Royals without royalty
What is the point of Edward and Sophie?
Reproduced from LM, issue 121, June 1999
On 19 June Prince Edward, best known for running away from the marines to make tea for Andrew Lloyd Webber, will marry Sophie Rhys-Jones, a former press officer for Capital Radio who has been dubbed ‘the chainstore Diana’. They will be married by the Right Reverend Peter Nott, Bishop of Norwich, instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to emphasise that ‘the wedding is primarily a family – and not a state – occasion’ (Royal News, April 1999). The ceremony will take place at the private St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon (so as not to clash with anything important), with 2000 ‘ordinary people’ allowed to watch from outside, adding the final touch to ‘the People’s wedding’.
Contrast these plans to Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. Then, no expense was spared, from the gold carriages parading through central London to the 25-foot train on Diana’s dress. I remember, as a seven-year old, riding my bike through deserted street after deserted street, as everybody in the country seemed to be glued to the TV to witness an historic occasion. The aim of Charles and Di’s wedding ceremonials was clear – to emphasise Britain’s greatness, power and its strong sense of history and tradition. By contrast, the key word in the discussion about Edward and Sophie’s wedding plans has been ‘sensible’: a sensible couple in a sensible ceremony, wearing sensible clothes and taking sensible vows.
The emphasis on the small-scale over the sumptuous, on family over state, suggests an unregal monarchy for the end of the 1990s. Forget the image of the royal family as national institution, setting a standard for the rest of us to look up to – this is a monarchy which wants to get down with ‘the People’ and show that it is as ordinary as every other Tom, Dick and Sophie. In April the Daily Mail leaked a report from Buckingham Palace entitled ‘Communications strategy for 1999’. Written by Simon Lewis, a former New Labour strategist and now the monarchy’s chief spindoctor, the report calls for the royals to improve their communication skills ‘at a local level, through regional newspapers and other media’, and stresses the importance of gauging public opinion through the new royal website.
The catalyst for this ‘People’s monarchy’ was the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – when the nation accused the royals of being stuffy, isolated, anal, and even ‘an alien breed which is stuck in a timewarp’ (Sun, 3 September 1997). Not at all like the touchy-feely Diana, whose obvious vulnerability made her seem ‘just like us’. After the fatal car crash, crowds of people and media commentators descended on Buckingham Palace, demanding that the Queen and her family display their grief in public with the People. Ever since, the royals have been trying hard to do it Di’s way.
Over the past 200 years the royal family has reinvented itself several times, in an attempt to boost its authority and popularity. Since the Second World War in particular, the superior and imperial image of the monarchy has been balanced with a more user-friendly front as an everyday family. The sight of snooty royals walking around the East End of London to empathise with victims of the Blitz was meant to show that they were ‘just like the rest of us’ – but at the same time regal and representative of the best of Britain. In the 1960s a television documentary showed the royals relaxing and chatting at home, just like every other family in Britain.
The trouble is that this emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of the royal family has sat increasingly uneasily with their more formal, imperial duties. In post-Diana Britain, where elitism is out and populism is in, the uneasy balance has shifted in favour of the ordinary (even dysfunctional) royal family over the imperial family of the past. Which begs the question: what is the point of a royal family which isn’t regal?
‘No pomp for us, says Prince Edward’ ran a headline in the Daily Telegraph on 7 January, followed three days later by ‘Don’t make me a princess, Sophie begs Queen’. After the wedding Edward will continue to sign himself as plain old Edward Windsor in his job as a (second-rate) TV producer, and Sophie has no intention of giving up her job as a PR consultant (hanging out with the likes of Chris Tarrant) to become a full-time princess. Sophie even refused to have an armed bodyguard – until Jill Dando was shot, when the Queen apparently insisted that Di/Dando-lookalike Sophie should have more protection. Today it takes the murder of a TV presenter for a royal bride’s security to become an issue.
No wonder Edward and Sophie’s wedding will not look like a royal wedding – neither of them actually wants to be a royal. Far too much commitment and responsibility involved in all that. When Charles got married in 1981 he was a naval veteran and a titular major-general in the army. Edward prefers to make TV programmes about his family history, rather than play any part in it.
Edward and Sophie are non-royal royals who would like us to know that they want to come down to what they perceive as our level, to chill out with the People. It is significant that their wedding plans have been compared to David Beckham and Posh Spice’s, who are due to get married two weeks later on 4 July. Beckham and Posh are two suburban kids done good (don’t be fooled by the name Posh Spice – as the Modern Review said, ‘Like fuck she is’), who try earnestly to appear more classy and sophisticated. Edward and Sophie are ruling class and upper middle-class respectively, who try earnestly to appear more normal and ordinary. The end result is that a footballer and a Spice Girl can come across as more aspirant role models than a prince and his future (non-) princess.
This year is the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Oliver Cromwell, who defeated the royalists in the English Civil War and had King Charles I beheaded in 1649. For Cromwell, the monarch’s pomp and regalia symbolised corrupt and autocratic power. Today, an anti-royalist like Cromwell would be at a loss. Who could get hot under their stiff Puritan collar about the bland Edward Windsor and Royal Spice Sophie Rhys-Jones?
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Reproduced from LM, issue 121, June 1999
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