The culture war behind the Will’n’Kate debate
The wedding has exposed big fault lines within the British elite, with defensive monarchists on one side and snobbish cynics on the other.
Five years ago, Britain’s then chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown announced plans to launch a British Day. He said it would be ‘unifying, commemorative, dignified and an expression of British ideas of standing firm in the name of liberty’. The idea was quietly dropped in October 2008, after Brown became prime minister. ‘Pack up the Union Jacks, cancel the street parties and tell the pet shop that you won’t be needing that bulldog after all’, wrote Roland Brown in The Sunday Times.
Not to be deterred, the Brown government commissioned the educational music organisation, Sing-Up, to publish a collection of 30 British songs that every 11-year-old should know. Sing-Up’s Gareth Malone described the idea as a ‘hot potato, culturally’, adding that ‘you have to be realistic’ and you ‘can’t be too culturally imperialist about it’. In the end, officials chose to avoid the inevitable controversy that the publication of a common British song-book would have given rise to, and opted instead to establish a broader ‘song bank’ containing 600 songs. This raises an important question: if a society is too embarrassed to publish a national song-book, then how can it expect its people to sing from the same hymn sheet?
For a sociologist like me, this week’s royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, which takes place on Friday, provides some valuable insights into what makes British society tick. The wedding will likely reveal how far civic pride has been undermined by the Culture Wars. Throughout the twentieth century, royal occasions served as a barometer of community opinion and of the public’s identification with nation and crown. In 1977, over 10million people took part in street parties to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and a similar number celebrated the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
Thirty years later it is the turn of their son, William, to recapture some of the magic associated with such grand occasions. But there is little magic in the air. Today, the British public appears confused and uncertain about expressing cultural and national affiliations.
Some well-meaning folk tell me that they don’t want to wave the flag in case it offends people who don’t feel British. A local community activist in Canterbury in Kent told me she feels more comfortable organising a routine public event for the local community than she does organising something that will be part of a bigger state occasion. A friend shows me a leaflet distributed by the Gondar Agamemnon Residents Association in north-west London. It advertises a street party to be held on same day as the royal wedding, but it does not mention the wedding and there is not the slightest hint that the street party has anything to do with the celebration of Kate and William’s nuptials. Perhaps they are embarrassed about appearing to be enthusiastic about a royal occasion, or maybe some of the organisers felt that the celebration of a distinctly British event would be inconsistent with the ideals of a multicultural society.
The sense of ‘we’re not sure what we should be doing’ is fairly widespread in the run-up to the wedding. That is one reason why, in contrast to previous occasions, there has been a remarkable drop in the number of applications for street parties. There are many communities where no one has bothered to apply to hold a party. One third of local councils say they have not received any applications; other local councils have only received four or five applications.
Take the city of Bolton. In 1977, there were 427 parties for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. In 1981, there were over 100 parties to celebrate the wedding of Charles and Diana. In 2002, 90 public events were held to commemorate the 50 years that the queen had spent on the throne. Today in Bolton, only four applications have been made to hold street parties for Will and Kate’s wedding.
A similar pattern is evident elsewhere. In the city of Oxford, the royal capital during the English Civil War, there were 54 street parties last year as part of ordinary civic celebrations. But the city’s council has only received five applications for holding street parties on the day of William and Kate’s wedding. What is going on?
Ardent royalists have embraced the wedding with relish. They regard the union of Will and Kate as a welcome reminder that the institution of the monarchy is not only alive and well, but flourishing. However, their enthusiasm conveys more than a hint of defensiveness about their flagging monarchical cause. For one big difference between today and 30 years ago is that critics of the monarchy have become far more confident and prominent in framing the perception of the wedding.
So the representatives of the otherwise fairly marginal campaign group Republic have sought to make political capital out of the fact that there is not much enthusiasm for wedding-related street parties. Graham Smith, Republic’s campaign manager, gloated: ‘This will come as terrible news for the palace press office, who’ve been desperately trying to whip up enthusiasm for the wedding.’ He added that ‘only a tiny minority of zealous monarchists are interested’.
In truth, neither the friends nor foes of the monarchy have made a great impact on the public. Neither side’s arguments resonate with the public imagination. And the absence of public enthusiasm for organising street parties does not translate into support for Republic’s campaign.
In shops, mugs of Will and Kate beaming at one another are clearly outselling the anti-monarchist cups that acclaim ‘I couldn’t care less about the royal wedding’. However, sales of memorabilia tell only a part of the story. What is really fascinating about this event is how it exposes the fault lines that divide opposing sides in Britain’s not-so-silent Culture Wars. Although those who are bitterly hostile to any public celebration of a royal wedding constitute a tiny minority of zealous anti-anything-British warriors, they enjoy a surprising degree of affirmation from sections of the media and from the chattering classes. Even the BBC has been in regular discussion with groups hostile to the monarchy, frequently giving them an opportunity to express their views. Suddenly celebrity republicans are very much in demand by the media.
Some newspapers have opted to turn the wedding into an object of derision and sarcasm. For example, the Guardian decided that running an editorial with the headline ‘The magic of the monarchy. The royal moment has come’ would prove to be an hilarious April fool’s joke. On the other side of the cultural divide, more traditional-minded journalists and politicians have sought to counter the cynicism directed at the young royal couple by raising the flag and exhorting the public to show its support for this important event.
The contrast between the British media’s handling of this wedding with their handing of the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 is striking. It’s important to recall that even in 1981 Diana was treated as a major celebrity and the media were totally committed to framing the wedding as a feelgood, magical moment. With the media behind her, Diana was destined to become the People’s Princess, and her ascendancy was often hailed as representing a break from the stodgy, stiff-upper-lip caricature of Old Britain.
Now, the British government has been taken aback by the relative absence of public enthusiasm for the wedding of Diana’s son. Prime minister David Cameron has urged the nation to ‘get on and have fun’, to organise street parties. Some of his ministers have blamed local authorities for making it difficult for people to apply for the permits that are necessary for closing down a street and holding a party. Red tape and the usual health-and-safety procedures have been criticised for undermining displays of public celebration. There is little doubt that numerous local authorities have done their best to complicate the task of organising street events. A woman from Rochester told me she simply gave up applying for a street-party permit after she realised how much time and money the whole thing would cost. However, since when have local bureaucrats managed to stand in the way of genuine displays of mass enthusiasm? The ‘red tape’ argument looks more like a red herring.
Others claim that there was simply not enough time to organise a celebratory event between the announcement of the wedding at the end of last year and the wedding date of 29 April this year. And others claim that by turning 29 April into a public holiday, giving British people four days off work (since the following Monday is a public holiday too), the government has provided the public with the perfect incentive to take a trip abroad. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Brits have welcomed this unexpected break and have opted to go overseas. However, whatever the truth of these various claims, they cannot on their own account for the relative absence of a sense of occasion in relation to William and Kate’s wedding.
What the confused public response to William and Kate’s wedding really shows is that people are not sure of their voice. The most significant thing that has caused this confusion is the dramatic diminishing of the moral status of British identity within Britain itself. During the past decade, numerous official attempts to celebrate British identity have failed to get off the ground.
What’s really at issue is not the number of applications for holding street parties, but the difficulty that British society has in giving voice to a common purpose these days. The urgency of regaining civic pride is the key issue that has emerged from the discussion around the royal wedding. People can learn to find their voice, and sometimes they can find it with surprising speed. It only takes a few confident leaders to remind them that it is okay to celebrate your way of life. But for that sentiment to emerge, real leadership is required.
An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on Saturday 23 April.