Royal occasions aren’t really about the royals at all

It’s odd that all dramas about the royals – especially, perhaps, The Crown, the era’s defining artistic monument to monarchy – tend to get the same thing wrong. They think that what this family does matters. This is the jeopardy that drives the drama: that the wrong phrase will change the course of history, or that some divorce or scandal might put the very institution at risk.

But the striking thing about the royal family is: there are no stakes. They have no real power and no one cares what they do (since at least 1993 some 70% of us have been in favour of the monarchy, a statistic unchanged by Fergie, Prince Andrew and Meghan Markle).

Those two are linked, I think. We approve of the royals because they have no power and it does not matter what they do. I’ve often wondered why in a modern democracy we tolerate the grotesque performance of hierarchy that are royal occasions – why do we stand like cap-doffing peasants in a cost of living crisis to cheer as a gold carriage goes by? Why do we rush to reconstruct this feudal pecking order that puts us at the very bottom?

Why all this reverence for a group of very flawed people among whom we can never hope to be? But we tolerate it because we know it’s just pretend: we play-act as loyal subjects but really, we keep the royals in their place, not they us in ours.

I was struck by the public reaction to the royal “suggestion” that crowds swear allegiance to the king as he goes by: it ranged, roughly, from bemusement to disgust. Yes, they would be standing there from 5am, possibly in the rain, to catch a glimpse of their monarch. No, the king should not be allowed to make “suggestions” to them. The arrogance! The temerity!

Yes, in the end of course it is the royals who must please us: we stand on the sidelines tutting when they use the wrong fork or love the wrong person. “Core” royals cannot protect their own privacy or the privacy of their children, they cannot choose their careers, they must abide by strict protocol and endure long church services and boring speeches and endless “appropriate entertainment” wherever they go.

It is we who are the Marie Antoinettes in this situation – insisting on playing peasants for a day. The royals must act their parts perfectly at all times or we get upset.

There’s another reason, I think, that we continue to tolerate the monarchy. Technically, I suppose, it symbolises everything modern Britain most disapproves of: the triumph of blood over talent, our bloodier history abroad, female subjugation to hereditary rules, the parading of disgusting amounts of wealth.

But watching the preparations for the coronation – the street parties where people will chat with their neighbours over jam sandwiches and cake, the prospect of a day off work, the crammed beer gardens and cheerful plastic bunting, the grandmothers making coronation quiche with their grandchildren – it struck me that what the monarchy has come to mean is something quite different.

Is it really still a symbol of everything we should stand against? I wonder if, instead, the monarchy now rather resembles a long-disused building, covered with vines and birds’ nests, bats under the eves and a tree growing through the kitchen, its real purpose long forgotten.

Communities have grown up and strengthened around royal rhythms and traditions; they lean on them, even as they forget to watch the ceremony on TV, and declare themselves republican.

Monarchy doesn’t bear much intellectual scrutiny – Charles will never achieve his dream of modernising it since the history is the point, like the Tower of London. Its virtue, perhaps, is simply that it has been here so long.

That is what we mean when we say the royals give us “continuity” or “stability’: we mean that we have been going to the same street parties and talking to the same people there for 30 years, and that we always go to the pub on bank holidays. The monarchy is part of Britain’s ecosystem now. We may not believe in it, but it helps prop us up.

Much of our nation’s fabric is like this, of course. Few of our religions accord with modern values – sexist, homophobic, historically unspeakable – but religious leaders mostly elide this and worshippers ignore it, and turn up for the biscuits and the company.

Weddings symbolise all the wrong things too: being paraded down the aisle by her father in a white dress to show off her virginity should be the most embarrassing day of a woman’s life. But it’s not: whatever wedding ceremonies originally meant is forgotten in the joyous celebrations they have become.

Royal occasions aren’t really about the royals at all. The tone of the media coverage of the family is hushed, reverent and vague, as if they were already dead – it only comes alive when we turn to the waiting crowd.

In fact, what we seem to enjoy most about the monarchy is examining our own reactions to it; the queues we form, our passion for congregating in pubs, our fondness for the ceremonial food, our strange cynicism for the event even as we wait for it, in the rain, for six hours.

The British hold themselves in a sort of amused affection. We think and talk of ourselves as you might think and talk of an eccentric but much-loved uncle. The royals have long been a sort of enabler or channel of that emotion. Yes, the real action, the real drama, the real humanity is not within the crown, but its audience. Let’s not become a republic quite yet.

By Martha Gill


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Chronicle’s stance.


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