In the new preface to his book on the Royal Family, Tom Nairn describes the current phase of Royal presentational politics as “the hysteria of counter-decline”. It captures well the sense of what is happening in this Jubilee year. Many commentators marvel at how the Royal Family has managed to revive its image in the public eye and posit ‘remarkable skills’ to the Palace for this transformation.
Really? Is the never-ending flurry of unlikely stories a sign of self-confidence? Prince Harry, alone among a field of polo players and spectators (and presumably including physios, doctors and security) is the one alone to run to the rescue of an injured player freshly fallen from his horse? Do we believe that Camilla really, really likes The Killing given how zeitgeisty she is known to be? And Kate, oh Kate, need you press release the fact that you can speak continuous sentences?
The perceived wisdom is that the Royals Are Back, that their place in the British heart is once again as secure as ever it was. We love our new royals in a Hello Magazine sort of way, just as we loved our old royals in a The Kings Speech sort of way. They have shaken off their stuffy old ways and have allowed themselves to be themselves. And what do you know, they are like us.
This is the nature of the elite – it becomes what it must to maintain control
Well, they are like us but with unrestricted access to an uncritical media, an entirely politically biased broadcast sector with no dissent, a global network of contacts and connections, a massive army of what are to all intents and purposes PR advisers and an absolutely unlimited financial resource. Want to get married? We’ll close the country down no problem. Yet another Jubilee? For that we can have a two-day national holiday.
Harry is a bit of fun, Kate is a nice ordinary girl, William is a fine young man and so on. And it seems to be working – across the UK 80 per cent of people now say they take ‘pride’ in the royals (thankfully this number drops to 40 per cent in Scotland). Truly, we are a subject nation and happy to be so.
Why? Why does this matter? Well, royals are useful for all sorts of things. They are the initial building-blocks of national ideology – Great Britain, God Save the Queen, for King and Country. And don’t for a second forget the message they send about our individual places in the world. In a quite literal sense, the US gets Donald Trump and we get the Queen. Each offer clear stories about national ideology. In the US it is made clear that all that matters is personal success. You may be a gibbering buffoon with monumentally bad taste and utterly ridiculous self-styling that seems oblivious to any form of criticism. And such is US ideology and politics. The important thing in the US is not to have money but to make it. All Trump’s propaganda is about the money he made and is distinctly less keen to highlight the money he inherited.
Here, however, it is slightly different. There has been an important but unheralded rebranding of the elite generally. For most of the last century the standard view of the Etonians was that they were posh, rich and stupid. What was important was that they were born and bred to lead, it was in their genes. That was how Britain was constituted. But by the 1980s the idea of meritocracy had taken hold. Suddenly Eton was no longer jut a ‘good school’ but a ‘good education’. Etonians needed to fit into the meritocratic model to maintain their grip on Britain and that meant they had to pretend they were clever, not just well bred. And so suddenly Eton was a sign of intelligence.
This is the nature of the elite – it becomes what it must to maintain control. The Kings Speech takes us back to a time when Britain simply wanted to follow a good accent. No-one really cared whether the nation’s leader were clever or not. But when the elite needs to justify itself in a new era it will become what it needs. And what it needs it Harry.
The Harry point is a particularly important one. It is Harry that is being lined up to carry out the important functions of monarchy – and that is selling weapons to dictators. The role of the Royal Family in opening doors for the British arms industry, particularly in monarchic regions, is explored by Kaye Stearman in this issue. It is Harry who is to do this – William is just for the stamps.
So we needed William to marry someone outside the aristocracy – and he did. Charles must disappear – and he has (we see more of Camilla these days). And we need a reason not to accept them but to love them. So they because sort-of high-end celebrities.
This is the counter-decline, the concerted attempt to regain control. And yes, it has worked. But it has required monumental effort, and just that touch of hysteria. It works because there is no pretence of political balance on this issue, no alternative voices are heard.
But this hysteria (as with all hysterias) cannot last indefinitely. The thing about rebranding is that once you start it becomes hard to stop. And doubt will creep in again (this hysteria is in part a fear of the upcoming reign of Charles, a truly unbrandable monarch). What then?
Well, something. Unlike the Nordic royal families, we need our royals – or rather the British elite needs them. And so the hysteria will recede, matters will move on but in the end the BBC, the private sector and the people who really control Britain will find a way to make sure they are long to rule over us. The alternative would be real democracy. Vladimir Putin would be proud of us.
A Few More Poll Outcomes
You can find the details of who won our opinion poll to become a Scottish head of state in the Kick Up The Tabloids Special on page 10. But we had a fine range of suggestions, some serious, some not so serious. So here is a round-up of some of the suggestions we didn’t have space for.
First of all, we got a large number of quite serious suggestions for who might actually be a desirable head of state for Scotland (whether an independent country or not). There seems to be a pretty clear signal that what you would really like is someone opinionated, thoughtful, disinterested in diplomatic niceties and unafraid to speak up. Many respondents specifically raised the question of who might be a Scottish ‘Mary Robinson’.
Well, we had mentions for William McIlvanney, Joyce McMillan, Annie Lennox and Muriel Gray, all of whom would certainly appear to fit the description. We also had a number of votes for Tom Leonard, although most pointed out that he would of course be likely to decline, and possibly not all that politely… A few people emailed in to suggest that Elaine C Smith should be on the list of serious suggestions and not our humourous list. Another popular choice was Dennis Canavan. But perhaps the most popular choice of people who sent us more serious suggestions was Lesley Riddoch.
It is to be noted that a few suggestions seemed to envisage the head of state role as something akin to a ‘holding cell’ which could be used to keep Alex Salmond busy post-independence. But another option raised a couple of times would be to invite people from other countries to come over and take the job for a year at a time. The aim is to try to get people of real stature – a Mandela, a Castro – without having to worry if we have the talent pool domestically or not. Meanwhile, the choice of those inclined to seek a new head of state for Britain as a whole seems to be a quite unequivocal shout-out for Tony Benn.
But a couple of special mentions. One contributor makes a special case for Silvio Berlusconi. The justification? “Is interested in becoming a head of state to help ensure that his legal difficulties do not come to a head. May be persuade to bring his considerable wealth to Scotland, thus solving any economic problems. Could possibly also be persuaded that AC Milan should play in the SPL. Advantages: Scotland would become the new Ibiza, albeit for octogenarians. Would set the bar very low for his successors. Has connections. Disadvantages: Has connections. (See also: Trump, Donald.)”
But a favourite of ours is the succint suggestion that no living person should be allowed to take office as a head of state. They could stand, but only taking up office upon death, stuffing being an advantageous means of ensuring effective display for state occasions. However, term of office would need to be strictly limited given the problems of decomposition.
Not sure we completely resolved that question then…