These should be anxious times for the House of Windsor. They are about to stage a lavish wedding at the very moment when their subjects will feel the full chill of austerity measures billed as the most severe in Britain’s postwar history. As Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales, second in line to the English throne, and his girlfriend since student days, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, are heralded into Westminster Abbey on April 29 by a Ruritanian phalanx of footmen and flunkies in gilt-edged robes, watched by a bejeweled congregation of aristocratic cousins including several crowned heads of Europe, their domestic television audience will include a good many who will have just received redundancy notices, sharply reduced welfare payments, or notification of the removal of much-cherished social services. April is the start of the financial year, when many of the Conservative-led government’s most stringent deficit-cutting measures begin to bite. Some see in this confluence of events the potential for public fury, even if, as yet, there are no tumbrils in sight. Witness the button worn by those British leftists who are refusing to celebrate the upcoming marriage. Its slogan, tucked below an image of a small crown: “Stuff the wedding, fight the cuts!”
Other clouds are gathering. At a time when the Firm, as the royal family styles itself, expected all eyes to be on William and Kate, there has come the unhappy distraction of the groom’s uncle. Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, has been in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. First, State Department cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that US diplomats regarded the prince, who serves as a UK trade envoy, as “rude,” “cocky,” and impatient with anticorruption investigators poking their noses into British business efforts abroad. Next came some awkward details of the prince’s ambassadorial activities, including breaking bread with some of the world’s least democratic regimes, whether hosting Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif—though, in that, Prince Andrew was in step with large chunks of the British establishment—or entertaining the son-in-law of Tunisia’s disgraced and ousted president at Buckingham Palace.
He has also shown a curious interest in Azerbaijan, making seven trade visits to the country since 2005, as well as traveling there three times in a “personal capacity” in the last three years alone. He dines frequently with President Ilham Aliyev—even as Amnesty International calls on the Aliyev regime to stop torturing dissidents. The prince has struck up a similar rapport with Kazakhstan, which he has also visited both officially and personally, on one occasion enjoying a goose hunt with the president for life, Nursultan Nazarbayev, another despot who has attracted Amnesty’s attention regarding torture. Intriguingly the prince is reported to have sold his Berkshire mansion, for which he had struggled to find a buyer, to Nazarbayev’s son-in-law for £15 million, some £3 million above the asking price.
Most damaging, however, has been the revelation of the prince’s friendship with the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, convicted by a US court for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution. Andrew was photographed with his arm around the bare midriff of the seventeen-year-old girl at the center of the case, Virginia Roberts, who specializes in providing “erotic massages.” Palace officials did not deny that Andrew had received a massage from Roberts, but were reduced to insisting that there had been no sexual contact. Then the prince’s former wife, Sarah Ferguson, confessed her own “gigantic error of judgment” in allowing Epstein to pay off £15,000 of her debts. This is not the lead-up to April 29 that the Firm had in mind.
Looking beyond the wedding day, the royals have ample cause for gloom. Next in line to the throne is Prince Charles, who, if no longer the reviled figure he was in the final years of his late wife, Diana—when he was cast as the cold, faithless husband guilty of driving his beautiful young bride to near-suicidal despair—remains a man his future subjects stubbornly refuse to take to their hearts. WikiLeaks showed that plenty of Commonwealth governments have deep misgivings about the prince, regarding his prospects for succeeding his mother as head of the organization of states formerly part of the British Empire as anything but automatic. The stiff, stuffy persona has not budged. On the day of his son’s engagement a beaming TV reporter asked for his reaction. “Well, they’ve been practicing long enough,” the prince muttered, before showing the camera his back. If the Windsors had once cultivated the image of the model, almost-normal family, Charles refused to play his assigned role of proud father.
More deeply, the ideas that underpin monarchism would appear to enjoy scant support. After all, few Britons will these days make a principled case for the hereditary principle. Most have now accepted Thomas Paine’s wisdom that “the idea of hereditary legislators is…as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.” The veteran campaigner and former parliamentarian Tony Benn always wins applause when he jokes that few would board an airplane captained by a man who, though not a trained pilot himself, reassured his passengers that his father used to be one. When Tony Blair removed most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, there was only the quietest murmur of protest.
Moreover, twenty-first-century Britain likes to believe that ethnic and gender equality is the common sense of the age. Yet the monarchy stands apart. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, only a Protestant can succeed to the throne. Similarly, the rule of primogeniture still obtains: if William and Kate have three daughters and then a son, the boy will leapfrog ahead of the girls in the line of succession. Egregious discrimination, which would not be tolerated in any other sphere of British life or employment, still applies when it comes to the office of head of state. Indeed it is enshrined in law.
Even the most pragmatic of arguments—that the royal family boosts tourism—shrivels under scrutiny. For years, republicans would respond by suggesting that, even if there was money to be made from monarchy, there was something demeaning in Britain offering itself as a kind of heritage theme park, a place where dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies, who elsewhere are confined to the pages of fairy tales, could still be seen roaming freely in their natural habitat. But it recently emerged that monarchists had been arguing on false premises. Figures from Visit Britain, the British tourism agency, showed that tourism to the country declined in the banner royal years—by 15 percent in July 1981, just as Charles and Diana were wed in picturebook fashion, and by 8 percent in July 1986 when Andrew married Sarah Ferguson. The more visible the Windsors were, the more foreign visitors chose to give Britain a wide berth.
All of this sounds as if it should point to April 29 being a damp squib. One might anticipate a new generation of Britons giving the royal couple the cold shoulder or at least refusing to buy the commemorative china or organize the street parties that accompanied the marriage of William’s parents in the recession-stricken summer of thirty years ago.
And yet the early signs suggest that the royals’ appeal remains resilient. Regardless of the upheavals across the Arab world, even Britain’s self-described quality newspapers have joined their tabloid stablemates in putting smiling photographs of Kate—or Catherine, as sniffy courtiers insist she be known henceforth—on their front pages. The Times published childhood snapshots from the Middleton family album; the next day, the left-leaning (and, according to its stated editorial policy, republican) Guardian showed Kate flipping a pancake to mark Shrove Tuesday. For a good while, footage of that innocuous event topped YouTube’s “most viewed” list in the UK.
What might explain the durability of a brand that, in so many other respects, would seem to have sustained irreparable damage? A first clue lies, paradoxically enough for an institution that likes to project itself as ancient, in a notion that is quintessentially modern: celebrity. Many have pondered the elusive power of those who, in Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 formulation, are “well-known for their well-knownness,” those whose fame derives not from a particular accomplishment in science or the arts, or even making money, but from their semipermanent visibility on TV and in the tabloid press. Viewed like this, royals are—at least those who are scions of largely ceremonial, rather than ruling, monarchies—not merely celebrities but the original celebrities. Five decades before Paris Hilton, there was the current Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret—an object of glamour and gossip, permanently on vacation, internationally famous yet achieving nothing at all.
One could go further and claim the royals as über-celebrities; first to plant the flag, they remain at the summit. Whatever other pretenders might have appeared on the cover of Britain’s Hello! and OK! magazines in the past, they have been edged aside: Kate Middleton is now the default cover girl for those publications, guaranteed to shift big numbers, just as her fiancé’s mother once did.
It is instructive to consider those rival celebrities currently overshadowed by the royal couple. The soccer player David Beckham and his pop star turned fashion designer wife Victoria are the owners of a large country estate widely mocked as “Beckingham Palace.” They faced further derision for sitting on thrones at their wedding. Meanwhile, another staple of British celebrity coverage, the surgically enhanced “glamor-model” Katie Price, who once worked under the pseudonym “Jordan,” arrived at one of her weddings in a spherical, Cinderella-style horse-drawn coach. Put simply, if today’s most visible celebrities ape the royals, how much more powerful does that render the real thing?
Proof came on the day the engagement was announced. Within hours, copies of both Middleton’s ring and the sapphire-blue dress she had worn as she posed for the cameras had sold out—the dress in its original £385 and later £16 budget versions, the ring courtesy of the QVC shopping channel. To conquer both ends of the market so rapidly suggests a commercial clout Kate Moss would envy.
The background of Catherine Middleton has added another, modern appeal—that of the reality TV show. Widely described as the first “commoner” to marry a future king in centuries, she is in fact from an exceptionally privileged background: the daughter of multimillionaire parents—they sell products for children’s parties—she was educated at an expensive private school. Still, she is untitled, her parents were self-made, and she even did a spell of work (in the family business), which in royal terms makes her a commoner.
The challenge for any established brand is to win new customers without losing the old ones. Here too the House of Windsor has something to teach. Those Britons outside the target audience for a copycat version of Kate’s wardrobe have a different, though not unconnected, relationship with monarchy. For many, the royals remain the ultimate soap opera, a family saga that, like the best of the genre, seems to have gone on forever. Ian Jack recently recalled in the Guardian the conversation he and his wife had on returning from seeing The King’s Speech:
“So how many brothers did George VI actually have?”
“Well, there’s Edward the Abdicator and there’s the other one mentioned in the film—John, the one we never used to hear about, who had epilepsy and died young. And then there’s a couple of dukes, Kent, the one who died in the air crash, and the other one—Norfolk?”
“You mean Gloucester,” my wife said, and so I did. Norfolk is the Catholic duke who lives in Arundel; he has nothing to do with it. “But George VI had a sister, too. A total of five brothers and a sister is what I remember.”
“No, I think Marina married Kent.” She looked towards the ceiling like a spiritualist. “I’m getting the name the Hon Angus Ogilvy here. Whoever he was or is, he’s mixed up in this somewhere.”*
My grandmother used to speak this way too, able to recall the Windsor family tree from memory, with the same, if not more, precision than she could deploy when remembering her own. The layers of memory only reinforce the soap opera, with the backstory fleshing out the characters currently on screen. So people look at William’s wariness of the press and conclude it must be the legacy of his mother’s short life and violent death. They note that though the Queen is eighty-five, her mother lived to 101 and speculate that she will rule for a good while yet. Charles should shake off any delusions he may have about the Queen stepping down for him—given her presumed view of the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, as a trauma for the Firm, she will do no such thing. And so on. Ordinary Britons, not just “royal experts” on television, will trade such observations in everyday conversation.
Further help for the monarchy comes from an unexpected shift in the British zeitgeist. In Tony Blair’s 1990s, Cool Britannia fashion demanded classless accents and demotic style; to be posh was to be square and out-of-touch. Yet now Britain is ruled by a prime minister, David Cameron, who is a former pupil of the country’s most privileged school, Eton College, and who is surrounded by several more Old Etonians—including the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Real estate and cookery shows on television are fronted by people with double-barreled surnames and cut-glass accents, both of which would once have been modified or hidden by those seeking national fame. Country clothing, including quilted jackets in the drab shades favored by the monarch herself, is experiencing brisk sales, even among younger, urban types. And all this after a century in which the upper class was said to be in decline. The explanation, according to the scholar Simon Head, lies in the effectiveness of an elite group, supercharged by vast fortunes accrued in the City of London, in shaking off what he calls, quoting Shelley, “the sneer of cold command,” the old aristo hauteur that once so irritated their fellow Britons. Cameron is the exemplar, wearing his breeding lightly.
The clearest index of the current approval enjoyed, despite everything, by the royal family is the critical and commercial success of The King’s Speech. Together with the upcoming wedding and next year’s diamond jubilee of the Queen’s reign—a feat matched only by Queen Victoria—it is taken as proof that the monarchy is on a roll. The film offers not just evidence of the Windsors’ popularity, but also perhaps the best explanation for it.
The young Princess Elizabeth appears only briefly in the film, alongside her sister Margaret, as the daughter of the stammering King—but that cameo should not be underestimated. It is a reminder of the current Queen’s sheer longevity in British life. There she is on the palace balcony with her father, already a public figure in events that took place nearly seventy years ago and that have acquired for most Britons the patina of ancient history. An easy way to produce gasps from British schoolchildren is to tell them that the Queen has met each week with the serving prime minister, over the years twelve in all—and the first of these was Winston Churchill.
This fact alone ensures that Elizabeth exercises an enduring grip on the British imagination. She is one of the few constants in a landscape much of which has changed beyond recognition since 1945. Plenty of buildings have not been around as long. She is something the British elderly and their grandchildren have in common: for almost all their lives, she has been the head of state. (It helps that, as even most republicans will admit, she has not, in all that time, put a constitutional foot wrong. Unlike her second son, she has never attracted even a whiff of scandal; unlike her first son, she knows that, as the embodiment of what Bagehot called the “dignified” part of Britain’s unwritten constitution, her job is to keep her views firmly to herself.)
But the power of young Elizabeth’s brief scenes in The King’s Speech is not solely chronological. It is not only that she was around a long time ago; it is that she was around then, during what Churchill predicted would be known thereafter as Britain’s finest hour. She is the last living connection to an episode—the island race standing up to Hitler—that has become the foundation story, almost the creation myth, of modern Britain.
Pupils in UK schools now study the Third Reich more intensely than they learn about the Tudors. History before 1939, with all its imperial complications, is glimpsed only vaguely. Britain alone, Churchill, 1940, the Blitz—this is the tale of unalloyed heroism that the country likes to tell and retell to itself. And as long as Elizabeth sits on the throne, Britons remain tied to those events directly.
This is the bedrock on which the current monarchy stands. While the Queen lives, no republican will be able to shake it. After she is gone, she will leave a gap that her son, her grandson, and his new wife—no matter how charming—will have to struggle to fill.
April 28, 2011