About as Useful as a String Condom

Glen Newey on the Royal Family’s latest annus horribilis

Time’s whirligig, as one surly underling told another, brings in its revenges. For the Royal Family, 2002 went bad faster than an over-hung widgeon. In September the Prince of Wales emerged as a nuisance letter-writer, badgering Government ministers with green-ink missives about the Human Rights Act and the hunting ban, and moans that Cumbrian farmers got a worse deal than blacks and homosexuals. In November the Princess Royal got a criminal record after her pet pit bull gored a child (the dog escaped the chop thanks to the Princess’s top-dollar brief). Even Prince William, once the press’s golden boy, was reported to have dispatched flunkeys to buy him porno mags from the local newsagent. Then came bruits of rape within the precincts of Buckingham Palace, and reports that the Royals’ London flophouses doubled as totters’ yards for laundering swag (‘Del Boy Royals’ was the Sun’s unimprovable headline). All this knocked the gilt off the ‘Golden’ Jubilee.

During the last big snafu concerning the Windsors, after the death of Diana, the main charge against the Royals was ‘aloofness’. All this really amounted to was that they had shown themselves indifferent to the fate of a drama queen whose early death spared us all a lot of tedium. Now, however, the charges include subverting the administration of criminal justice, tax evasion, squandering public money and undermining democracy. Once the Burrell and Brown/ Havlik trials collapsed, the finger pointed directly at the Sovereign herself, who emerged (depending on one’s preferred theory) as Machiavellian, culpably misinformed, vindictive or simply gaga. Whatever the explanation, the upshot is a mighty waste of public cash. It could scarcely be worse if the Queen had been caught running drugs on the (£35,000 per outing) Royal train or if the Duke of Edinburgh had been pleasuring corgis in Windsor Great Park.

Monarchophiles had talked up the Windsors’ return to public affection after the Jubilee, as if it were the happy end to a foolish tale of republican flirtation. The last ten years have been a bum decade for the Royals. Phone taps revealed that the heir-apparent, previously thought to be interested in nothing more risqué than the Goon Show and chats with root vegetables, aspired to be his mistress’s jam-rag. His younger son, third-in-line Prince Harry, was busted after splitting a splifferooney or three with low-life cronies, and packed off to a suitably downmarket rehab bin. Although public indignation at the burgeoning Civil List led to some drastic pruning, the Royal supernumeraries continued to live high on the hog. When the public purse snapped shut, they resorted to ever more mercenary ways of earning a crust. Whereas the Royals’ rent-a-nob biz had previously been confined to minor scions of the dynasty, the clampdown on the Saxe-Coburg benefit scam brought it much closer to home. In an effort to drum up business for her PR firm, Sophie, ‘Countess of Wessex’ sounded off about the Prime Minister’s wife to a couple of News of the Booze hacks posing as Middle Eastern sheikhs. Then, following the brouhaha about ‘media intrusion’ on Prince William’s arrival as a student at St Andrews University, it turned out that the Prince had indeed been stalked – by his uncle’s TV crew.

Until the June roisterings, 2002 had, by general consent, been another annus horribilis. Nothing as bad as the Windsor Castle fire, let alone the nasty arrival of a tax demand from the Inland Revenue on the Queen’s doormat a few years back; but it had nonetheless seen the deaths, within a few weeks of each other, of the Queen’s ‘much loved’ sister and of her mother. Of course everybody had been expecting Mustique Meg and ‘the Problem’ (the Queen’s affectionate soubriquet for her mother) to peg it for any number of years, and the QM’s one benefaction to the nation – which got nothing in inheritance tax – was to croak over Easter, elbowing Jesus out of the TV schedules. Meanwhile the Prince Consort’s capacity to goof remains undimmed by age. On the Jubilee tour of the UK the Duke picked out a blind woman from a crowd of ‘well-wishers’ and asked her if she knew that there are now ‘eating dogs for the anorexic’.

In the background, of course, lay the fluff-ball Jacobinism of September 1997 which surfaced in the media after Diana’s tryst with the underpass. It was rightly observed that the blood Royals inhabited an emotional tundra, where feeling was subjugated to ‘duty’ and ‘the Firm’. By contrast, Diana had ‘soul’. She bared all about self-harm and her frequent calls, during her bulimic phase, on the great white telephone. She fondled children and animals, dabbled in New Age pursuits, kibitzed in operating theatres and had been stiffed on a pedalo by the thick-set offspring of a Levantine grocer. In op-ed fable she presented the Windsor family’s lone human face, Avon Lady to the House of Atreus.

This wasn’t so long ago, and the Royals’ supposed bounce back to public favour came as a shock to many in the commentariat. They need not have been surprised. Even in December 1997, at the supposed nadir of the Windsor clan’s popularity, and the zenith of Tony Blair’s, the Prime Minister’s approval rating in a MORI poll was, at 61 per cent, the same as that for Prince Charles, detested ex-spouse of the Althorp Madonna and prime scapegoat for her death. Even immediately after the Paris shunt, a mere 18 per cent thought that Britain should dump the Royals in favour of a republic. This was hardly surprising: as mother to the heir-but-one to the throne Diana could reasonably be thought to have had a strong interest in the monarchy’s survival. The republican upsurge was never a big deal.

Nonetheless, the ‘perception’ remains that for Royalists the Jubilee marked a reversal of fortune after the travails of the 1990s. In 2001 the dependably vacuous Jonathan Freedland gazed into his crystals and prognosticated that it was

going to be so different this time – even the folks in Buckingham Palace are saying it. Next summer’s Golden Jubilee, marking fifty years since Elizabeth II’s Coronation, will not be the national jamboree and mass outpouring of affection that courtiers remember from 1977. It will be a modest, understated affair: a tasteful celebration for those who want it.

In the event, of course, the jamboree was about as modest, understated and tasteful as Liberace in a snakeskin posing pouch. How did ‘the folks in Buckingham Palace’ so easily squash Freedland’s expectations? A clue comes from the neo-Bourbonesque rhetoric about the ‘People’s Monarchy’ – the phrase harks back to one used by the Prime Minister on the morning Di went off to the great couturier in the sky. Blair’s articulation of the ‘national mood’ easily outmanoeuvred the Opposition, whose hapless leader could only suggest that Diana give her name to Heathrow Airport: a better candidate would have been the Channel tunnel. Even then the ‘People’s Princess’ was not merely an oxymoron, but a second-hand one at that. The phrase was coined by the dreck columnist and penny dreadful author Julie Burchill, who in Diana’s later years cast herself in the role of damp-knickered schoolgirl to Di’s dashing gym mistress.

Even so, the People’s Princess tag stuck. Not least among the reasons for the label’s durability is the Government’s deployment of ‘the People’ to rebrand anything for which it wishes to suborn approval – witness the ‘People’s Lottery’, the ‘People’s Dome’ (at least before it succumbed to the People’s apathy), the creation of ‘People’s Peers’ and the former Culture Secretary’s Goebbelsesque pronouncement that the arts ‘must be relevant to the People’. The People now find themselves recruited to rubber-stamp whatever outcomes the vagaries of the market throw up – and indeed the market itself, which is with us, after all, by popular demand.

And so we come to the Jubilee and its reaffirmation of the ‘People’s Monarchy’. Before the day few thought that on 3 June a million or two groupies would throng the Mall to watch a bunch of clapped-out old-stagers presuming on the public’s indulgence for one last hurrah. But so it proved. When Diana bought the farm only a few months into his Premiership, Blair was still able to pose as the champion of the petit peuple against the forces of reaction: that is, old privilege, money and the establishment. The blame-fest which followed her death put the Royals in the dock for the beatified Princess’s demise. The tabloids condemned them, not unfittingly, as the curdled dregs of an outmoded caste. By contrast, the Princess was celebrated as ‘modern’, a tag which the New Labour ‘Project’ had already collared. The monarchophile Blair had, to be sure, to tread carefully, since his strategy of siding with the wailing Dianistas risked toppling the Royals once and for all. His great coup during the week between Diana’s death and funeral was to keep up this pose while rescuing the Palace from the spectre of black republicanism, in the face of both a snarling press and a po-faced sovereign who couldn’t see what the fuss was about. By the end of the week, though, Number Ten had convinced even Her Majesty that without a sop to sentiment this could be the Big One, and had scripted her some old-balls lines for telecast (‘as a grandmother’ etc) which answered the call for gush.

Things are different now. Mishaps too numerous and familiar to mention have blotted the Dear Leader’s credentials as a tribune of the People. Over the last five years New Labour has grafted itself seamlessly to the rootstock of the reaction it once claimed to abhor. The People’s Premier has shown himself to be Lakshmi Mittal’s Premier, Bernie Ecclestone’s Premier, George W. Bush’s pet puff-adder – the hireling, in short, of anyone with power or ready cash. While this glad-handing was politically motivated, we now also know that the Blairs are not above schmoozing with conmen for real-estate discounts. The old adage has it that British prime ministers are either vicars or bookmakers. In Phoney Tony the country has a bookie masquerading as a vicar, a posture that does little for the standing of either profession. As a result Blair has lost his claques. He has toadied to those, including the Queen, whose affection for him cannot be relied on to last longer than next week’s polls.

Seen in this light, the question why the Queen made a ‘comeback’ with the Jubilee junket answers itself. In cahoots with the media, the Palace turned the tables on Number Ten. Nowadays it’s the Royals, not the New Labour nomenklatura, who are prolier than thou, and the true custodian of the public weal. The media’s claim that the PM had ‘muscled in’ on Royal grief during the Queen Mother’s funeral completed his fall from divine emissary to scourge of Black Rod, as Blair was charged with milking the photo-op to improve his own image. But to ask why the Royals suddenly found themselves on the up and up is to miss the point. The most interesting question concerning the monarchy is how, given its absurdity, the institution manages to stagger on, even posing on occasion as the voice of the dispossessed. Behind this is the unignorable dilemma besetting third-millennium monarchy. How can the existence of the hugely rich and not-so-powerless Windsors be squared with democratic ideals of political and civic equality?

Before the Jubilee the dilemma may have looked insoluble. One proposal was that the Queen should slum it a bit more, perhaps through a spot of biking – the so-called Dutch model of monarchy. Further possibilities for down-marketing readily suggest themselves: the monarch could do something seriously common, like getting a nipple pierced or presiding over ‘Royal Big Brother’ at a palace in an undisclosed location. Flailing attempts have, of course, been made in this direction, such as the Queen’s much trumpeted ‘pub visit’ in Devon five years ago, when she eyed a jar of the local brew as if it were a vial of rat’s piss. No doubt her failure to sample it owed more to a heartfelt aversion to her subjects’ tipple of choice than to political calculation. Even so, the underlying instinct is quite correct: that she becomes less majestic the more she sluts out, and monarchy without majesty is about as useful as a string condom.

Another way for the Royals to respond to the dilemma would be to insist on their difference from the Great Unwashed. This certainly chimes better with the Queen’s own view of the world, in which even the corgis eat out of solid silver bowls. But it meets with no more success than going déclassé, the obvious problem being that old-style deference has – at least on the plane of rhetoric – gone for good. Admittedly, the monarchy has proven adept, down the centuries, at the old divide-and-rule ploy. Offering mediocrities the chance to scramble a few inches up the greasy pole while trampling on those beneath is a splendid way to shore up hierarchy. But the class society is no longer rhetorically respectable. After all, the Government came to power in 1997 pledged to end the ‘absurdity’ of conferring political power by heredity (a stance which it took to apply to the House of Lords but not the monarchy). The Daily Mail’s continuing outrage that the ‘Michaels’ can squat Kensington Palace for a rent that wouldn’t cover a bus shelter anywhere else in the borough (defending his lifestyle, Prince Michael protested that ‘it’s paid for by us – except the house, clearly’) shows that the wraith of monarchomachy can pop up anywhere. Attempts to reaffirm an old hierarchy in rhetoric as well as reality risk the dread charge of ‘elitism’.

As with so many dilemmas, one way to deal with this one is by not thinking about it much. This displays, in John Dunn’s apt phrase, the cunning of unreason. The alternative is to embrace doublethink. We, the People, are the democratic sovereign: it is by popular demand that the monarch rules over us, her subjects. Or, the Queen is naturally our better, but like the jellied-eel-and-brown-ale-guzzling Queen Mother, she is also one of us. The Queen costs a bargain 58p per subject per annum to maintain (this was the positive spin put on the revelation last year that the true cost of the monarchy – £35million – was considerably higher than previously acknowledged), but is, of course, worth anything between £50m and £350m, and benefits from sundry perks and tax breaks. She is a mere ‘figurehead’, but wields at least some form of power as head of the Commonwealth, head of the Armed Forces, head of the established Church and head of the Privy Council. She is entitled to give or withhold assent from democratically enacted legislation and to dissolve Parliament, and is entitled to an hour’s free ear-time each week with the Prime Minister, over whom she uniquely has the prerogative of hire and fire. She is the German-descended, and her progeny the Graeco-German-descended, epitome of Englishness. Accordingly, though she reigns as Queen of all her subjects, she can’t legally marry a Catholic, and wouldn’t have married anyone black or Asian, or anyone else much below the rank of Viscount, the thought of Papist or mongrelised or demi-prole heirs to the Throne being beyond imagination. The only reason she and her kin play the role of figureheads to the nation more plausibly than a president created by election or lot is that, as a clan riven by estrangement, multiple divorce, adultery, alcoholism and sporadic psychosis, they exemplify actual family values.

Not thinking about the dilemma does not, of course, get rid of it. The Royals remain strung between coming out as poshness incarnate and getting back in the closet by masquerading as proles. Hence the epiphany of a bemused monarch and her consort watching the antics of Brian May on top of her own strobe-lit Palace on 3 June. Hence, also, the most arresting spectacle of royal conflagration since the storming of the Winter Palace, the pyrotechnic finale of the schlock extravaganza cannibalising the very imagery of revolt. The Royals’ accommodation with popular culture had, however, already gone further than this. Soon after the Queen Mother’s death the nation learned that she had been a devotee of Ali G. Apparently, after a bottle or two of Beefeater the old girl would snap her fingers and mimic his catch-word (‘respec’’) to the amusement of her great-grandsons. Those in the Palace press office who placed this story in the papers presumably recalled the scene in Ali G: Indahouse where Ali learns that the Queen shaves her pubes, and can manage only to repeat his catch-word in awe. There isn’t much ground left for dissent to occupy when royaldom eagerly appropriates even lèse-majesty about the reginal jock-region.

As the Jubilee showed, there’s been no reduction in the rhetorical value of the People in gilding the masque of power. The telly plugs for the Jubilee bash made this plain. In the commercials, a caricature toff supposedly in the royal employ (Rowan Atkinson, in his Blackadder persona) schemes to stifle the Palace schlock-rock gig at its birth. But we – that is, we the People – know that his knavish tricks will be frustrated and that the mystic bond between Sovereign and People will be sealed through our shared devotion to the music of Ozzy Osbourne. To describe this as playing both ends against the middle would be to miss the fictive quality of the middle, and the dominance of one end over the other. It makes of the People a ventriloquist’s dummy and passes off as their collective will a script drafted and spoken for them by those who aim to remain their betters.

Commentators sometimes portray this monarcho-syndicalism as a coalition against capitalism, a pseudo-Tawneyite rerun of the Middle Ages. But the lines of allegiance can run either way, since capital’s apologists like to pretend that companies such as Enron and WorldCom – sleights of the invisible hand – come to us by popular demand. In any case, it is a myth that royalty and capitalism don’t mix. The first anniversary of Diana’s death saw an effluent-stream of memorabilia, coffee-table books and the like, including commemoration plates which tootled out a rendition of ‘Candle in the Wind’ at the press of a button, assorted effigies and, reportedly, a commemorative seat-belt issued by an enterprising German auto-parts firm. The Golden Jubilee was marked by the issue of a limited-edition dildo embossed with the royal crest, presumably designed to concentrate the minds of Albion’s daughters (and sons) as they gaze at the ceiling and wax nostalgic over Empire.

What’s more, there is a symbiotic relation between monarchy and the form of democracy that exists in Britain. Governments use the Royals as handy whipping-boys when the peasants grow disgruntled, or as a decoy to draw popular fire when Westminster power and privilege seem overweening. The honours system doles out cheap gongs to underpaid public servants and buys off dissidents – consider Harold Pinter’s recent CH, or David Hare’s K. Conversely, the Royals are happy to benefit from the disrepute into which democratic politics habitually brings itself. This is particularly useful when, as now, politicians’ mendacity and self-interest meets with public ‘cynicism’ and the discrediting of democracy: by ‘transcending politics’, the monarchy serves to defang revolt and contain it within the system. As a pre-democratic throwback, the tribal elders are well placed to fill the fiduciary void.

Admittedly, their power to plug the credibility gap may be temporarily sapped by the monarch’s sabotage of the criminal justice system over which she presides, her paying as little tax as she can to the state she heads, the van-loads of gifts her brood apparently hawks for ready cash, and whatever fresh scandals this year may bring. An episode in which the Queen was happy to see a faithful servant go to the wall until a word from the Dauphin made her aware of the beans about to be spilled, and was no less insouciant at the waste of public money when memory resumed its sway, in the end produced not much more than a clacking of the chatterati’s worry-beads. The Royals may, in the way of families, be primitive, grasping and sadistic. But they’re our own, and we cannot but love them.

To all appearances, the political views of the People’s Monarch and her family suit their role admirably, and guarantee their survival for decades, maybe centuries, to come. The Queen’s own political philosophy can only be guessed at, but given her standing as the UK’s – perhaps the world’s – richest woman, it is unlikely to include a vision of society in which power and wealth are distributed more equitably. All surviving evidence about the political views of the Queen Mother indicates that she couldn’t have got much further rightwards without buying a uniform. The most that can be extracted in the way of political content from the Prince of Wales’s rambling public pronouncements is a blathering eco-feudalism in which society is an idealised Highgrove. For the political philosophy of the Prince Consort, and in particular his views on popular sovereignty, we need look no further than his encounter with General Alfredo Stroessner, who between 1954 and his overthrow in 1989 ran what amounted to a sunset home for ageing Nazis in Paraguay. On a trip to Asunción before the General got the heave-ho, the Duke told him: ‘It’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people.’ The Duke needn’t have left home.