive. Public talk of getting rid of the royals is politically dangerous in an election year. In fact, Ohly will be the only leader of a major political party to skip the wedding. And though the royal family may cost Swedish tax payers €12 million a year, they are the third-cheapest monarchy in Europe to bankroll. Compared with the €47 million that Queen Elizabeth II’s subjects pay, the Swedes are almost getting a royal discount.

Despite a strengthened opposition, Nyhlen and Åse believe the royals aren’t going anywhere.

“They’re like our movie stars,” Nyhlen says. “We have no one else here who lives these lives, living in castles, having bodyguards.” It seems that in the land of Bergmann and Strindberg, many still want a fairy tale to believe in.

Know your Swedish royal family

King Carl XVI Gustaf

A somewhat dour figure, the king has overseen the modernisation of the Swedish monarchy since assuming the throne in 1973. When he was nine months old, his father Prince Gustaf Adolf died in a plane crash in Denmark.

Queen Silvia

The Swedish queen is actually German. Queen Silvia recently confirmed that her father Walther Sommerlath had been in the Nazi party while he was based in Brazil in the 1930s, though she claims he was “not politically active”. Silvia met her future husband at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Prince Carl Philip

The man who would be king, had Sweden not altered its rules on primogeniture in 1980. Undaunted, the 31-year-old lives the busy life of a European prince. He enjoys car racing and cross-country skiing and is reportedly now dating Swedish bikini model Sofia  Hellqvist.

Princess Madeline

Dubbed the “Party Princess”, Madeleine is the Swedish royal most in the news. Madeleine had also planned on getting married this year, but cancelled her wedding to lawyer Jonas Bergström i after it was reported hed had an affair with a Norwegian handball player.