To most Britons, the monarchy is like that unwanted furniture cluttering up the basement which they hope to clear up one day, but never get round to doing it.
It is often said that the Americans and the French “love” the British royal family because they don't have to “suffer” it or pay for its extravagant lifestyle. “Ask us we have to bear it and grin,” one British commentator told an American journalist who had come all the way from Chicago to cover the William-Middleton wedding last month.
That was, of course, meant as a joke. But unwittingly, he blurted out the truth. The British have a rather complex relationship with their royal family ranging from unabashed fawning and a quiet indifference, to an adult acknowledgement that “love ‘em or hate ‘em, you're stuck with them.” At the heart of it all, there is an underlying tension which shows up at the slightest provocation, be it a scandal, tragedy or happy occasion such as the recent royal wedding.
The state-sponsored drooling over the wedding which was declared a public holiday and flogged as a moment of national unity and “Britishness” by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has reignited the debate over the monarchy's raison d'etre: Is it fit for purpose? Indeed what is its purpose except as a tourist attraction? (According to writer Will Self, it's simply to perpetuate itself by producing heirs to the throne.) And is it worth spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to maintain an institution that the rest of the world regards as faintly amusing and that barely matters in Britain itself?
The term commonly used in the media to describe the royal family is “The Firm,” evoking the image of a secret society with its strange rituals, titles (the “Knight of the Garter” anyone?) and antiquated traditions. It is so deeply wrapped up in its own insularity, without perhaps even being aware of it, that the outside world barely registers on it. Novelist Martin Amis, recalling a meeting with the Queen along with other writers, said recently that he was struck by how disinterested she was in her guests.
“The problem is that the Queen doesn't listen to what you say to her. Because she is not supposed to understand the remarks that one makes to her. Still, I allowed myself to say impetuously when she greeted me: ‘You knighted my father [Kingsley Amis].' Her only reaction was to look far away, vaguely staring at a painting on the wall. That's all. Another time, I had lunch with the Duke of Edinburgh. He was surprised by my profession: ‘Oh, you're a writer'.”
Yet to the question whether Britain will ever become a Republic, the short answer invariably even from republicans is: “no, not in my lifetime.” The Buckingham Palace is no Bastille and, as the joke goes, historically the Brits missed out on the “revolutionary gene” (the closest they came to storming the Palace was over its boorish reaction to Princess Diana's death in 1997). So, they fume and fret and then quietly join the queue.
To most Britons, the monarchy is like that unwanted furniture cluttering up the basement which they hope to clear up one day, but never get round to doing it. But it is always at the back of their mind. There are, of course, hardcore royalists who have an almost evangelical faith in the monarchy and dismiss any criticism as a republican conspiracy. But they are a diminishing tribe, a fringe group confined to the columns of the Telegraph and the Mail.
The vast majority of Britons simply doesn't care but its indifference is tinged with a healthy dose of scepticism about the idea of inherited entitlement on which the monarchy rests. There may not be many who would be scrambling to join an anti-Palace republican revolt but there is a widespread and deep sense of unfairness over a system that allows people less clever than your ordinary Joe to lead a privileged life as a birthright.
The extravagance of Prince William's wedding grated with many at a time when millions of people are facing job losses and cuts to their benefits. The display of consumption seemed to many at odds with the government's austerity mantra and its claim that “we're all in it together.”
People were happy for the young couple and, yes, it was good to get an extra day off but why this pomp and pageantry in an era of austerity, they asked. “Why should the poor be always asked to sacrifice? Why can't the Queen take a cut?” asked one woman before hastening to add that she liked the Queen. “She is a good egg. But I don't like this whole royalty business.”
The thousands who poured into London on April 29 were not part of some glorious national celebration inspired by their loyalty to the Queen and the Crown. They were there to watch a celebrity event. For many, it was an escape from their dreary lives. Offered a holiday on a spring morning, they would turn up even for a celebrity footballer's wedding, let alone a prince. Critics dismissed the official/royalist narrative that the wedding “powerfully demonstrated the value of monarchy” and provided “a moment for the nation to come together” (The Times).
Bizarrely, the monarchy is being given credit for promoting (hold your breath) social mobility. Kate Middleton's “pit-to-palace” story (her great-great-great-great grandfather was a miner, you see) is being portrayed as a great symbol of social mobility in modern Britain. Except, of course, that it is not true. As The Financial Times pointed out, Ms Middleton (or the Duchess of Cambridge as she is now known) is “no Cindrella.” She is “solidly” middle class. The Middletons — her father Michael and mother Carole — may have started as modest workers in British Airways but have since built up a successful mail order business and own “a rambling house in the affluent home county of Berkshire as well as a property in Chelsea, home to American bankers and the London base for faded gentry.”
Ms Middleton went to an expensive boarding school, popular with aristocrats and the royals, and then on to St Andrews University, another haunt of the rich; and famously described by its principal as “the top match-making university in Britain.” It was there that she met the Prince.
“Let's face it. The prince would not be marrying a girl from a comprehensive school,” Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University, told FT dismissing as a “fantasy” claims that the Kate story is one of social mobility.
One commentator described Ms Middleton as a case of “shiny new money systematically raising a girl so perfectly to a prince's eye-level that she is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing,” while The Guardian writer, Simon Jenkins, argued that only “an obsessive could detect in the coupling of William and Kate some breathtaking leap across a divide of income or class.” The Independent reminded its readers that “Prince William may have married a commoner, and the daughter of self-starting parents may now be a duchess, but vast inequalities persist in Britain today and far less spectacular upward mobility is not even a dream for many.”
The fact is that despite being a Duchess, Kate Middleton will always be a “commoner” in royal circles. Which is as much a sign of the royal family's snootiness as Britain's lingering class system. But that's another story. Sticking to the monarchy, its supporters have been clutching at straws to demonstrate how the royalty is “modernising” and developing a “common touch.” As if embracing a “commoner” like Ms Middleton was not a revolutionary step-change, they point out, the Palace made a group of minor royals ride a chartered bus (so what if it was a luxury coach?) from the Palace to Westminster Abbey for the wedding instead of ferrying them in Rolls Royces and Bentleys as would have presumably happened in the “pre-modernisation” era. Here's The Times again with its breathless take on a “stroke of genius.”
“... If a prince marrying a commoner wasn't sufficient proof of the Royal Family's sensitivity to social change in Britain, their opting to transport the likes of Princess Anne and the Duke and Duchess of Kent from palace to the Abbey in a bus with ‘Wings Luxury Travel' on the sides was a real clincher,” wrote the paper's Lynne Truss. And she seemed to mean it.
There is no doubt that the royal family has come a long way since its notorious Diana moment. It now comes across as more “user-friendly” and presents a gentler face with some of the rougher edges smoothed out. But this is more down to the slick PR operation that the Palace put in place, post-Diana, than any cultural shift in the House of Windsor. The monarchy is not headed anywhere new, Kate or no Kate.
(The Queen is currently on a visit to Ireland, the first British monarch to do so in 100 years.)