LONDON — When the rich, the powerful and the upper crust in England contemplate their families-to-be, it is said, they aim for a minimum of two children — an heir to their estates and a “spare” should misfortune befall the first.
So it was, in modern times, that Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles, the first in line to the throne, produced two sons before their divorce in 1996 and her death in a car crash a year later.
And so it emerged on Monday that their firstborn son, Prince William, and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, who is now Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, have followed the hallowed tradition. Less than 14 months after the birth of their son, Prince George — third in line to the throne after his grandfather and his father — the couple announced that the duchess was pregnant with their second child.
But this tale of succession has quickly taken a more dramatic turn: Would their “spare” serve as insurance not only for their family’s future, but also for that of the realm?
Word of the pregnancy came just a day after an opinion survey indicated that the “yes” vote in a referendum on Scottish independence, which is set for next week, had edged ahead for the first time, suggesting that Scottish voters might dismantle their 307-year-old union with England by seceding from the United Kingdom.
“With 10 days until Scotland votes on whether to remain part of the — proudly royal — British union could the excitement over the news that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their second baby help keep England and Scotland together?” asked Olivia Goldhill, a columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph.
Alert to a potential shift in the winds of fortune, Alex Salmond, the pro-independence Scottish prime minister, pointedly offered his congratulations on Twitter to the “Earl & Countess of Strathearn,” the 14th-century title that the couple use when traveling in Scotland.
The eagerness with which commentators leapt onto the Scottish question was not a surprise. The referendum on Sept. 18 has heightened passions north and south of the border between England and Scotland.
The duke and duchess have particular ties to Scotland. The royal family’s writ — largely ceremonial but profoundly emotive — extends across the United Kingdom. The queen and her family often spend time at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and the duke and duchess, both 32, met at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
But will that sway next week’s vote?
“So one guesses (to borrow a royal usage) that for every Scot persuaded by the romance and charisma of the queen to change their vote, there will be another who is turned off by being told what to do by an Englishwoman, no matter how highborn,” the columnist Sean O’Grady wrote in The Independent.
In a different vein, there was speculation about the likely personality of the unborn royal, based on birth order. Some royal experts forecast that just as William projected a more staid image than his devil-may-care younger brother, Prince Harry, so the new royal baby could behave more rambunctiously than Prince George.
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As third in line, Prince George stands a good chance of becoming king someday. His younger sibling — whether a sister or brother, since a change in 2011 abolished a centuries-old tradition of male precedence — will be fourth in line, with few prospects of becoming the sovereign.
Prince Harry’s reputation has weathered an array of scandals that might have permanently damaged his brother’s. “Would people have been quite so forgiving if William had been photographed cavorting naked in a Las Vegas hotel room?” Sarah Campbell, the royal correspondent for the BBC, said, referring to a well-chronicled incident in 2012.
At the same time, Prince Harry has been able to pursue a full military career, working as a gunner on attack helicopters in Afghanistan. For security reasons, service on active duty was forbidden for his elder brother, who is set to become a pilot for air ambulances in eastern England next year.
As her pregnancy was announced, the Duchess of Cambridge was said to be suffering from an acute form of morning sickness that has required medical treatment.
The expected birth date was not made known, though British news outlets speculated that it would be in March or April.