It shouldn’t be a surprise that yesterday’s event went well. Royal weddings don’t go wrong; not after all the effort required to make them happen. My thoughts go out to the Palace helper elves who must be enjoying a well-earned glass of Pimms this afternoon.
I’d not expected much from the hitching of another royal – particularly a royal that doesn’t seem to be particularly happy being a royal, doesn’t appear to behave quite the way a royal is supposed to, and may not even be a royal at all if you’re going to insist on answers to a couple of awkward questions. So I was surprised that yesterday’s ceremony set me thinking about one of the fundamentals of the British constitution.
No firing squads, we’re British
Periodically, you ask yourself what the monarchy is for. Especially if you are the actual monarch. George V (grandfather to the Queen) asked it of himself a lot. During his reign, Britain had major constitutional change, the first world war, the depression and primary responsibility for maintaining peace in a world that seemed to be rapidly unravelling.
George V has a subtle claim to being one of the most important monarchs in British history. When he grew up, the throne and court were still part of the historic round of European capitals. In the reign of queen Victoria, royal marriages were still important diplomatic currency, and the distance from Buckingham Palace to Schonbrunn or Tsarskoye Selo was significantly less than the distance to the Whitechapel Road.
George made a decisive break with that historic model. It was on his watch that the royal family changed their name from the heraldically accurate ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the decidedly more British ‘Windsor’. He also got rid of various unhelpful foreign titles, and ended the centuries-old practice of marrying the eligible young of the royal clan to foreign princes and princesses – it would be Brits only from here-on out. The monarchy became ‘national’, and more integrated into the nation’s civic life.
As a result, while Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Spain all found that they could do quite well without a monarchy, the British monarch kept his throne. His son, and then his granddaughter, both stuck to his approach with discipline. Under two Georges and a Liz the monarch became an apolitical head of state who was meant to represent Britain. They were not allowed to have political beliefs – indeed, if pressed their role was to make sure that the will of the people was made law. They were there to open bridges and buildings; they were there to be on stamps; they were there to speak to the nation when someone had to do it. And it was not important whether they enjoyed the experience.
This is what we expect members of the royal family to be. And that’s what Prince William, flying his air ambulance, doing a turn with the Forces or appearing at worthy social projects, is trying hard to continue.
The dark sheep
But while some royals are sitting stiffly on their throne, there’s another type, passed out on the chaise longue. Older readers would remember Princess Margaret – the sister of the queen whose commitment to the British state was limited to supporting the booze and cigarette industries, and running a job-creation programme for the tabloid journalists. Or Edward VIII, who was able to reign less than twelve months before being overwhelmed by his weaknesses. When you hear of Prince Harry’s Las Vegas escapades, it feels very much in this other historic mould. Perhaps the unaccountability of royal eminence, even at one remove, is a licence to debauchery that few can resist.
But alongside this behaviour comes celebrity. George V’s father, Edward VII, showed this well. He spent sixty years waiting for the throne and is credited with 55 mistresses, including Winston Churchill’s mother. But he also had the ear of the public and the press. He was the first royal to formally open something, and stood in for an increasingly distant Victoria as she aged. He might not have been much of a constitutional success, but there was an effectiveness about his fame that I find myself looking at afresh today.
Sober-suited civil servants like me are meant to praise the first model of rulership, and be wary of the second. Indeed, if you look across Europe, it only takes one of the second kind to put a monarchy in serious danger of elimination (and that’s a level of faff up there with Brexit – no thanks). But yesterday taught me something I hadn’t realised before.
The marketing fundamentals of this wedding were strong – the American audience has always been a key audience demographic for the royal family, and a photogenic American actress is well-placed to stand in for little girls of all ages who grew up wanting to become a princess.
But yesterday did more than just bank that. The idea that this wedding could be used for a non-toe-curling celebration of black culture and talent was something I wouldn’t have expected. But I’m immensely impressed. It’s well-timed: in a period where our leaders are uninspiring and narrow-minded, there’s a space for someone to speak to diverse, liberal values and be appreciated for doing so. Not only that, but it’s an ingenious message for the royal family to get across – the least diverse people on earth finding a chance to lead the world in celebrating diversity.
I also think it’s brilliant politics – the people least sympathetic are the ones who would never abandon the monarchy on principle; the people to whom it can appeal most are natural sceptics who are currently desperate for validation. Tony Blair would have been proud.
If this works, is that the sign of something more?
The power of royal celebrity has been shown before – Princess Diana being the most obvious example. But I hadn’t grasped that it is the dark sheep of the family who are also the best placed to use it. In order to be a pillar of the constitution, you need to be as much stone as human; the ones who are not fit that role might be the ones who can speak more directly to the zeitgeist.
And the model can be repeated. Landmines, refugees, climate change – there will always be a list of things the world wants to see worried about. Just as the monarchy once represented the nation, perhaps now it can represent the viewership. Handled well, and not overplayed, this could be a source of enduring legitimacy.
Harry could not be a good king. But he might be a damned sight better as a younger sibling than Margaret, or Anne or Andrew – certainly if he and his wife can repeat what they’ve done here. I don’t get the impression this vein can be swiftly exhausted, either. Virtuous celebrity might sit well next to constitutional dependability; and global media might appreciate a royal family that has ambitions beyond the Commonwealth. And it matters now, given that many of us are nervous for what will happen when Charles ascends the throne. A new, more relevant unit of the family could do a lot to keep the question about who should be king, rather than why on earth we have a king to start with.
I won’t be taking any bets about the future of this royal marriage, or whether any of what I sketch here will come to pass. But, for a royal wedding in which I had no interest, I find myself thoroughly intrigued. Ask me again after the honeymoon.