So what was that all about? A rather gawky young man married a perfectly presentable young woman, and the nation rejoiced. Well, around half of it did. Some people decided that they wanted to eat in the street – but not many in Scotland, where wedding fever was hard to find. Yet two billion people across the world were watching, we’re told, and there were 8,000 journalists covering the Royal Wedding, leading some commentators to call it the biggest media event in history. Or should that have read the biggest hype in history?
Yes, I know: cynical media hack pours scorn on happy day. Why can’t we just let people celebrate the betrothal of this happy couple and wish them well, without sneering? So, let me be clear: I am happy for the Royal couple, I really am. I even watched the wedding. And it was quite a spectacle: Harry Potter meets the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – without the fat. The dress was elegantly understated – God Save McQueen. But the hats! Princess Beatrice with what looked like a medieval instrument of torture stuck on her head. Victoria Beckham looked like some alien out of Doctor Who. The choirboys were angelic and the singing beautiful, though I kept wondering when Elton John was going to sing Candle in the Wind.
My considered verdict on last week’s strange happening is a rueful “good luck to them”. A royal marriage these days is a triumph of hope over experience. Any marriage is a triumph of hope, now that nearly 50% of them end in divorce. And you can’t help feeling a little sorry for the couple, as they go off on their honeymoon pursued by a forest of telephoto lenses. But what did it all mean? Was this really a great national and international event?
After the ceremony, I went to the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to take the temperature of the Scottish capital. I found a noisy but good-natured demonstration of about 150 anarchists and republicans singing: “You can stick your royal wedding up your a….”. But there was no street party, no excited onlookers outside Holyrood Palace. No monarchist presence at all, that I could find. Only a couple of Loyalist idiots at the Tollbooth who gave the marchers the Nazi salute and then climbed into a BMW decked out with union flags. I was genuinely surprised. There wasn’t any kind of celebration, not even a throng of tourists at the gates of Holyrood Palace. Had it not been for the anarchists, you wouldn’t have known there was Royal Wedding happening at all.
Through in Glasgow a spontaneous royal wedding party in Kelvingrove Park got totally out of hand and the police had to break it up. What a bizarre addition to the wedding imagery: a street party being charged by mounted police. If only the Clash had still been around to commemorate the battle of Kelvingrove. “Wedding riot, I wanna riot, wedding riot of me own…”
Of course, we Scots, are supposed to be congenitally antipathetic to aristocracy: a man’s a man, belted knights and a’ that. And there is no doubt that most Scots regard monarchy as a quintessentially English preoccupation. But these days it seems to be more a matter of studied indifference rather than outright hostility. As a republican, I suppose I should have joined the protest. The monarchy is, after all, an anachronistic hangover from feudalism, symbol of British imperialism, pinnacle of the class system etc. But did I care enough? No. It would have been like protesting against Holyrood Palace itself – it stands for something profoundly undemocratic, but it’s there, and a lot of people seem to like it – at least in London.
It’s all a question of proportion. Of course, the royal wedding (£20 million) like the Royal Family (£38 million a year) is a waste of taxpayers’ money, but so is the Millennium Dome and the Olympic Games and the State Opening of Parliament. It is hard to argue that the Royal Family is an onerous burden on the public purse when it only costs 62p per person per year. And there probably is some truth in the claim that the Royal Family is at least good for the tourist trade – a living part of the heritage industry – and brings in a lot of dollars. Certainly, the rest of the planet can’t seem to get enough of them.
I tried to get worked up by the palace snub to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were conspicuously uninvited when Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major were guests. Bit of old school class conflict there, perhaps, as the toffs blackball the party of the working man. But then again, I couldn’t generate enough indignation to write a column about it. Thankfully, the murderous Assad of Syria was not represented after his ambassador was uninvited, and though there were a few others with blood on their hands in the guest enclosure – Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia – I don’t think that the Arab Spring is going to be halted because of the Royal Wedding.
But really politics isn’t what this was about. There is something beguiling about the ceremonial aspect of royalty. Republicanism has never been able to match it on the symbolism front, or on the spontaneous deference that accompanies it. I mean, why do we all seem to be on our best behaviour when members of the Royal Family around? As Rector of Edinburgh University, I’ve spent more time with the Duke of Edinburgh, who has just stood down as Chancellor, than I ever imagined I would with any Royal. He is an agreeable, if somewhat eccentric, elderly man, given to expressing politically incorrect views with a disarming frankness. It is astonishing to see the effect he has on a room full of hard-headed academics who would normally never be seen dead expressing any monarchist views. They are obviously captivated by the mystique,.
And this ‘Royal effect’ can hit in the most unlikely places. One of the most memorable images I retain from the 2007 election year is Alex Salmond, standing in for Her Majesty in the Royal Box at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and leading a 10,000-strong audience in singing God Save The Queen. Only a generation ago, Scottish nationalists were blowing up post boxes with EIIR on them. It should surely have been out of the question for the leader of the SNP to lead the celebration of this great symbol of the British state, this linchpin of the Union that has held Scotland in its deadly embrace for 300 years. And so on. But there he was singing along with the rest of them. Salmond had turned the occasion into a kind of celebration of Scotland’s first Nationalist government. The fact that here was the first SNP first minister, presiding over this panoply of the Establishment, instead of impotently raging against it, meant Nationalism had arrived. And how clever of the Queen to let him think that.
Bottom line: everyone loves a celebration and if people wanted to hold one to celebrate the marriage of this decent enough couple then it would’ve ben curmudgeonly in the extreme to try to deny them the opportunity. Surveying the wreckage of Prince Andrew’s and Prince Charles’s marriages, and the immense damage done to the prestige of the House of Windsor as a result of Fergie’s and Diana’s shenanigans in the 1990s – as revealed to the nation in Her Majesty’s Tabloid Press – you wonder why we think this one will be any different. Now that monarchy has become a part of celebrity culture, the pressures on this couple will be immense. Every action will take place in the full glare of a relentless and intrusive media.
Yes, perhaps the Windsors asked for it, two decades ago, when they decided to let the TV cameras in to show us that the Royal Family is “just like us” – except immensely wealthy, treated with exaggerated deference and expected to deliver a constitutional head of state every generation or so. But they thought they were just trying to come to terms with the media age. And actually, they had no choice. I suppose they could have tried a super-injunction, to keep their private lives out of the public gaze. But of course, the courts could not have served a super-injunction anyway because the royal family is financed by the civil list and is therefore public property. Also, the mission statement is family, so there is a public interest in their extramarital activities, a public right to know. All the same, we expect them to behave in their sexual relations in a way we no longer expect of ourselves. And then we punish them for it.
So, there will be time enough to pen lengthy think-pieces about how our constitution can never fully be brought into the democratic age while our head of state is selected by accident of birth. There is an argument about how prime ministers have used the residual powers of absolute monarchy to launch wars without seeking Parliament’s assurance – though in 2003, Tony Blair allowed Westminster to debate the Iraq war and then went ahead anyway. Then there’s the Act of Settlement and the discrimination against Catholics, who are denied the right to become heads of state. The whole hideous hereditary principle, the House of Lords, Prince Andrew and the rest needs to be swept into the dustbin of history. But this is not the time to wield the broom.
Moreover, like the church, monarchy tends to thrive on repression – look at Libya, where the democracy protesters have been using the flag of the old Libyan royal family against Gadaffi. How constitutionally dyslexic is that? It’s a lesson that republicans have failed to learn over five centuries. Oliver Cromwell’s biggest mistake was beheading Charles I – the cause of English republicanism never recovered. One of Lenin’s many mistakes was to let the Romanovs be murdered. That’s the best way to ensure that they live on.
The British Royals have been rather brilliant at reinventing themselves. They did so in the First World War, when they dumped their German Battenburg connection, and in the Second World War when they become a symbol of opposition to fascism – as celebrated in the film The King’s Speech. The Windsors made the right call in the 1930s, and so did Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s, by managing to smile while the British Empire was dismantled by anti-colonial movements. The royal divorces of the 1990s were a public relations disaster for the British monarchy, which is after all supposed to be about family above all else. But now the Windsors have done it again by allowing the next but one in line to the throne to marry a commoner – a real one. Kate Middleton’s great, great grandfather was a miner, while Prince William’s was George V. No, I don’t quite know what it means either, but certainly it implies a considerable dilution of the dynastic principle. It would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, certainly. The heirs to the throne were expected to marry someone with a similar royal pedigree, a princess ideally, or at least someone from a titled family, as was the case with Diana Spencer. She was a descendant of Charles II, through one of his mistresses. The Queen and Prince Philip are actually third cousins – they are both great, great grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
But perhaps their very ordinariness will be the royal couple’s greatest strength. Unlike his father, William shows no sign of wanting to become a public figure espousing “causes”. You can’t imagine him raising fears about the “grey goo” of nanotechnology, lambasting modern architecture or excoriating agro-capitalism while he digs away on his organic farm. Prince Charles was a product of his generation – the 1960s, when people were expected to have a social conscience and be concerned about the environment. I suspect Charles believed that he should use his privilege to do some good – and not just through helping the usual charities. The new generation of royals have no obvious beliefs, except in being conventional. Wills has never knowingly made a controversial remark.
Perhaps this is the fate of the British royal family: entropy; to gradually fade to irrelevance as the remaining energy seeps out of the monarchy as an institution. A fade to grey, as Kate and William become a reasonably happy suburban couple, who just will happen, one day, to be King and Queen.