Prince George in spotlight on first foreign tour

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George will be away for three weeks

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Prince George will be in the spotlight as he heads to Australia and New Zealand with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. What can they expect on their first engagements as a family of three?

He's not even nine months old yet, but he's already making a big impact.

George Alexander Louis is about to embark on his first official foreign tour - with his mother and father too, of course.

And it can reasonably be said that a good many people in New Zealand and Australia appear to be getting rather excited about the three-week trip, which starts in Wellington on Monday and ends in Canberra on 25 April.

The normally rumbustious, hard-edged Kiwi/Aussie attitude to visiting Poms seems to have been suspended for William, Catherine and George.

Baby talk

Barbs about alleged sporting deficiencies in the "old country" have been replaced by baby talk - about teething (is he?), crawling (can he?) and walking (might he, on this trip?).

In part, the Aussie/Kiwi soppiness (words which one wouldn't normally expect to find together) might be explained as being a perfectly normal reaction to a baby, the presence of whom is a pretty universal antidote to cynicism.

But there appears to be evidence of something else here.

Are we, perhaps, witnessing the emergence of a renewed enthusiasm for the long-term future of the monarchy in New Zealand and Australia?

Prince William and the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1983 The tour has echoes of 1983, when Prince William visited Australia and New Zealand with his parents

Not so many years ago, real questions were being raised about whether these former British dominions wanted to retain a system whereby people who lived on the other side of the world and who visited infrequently were nonetheless regarded as "their" head of state and "their" royal family.

It was said to be an anachronism from the days of Empire that was no longer appropriate.

The doubts were at their height - in Australia at least - nearly 15 years ago in the constitutional referendum of November 1999 when 45% of those who voted expressed a preference for a republic.

Glamorous couple

But in the years since, Australia and New Zealand seem to have been swept along (and republican feelings largely swept away) by the impact of an increasingly venerated monarch and the emergence of a glamorous young couple with a baby, around whom all kinds of popular dreams (and, it must be said, countless media schemes to boost reader and viewing figures) have been constructed.

When William, Catherine and baby George disembark, first in Wellington and later in Sydney, they will be welcomed not merely as the "super-celebrities" they undoubtedly are, but as prospective kings and as a future queen consort of New Zealand and Australia.

Large crowds are expected to greet them at each of their public engagements. The authorities have already been producing maps to indicate where spectators can find the best vantage points.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge This trip is likely to have a different feel to the couple's first official tour, to Canada

In the lead-up to the visit those spectators are likely to have been reminded of William's first visit to Australia, when he was brought by his proud parents back in 1983 at roughly the same age as George is now.

They will have seen stories about how George has grown as well as speculation about how he'll behave at the two engagements to which he's expected to be taken by his parents (one in each country) and how the whole trip has been designed with him very much in mind.

Unlike the programme for their visit to Canada in the summer of 2011, when the newly married William and Catherine were prepared to attend functions from morning until night, this time the programme stops on most days in the late afternoon so that the couple can get back to George, presumably to read him a story and put him to bed.

Consequently evening engagements for the couple are being kept to a minimum.

Ambassadors

Does any of it have any significance? Well, yes I suggest it does, for the monarchy that is.

Visits by the royals to New Zealand and Australia are important for the simple reason that these countries - for all their 21st Century vigour and independence - still come within the ambit of the monarchy which is headquartered at Buckingham Palace in London.

The reception that William, his wife and son receive over the next three weeks will say something about the vitality of the British crown and its relevance in 2014.

Clearly not everyone who turns out to cheer William, Catherine and George will necessarily subscribe to the view that, 50 years or so from now, when George might be expected to succeed to the throne of the United Kingdom, that he should also become king of Australia and king of New Zealand.

But as ambassadors for the system of hereditary, constitutional monarchy, this trio exert a powerful force.

A great-grandmother in London can be expected to be watching events carefully and - one might assume - to be pleased at what she sees.

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