Reinventing royalty

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.

George V surrounded by eight other kings. Five of them would be abolished by 1950.

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.

The future Edward VII pressing the flesh


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.

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The Royal Family, the Home Secretary and the Times… I think the racists may have lost.

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.


Why it is that #WeAreNotAfraid

Helicopters overhead, armed C7lj5FsVUAAG9Jw.jpg_largepolice on the corners, dangerous lunatics on the loose – all of that is business as usual for the myrmidons of Westminster. After a while, you don’t notice it. Yesterday, though, you certainly did.

Yet every cloud has a silver lining. Let me offer one for the residents of London. This was a really awful terrorist attack. Not in the sense of being dreadful carnage; but in the sense of being a bit rubbish.

On the scale of terrorist attacks, it’s something like a C-, and only half a step up from a total fail. Which is a sign that, hard as it may be to believe against the backdrop of the past two days, we’re winning the war on terror.

I’m aware that it sounds incredibly insensitive to talk in this way when good people are mourning needless deaths, and when the price of keeping the bodycount low was heroic sacrifice. But if we are to be resolute, rather than terrified, we need to put these events in context.

The fact that we are a free, open, tolerant society exposes us to a risk of terrorism. It is, in principle, quite easy to find ways in which homicidal maniacs can do us harm. Our world is a bit like the glass window of a department store, thin, fragile and endlessly tempting to the maladjusted.

Except, of course, that department store windows rarely are smashed. That’s not because the glass has been made unbreakably tough; it’s because the world outside the window has been arranged such that the glass is seldom attacked.

Likewise with terrorism. The trick, if you are in counterintelligence, is not about lining every street with police snipers, or having the cast of 24 on speed-dial. Ideally, it’s about making sure the attack doesn’t happen in the first place. And, if that fails, it’s about making sure the damage is as limited as it can be.

You can ride a London bus in safety.

In 2005, London saw what happens when that goes wrong. Four terrorists, linked to an international network, acquired enough explosives to detonate four simultaneous suicide bombs in the space of an hour. That represented multiple failures on the part of the authorities – a failure to spot the bomb-making, the recruitment, the links to terrorists overseas, the planning and the attack itself.

But in 2017, the best that terrorism can do is inspire a lone loony to drive a car down a pavement and attack passers-by with a kitchen knife. This wasn’t a Paris, where men with automatic rifles launched a military-style assault; this wasn’t a Brussels, with bombs on the underground. It wasn’t one of the nightmare scenarios that SO19 spend their time training for.

That reflects years of careful, patient work by MI5, GCHQ, the police and other agencies. It’s not that Tuesday’s attacker didn’t want to cause more damage – I’m sure he did. But I suspect that, if he had tried to get his hands on a gun he’d have been picked up; if he’d tried to build a fertiliser bomb, he’d have run into the invisible watchers; and if he’d tried to get help from the people around him, someone would have turned him in.

You can’t stop a loony with a breadknife who decides, on the spur of the moment, to kill. But, touch wood, we seem to be stopping all of the others. The ones with the brains and the plans and the evil ambition to turn our world into a tool of destruction. If ISIS has reached the sorry state of having to claim this as the best they can do, then they are not half as scary as they’d like us to think.

None of this detracts from the tragedy of yesterday. But it gives me the confidence to walk across Westminster Bridge tomorrow.