Royal wedding: why hate Will’n’Kate?
Friday’s shindig revealed the extent to which the isolated monarchy has thrown its lot in with celebrity culture.
Now that the I do’s have been done and the dress has been papped to death, it’s time to put the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton into perspective. Friday’s knees-up in London and other parts of Britain was not, as both right-wing fantasists and bitter republicans would have us believe, evidence that everyday Brits remain in thrall to monarchy. Rather, the Big Day confirmed just how far the monarchy has been hollowed of meaning, and the extent to which it has rather desperately thrown its lot in with one of the few institutions that still has political purchase in Britain today: celebrity culture.
The observing classes were in equal measure overexcited and disgusted to see so many little people waving Union flags on Friday. For monarchists, this was evidence that Britons still have ‘great affection’ for their Queen and her brood and all that they represent – including hereditary privilege. For the more fashionable Windsor-weary set – republican commentators at publications such as the Guardian and the New Statesman – the sight of hordes of happy people cheering a prince and his gal was utterly alien. They are ‘brainwashed drones’, sniffed one columnist, partaking in a ‘monstrous [display] of imperial pride’, said another.
What both these cheerers and sneerers amongst the chattering classes fail to appreciate is the extent to which the royal wedding was a celebrity event rather than an imperial one. And people related to it accordingly, cheering and photographing Will’n’Kate not as their future natural rulers, but as individuals who have the aura, and authority, of celebrity. This was a celebrity happening not only in the much commented-upon fact that slebs such as David Beckham, Elton John and Tara-Wotsit-Wonkynose squeezed into the pews alongside the King of Tonga and the Queen of Denmark, but also in the fact that all those Union flags were handed out to the revellers by Hello! magazine. Responsibility for adding a nationalist gloss to Friday’s proceedings was effectively outsourced to the army of ‘Hello! helpers’ who ‘lined the royal wedding route’ armed with thousands of factory-made Union flags.
This was entirely fitting since, these days, even the Union flag gains its authority more from its association with celebrity culture than with ‘imperial pride’. Who doesn’t now look at the Union flag and think of that front cover of Vanity Fair magazine with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit or of Geri Halliwell’s micro-dress? Ours is an era in which British armies are expressly forbidden from flying the Union flag following moments of victory in combat – victory in Iraq would not be celebrated with ‘flag-waving or homecoming parades’ or ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’, said Tony Blair in 2003 – yet it can be ironically fashioned into a dress or a jacket for a starlet to wear. Today the Union flag is less ‘The Butcher’s Apron’ than ‘The Spice Girl’s Boob Tube’.
Friday confirmed the extent to which the Union flag has become profoundly detached from the old ideals of God, Empire and country and is now a purely cultural symbol. The very inoffensive ubiquitousness of it on Friday was testament, not to a resurgence of ‘public hysteria’ for monarchy and tradition, but to the flimsiness of the flag, its transformation from a powerful symbol of British pride and might into a celebrity accessory or an advertising logo (for beer usually). The reason the flag can be handed out by Hello! and frantically waved for four hours before being binned, or more likely recycled so that it can become another plastic product, is precisely because of its depoliticisation, its estrangement, and the elite’s estrangement, from traditional British values. (The flag of St George is a different matter. The sanitisation of the Union flag has gone hand in hand with the demonisation of the St George Cross, which the liberal elite has now completely ceded to far-right ruffians and oikish football fans)
Following the celebrity guests, the celebrity helpers and the celebrity flags, the wedding ended with perhaps the most telling celebrity moment of all: the newlyweds’ drive in a comedy Aston Martin from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House. Clearly inspired by his fictional hero Austin Powers, of whom he has publicly done impressions, William drove Kate in his own version of the ‘Shaguar’ to the whooping of the crowds and the delight of the media. It seemed implicitly to mock all that travelling about by carriage earlier in the day, which was little more than a prelude to this movie-inspired parade by sexed-up motorcar. Powers is of course the resolutely Sixties cat who feels out of place in the 1990s; William seemed to be sending the message that he’s the culturally sussed celeb prince who felt out of place in those gold-tinged stagecoaches. It is notable that The Times, Britain’s newspaper of record, chose to feature on its front page a shot of the couple guffawing in the Aston Martin, alongside a strapline telling us that the royals are now ‘more fun and more like us’ – the kind of thing you’d expect heat magazine to say about Katie Price rather than The Times about a future king.
Amidst all these celebrity-inspired antics, there was one proper moment of old-style ‘imperial pride’ – and it only served to expose the crisis of traditional British values. During the balcony kissing scene (itself a knowing sequel to the famous media image of That Kiss between Prince Charles and Diana) some military planes flew over central London: Spitfires and Lancaster bombers. Is that all they’ve got? It reveals a great deal about the British political and monarchical classes’ discomfort with Britishness as it is experienced and understood today that they chose to gawp at iconic planes from the Second World War on Will’n’Kate’s big day. It rather suggested that there has been nothing whatsoever since 1945, no military escapade or political development, that has unified the nation around any sense of ‘imperial pride’. Britain’s actions during the Second World War remain pretty much its only uncontroversial expression of might (though even this militaristic episode is slowly but surely becoming fair game for historical revisionists).
Far from cheering for tradition, far from hysterically hoping that William will dutifully use his sperm to create yet more heirs (as author Will Self claimed), the crowds around Britain on Friday were relating to Will’n’Kate as celebrities rather than as representatives of hereditary privilege. Over the past 200 years, the royal family has reinvented itself numerous times, in desperate bids to boost its authority and popularity. Since the Second World 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 the victims of the Blitz was meant to show that they were ‘just like the rest of us’, but at the same time regal. In the 1960s, a TV documentary showed the royals relaxing and chatting at home, apparently just like every other family in Britain.
Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the royals were accused by the press of being ‘an alien breed which is stuck in a timewarp’, we saw the emergence of a more transparent, trimmed royal family. The Queen cut back the Civil List, Charles published his accounts for the first time ever, and the then New Labour government kickstarted an initiative to ‘lift the veil of mystery that surrounds the Royal Prerogative’ (which allows Britain’s PM to make decisions and take actions unilaterally, without recourse to parliament, in the name of the Crown). More recently, the royals have consciously cultivated a celebrity image. Through carefully leaked stories and articles penned by friends, William and Kate have presented an image of themselves that conforms far more to today’s powerful celebrity script than it does to the notion that either of them was born for greatness. They are ordinary, just like us, we are told, while also, of course, having some special and unique qualities. They have overcome difficulties (Kate was bullied, William’s mum died) and shown themselves to be ‘survivors’. And they have adopted an affectation of familiarity with their ‘fans’, writing highly personalised notes thanking the nation for their good wishes and driving around in an open-top Aston Martin to convey the idea that there are few, if any, social or cultural barriers between them and us – much as the cult of celebrity is also built on phoney familiarity, the idea of no walls between the celebrity and he who consumes popular culture.
Most importantly of all, ‘celebrity’ today represents one of the few undisputed sources of authority. In the use of terms such as ‘celebrity chef’, ‘celebrity doctor’ or ‘celebrity campaigner’, we can see that the prefix ‘celebrity’ has firmly uprooted and replaced the prefix ‘royal’ as the true conferrer of special authority and unique powers. Politicians and campaign groups that keenly feel today’s crisis of authority, feeling detached from the public and bereft of impact, constantly call on celebrities to front their political manoeuvrings. From Tony Blair’s cultivation of Cool Britannia to Gordon Brown’s hobnobbing with Angelina Jolie to George W Bush’s adoption of Bono as his unofficial spokesman for Africa, time and again political leaders effectively outsource their flagging authority to celebrities. Indeed, what we might call the Celebrity Prerogative – the use of slebs to push frequently illiberal or interventionist campaigns, from the parent-bashing school-dinners crusade to the depiction of Africa as in need of rescue – is invoked far more frequently than the Royal Prerogative these days. The royals seem to have recognised, perhaps begrudgingly, that it is not God or tradition that confers authority today, but celebrity: familiarity, famousness, specialness mixed with ordinariness.
The sneerers at Friday’s proceedings are far more comfortable indulging the BS notion that the wedding was a blast from a racist and imperialist past, because of course they themselves are massively implicated in the celebrity culture upon which the wedding was really built. When the New Statesman recently got Jemima Khan to act as editor, it was playing the exact same game as the royal family is with Kate: hoping that a posh, pretty, carefully cultivated celeb would confer some authority on its waning arguments. The Guardian is forever cheering the political efforts of George Clooney or Jamie Oliver or Vanessa Redgrave and other ‘serious celebrities’ who want to rescue wogs/the working classes. Will Self is himself a ‘celebrity novelist’. It is kind of ironic that the cynical chattering classes mock Brits for allegedly bowing and scraping before royalty while helping to sustain the real power hierarchy in Britain today: celebrity.
Look, if there was a true, meaningful clash between monarchists and republicans, we at spiked, an implacably republican magazine that counts Thomas Paine among our heroes, would firmly be on the side of those calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the stripping away of anything that fetters or dilutes the popular will. But there is no such clash. There are simply monarchy fantasists on one side and anti-masses cynics disguised as republicans on the other. That latter group came out of the wedding the worst of all. There is only one reasonable response to their breathless claims that Britons have been consumed by a ‘great cloud of unknowing’ that has turned them into Stepford-style curtseying ‘drones’: calm down dears.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.