After four years in the trenches fighting about Brexit, it’s with palpable relief that we’re finally turning to more engaging topics: the rights and wrongs of Andrew and Harry. Not everyone has succumbed: there are still rationalist anti-monarchists criticising us for trivialising our discourse with unwholesome royal gossip. They’ve been making the same objections for two hundred years; indeed republicans’ arguments as a whole are identical to the ones that were made in the 1820s, and are just as irrelevant. In 1867 Walter Bagehot pointed out how wrongheaded they were to complain about the attention paid to Victoria’s promenades at Windsor or the Prince of Wales’s trips to the Derby. Popular fascination with ‘a retired widow and an unemployed youth’, he insisted, was of great significance in explaining British political health.
The British monarchy has survived and prospered in the intervening 150 years, essentially because it has persuaded people (three-quarters of the British public, according to most polls done over the last fifty years) of its representativeness. This representativeness can be defined in two broad ways. One is constitutional. The monarchy survived the critiques of 19th-century radicals not because of any political skill of its own but because the state – of which it was the leading symbol – purified and liberalised itself by reducing expenditure, abolishing most of its patronage and its class bias, and extending the franchise. The monarchy went along with this process of reform, stepping back from day to day political involvement (often rather grudgingly), and reducing its expenses (even more grudgingly). It now occupies an almost entirely neutral constitutional space, which has helped to limit the powers and pretensions of politicians. It is a more effective symbol of national unity at times of crisis for being both apolitical and personal. By drawing to his or her fallible self a lot of the popular enthusiasm that might otherwise be bestowed on charismatic vote-winners, the monarch has helped to prevent the emergence of Caesarist dictatorships of various kinds. During the Second World War, while Hitler projected his power through mass rallies, George VI stammered for England.
The second form of royal representativeness therefore has been the human and familial. The royal family provided a titillating soap opera centuries before the term was invented. Through the media, Charles and Di, the Queen Mum and Fergie, Wills and Harry have become familiar household presences. But though their personal foibles and imperfections have a fascination, we prefer most of the time an idealised rather than a mundane representation of daily life. Everything about the royal family is, as Bagehot said of its weddings, ‘a brilliant edition of a universal fact’. The personalities projected owe something to individual character, but more to show and glamour. Diana’s dresses, exhibited at Kensington Palace more than twenty years after her death, still drew the crowds. Last year Prince Charles came higher than David Gandy and David Beckham in GQ’s rankings for best-dressed Briton. The queen has been a global celebrity longer than anyone anywhere.
The contract between the royal family and the nation thus relies on a curious bargain between restraint and luxury. The core settlement remains the one drawn up by Victorian utilitarian radicals, in which the key metrics are value for money, constitutional rectitude and public service. The queen’s advisers care enormously about minimising the advertised cost of the monarchy to the public: the latest figure is 74p per person per year (up from 69p in 2018), but a dizzying £1.24 if the exceptional cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace is added in. In return, service is rendered in two ways. First, royal support and reward for outstanding contributions to the community. This has created thick bonds of mutual appreciation between the Windsors and the armed services (mostly male), on the one hand, and legions of charity volunteers (mostly female), on the other. Second, the tedious ‘royal duties’, which symbolise a life of restraint, a denial of the natural selfishness that would seem to be associated with a luxurious palace-bound existence. The royals parade in immaculate coiffures, bespoke outfits and crisp uniforms because we demand perfection in our representatives (which also appeals to tourists), but they must live in a gilded cage. As The Crown makes clear, we expect them to dress and behave like mannequins, dehumanised by precedent and by the constant repression of excess, partisanship and enthusiasm. Ever since Elizabeth I sacrificed her love life for the stability of the realm (deliberately casting shade on her lusty father’s reputation in the process), success as a monarch has been defined in popular culture largely as the uncomplaining suppression of private desires for the greater good.
The ability to conquer the constant temptation of insouciant extravagance is thus the main yardstick by which royal morals are judged. Few things explain the difference in popularity between the queen and her eldest son better than the contrast between the tupperware cereal containers which apparently sit on the Balmoral breakfast table and the claim (vehemently denied) that Charles is presented with seven boiled eggs of various degrees of runniness each morning. Moreover, as in any soap, some royal characters need to be portrayed as rogues in order to highlight the virtue of others. Princess Margaret’s trips to Mustique came to be seen as surrenders to dissipation, as self-abandonment. Prince Andrew suffered from the same problem even before the excruciating details of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein became well known.
Avoiding the appearance of uselessness is particularly difficult for adult male royals unless their status as direct heirs gives them a clear function as kings-in-training. For 150 years, well-dressed princesses of all ages have found a role adding silent glamour to the opening of hospitals and to commemorations of voluntary endeavour. It has proved more difficult for adult princes to carry off the same role. The gender distinction is regrettable, but in the very traditional monarchical sphere royal men are still judged by a different standard of utility, against which they can hardly not fall short. If they are prevented from active military duty, what else can they do? We instinctively assume that they should support their own families financially, yet even the dukes of Gloucester and Kent, the queen’s cousins, have always been funded by her Duchy of Lancaster income.
This problem is exacerbated by generational obsolescence. As in any media-confected family, the real stars are the young people, particularly for millions of royal-watchers with a mothering impulse. What happens to child actors when they grow out of their charm, or to young heart-throbs when they lose their figures and their hair? Few women still want to mother Macaulay Culkin, let alone Prince Andrew. The process of obsolescence operates especially cruelly when it comes to royalty because the rules of succession push younger sons further from the limelight as they age. People rightly ridicule Andrew’s arrogance: it is out of place in a man nearing sixty who no longer pulls his weight. Yet it was formed in the 1980s when he was still second in line to the throne, a glamorous and handsome war pilot with an oddball elder brother who apparently preferred plants to women.
The monarch’s younger sons in each generation are fated to follow the same trajectory. Few now remember Prince Alfred – except tourists visiting the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town who assume that its name is a misprint for ‘Albert’. In the 1860s Alfred, Victoria’s second son, named after the founder of the English monarchy and, as a naval cadet, the first official imperial tourist, became a global superstar. Aged 14 he visited the Holy Land, a year later he conquered South Africa, and before he was 20 he was seriously proposed as king of Greece. Polkas were written for him. At 23 he toured Australia and survived an Irish assassination attempt; soon afterwards he was fêted in New Zealand, Hong Kong and India. But his glamour tarnished, his boorishness came to notice, he married a haughty Russian princess, and he ended in forced exile presiding over his father’s German duchy.
Similarly, Prince Harry has always had a limited shelf life. In twenty years’ time, he would have become redundant in any case as his brother’s children emerged as young adults fit for royal duties. Even so, few would deny that at the moment he can offer a service which in principle deserves public funding, thanks to his association with military charities and with causes like mental health and climate change, and indeed his manifest personal ability to represent and publicise some of those challenges. As his charisma balances his brother’s dutifulness, his departure from the firm may be a loss, perhaps even a danger, to the royal family.
However, there is a question as to what sort of departure is viable, and what sort of freedom he can find. In renouncing the utilitarian contract between public funding and public service, Harry is also renouncing the security the contract gives the monarchy, by preventing it from needing to seek private funding of dubious morality. One reason the royal family enjoys more popular respect than political parties is the moral restraint imposed by state funding. If Harry manages to fund an opulent lifestyle in sunny foreign climes, his companions will be as heavily scrutinised as Sarah Ferguson’s toe-sucking Texan was in his day. In any case Harry, released from most social obligations, risks being labelled as a playboy prince – rather like the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas during the Second World War. The tabloids’ current campaign against his wife, Meghan (which opens up a whole set of other issues), makes this all the more likely.
If Harry seeks to earn money through his celebrity, will that not bring further pressures to bear? Will he not have exchanged a gilded cage policed by palace courtiers for one policed by paparazzi and their slavering editors? The media’s demands and expectations are arguably even more tyrannical and ageist for celebrity non-royals. How much allure will paunchy privatised princelings on Vancouver Island retain, when Love Island combines ethnic diversity with uniformly washboard abs? Can Harry develop a model of self-funded service which milks his status yet does genuine charitable good? It is an interesting question. But if he manages the trick what should we do? Should we continue to pay a licence fee for a ‘nationalised’ royal family, or should they pay their own way? This would be the ultimate victory for the neoliberal state. It might be wisest to stick to the tried and trusted policy of carefully budgeted taxpayer support. For well over a century, this support has ensured that the monarchy, like other elements of the British state, has been shaped by changing constitutional and cultural values at least as much as it has shaped them.