Grooms of the stool

Sunday National, 2nd January 2022.

Just how solid is the House of Windsor anyway? The future of the monarchy in Britain might seem unassailable as 2021 closes. In the UK, republicanism looks like a cause without a constituency. A statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the Palace of Westminster, but inside, everyone is expected to be of the cavalier party.

Looking at the opinion polling, you can understand why there are marvellously few proper Jacobins in the UK parliament. According to YouGov, 80% of the public share a positive opinion of the Queen. 78% view Prince William favourably, compared to 54% who take a friendly view of his father.

Less than one in five people across Britain think abolishing the monarchy would do the country any good. After Corbyn, the Labour leadership is allergic to saying anything the Tories could paint as unpatriotic. Queasiness about the inegalitarian organising myth of British politics apparently falls into that territory.

And Keir Starmer is a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath Tap, after all. Sir Keir hasn’t been averse to trying to weaponise royalism against the Tories. Last month, he seized on the lonely figure of the Queen at her husband’s funeral to have a go at the government’s lax compliance with its own Covid ordinances.

When Boris Johnson unlawfully prorogued parliament in 2019, one of the most ridiculous objections to this bungled bit of constitutional legerdemain was that Johnson “lied to the Queen” to send MPs home – as if deceiving the sovereign was a graver sin than double-dealing with you, me or the Supreme Court.

While you can chortle at how uncomfortable these debating points make the Tory benches – who take an almost patrimonial view of this kind of dribbling royalism – the fact smart people find themselves making these kind of arguments with straight faces should remind us that as soon as you wheel out the throne and start dangling the star and ribbon in front of the political classes in Britain, this kind of crawling invariably follows. I refer sceptics to yesterday’s Honours List, if any further proof is needed.

Internal threats from inside the firm seem to have been seen off too. The British tabloids have been remarkably successful in their coordinated vilification of the disgruntled cadet branch of the family, with two thirds of the public now taking a hostile view of “Harry and Meghan” after they broke with Firm in February last year, and went on Oprah to explain just how toxic this externally dysfunctional family is from the inside.

All of which might suggest all is well for the House of Windsor as it heads into 2022, with limited public appetite to punt them off the civil list and onto universal credit. But appearances can be deceptive.

At 95 years of age, the Queen’s time at the head of her family is inevitably limited. Like many others, she experienced a series of meaningful losses in 2021. Her health clearly isn’t what it was. But as she serves out the balance of her term, she must be aware that none of her potential successors have half the symbolic power she has accumulated over her long life. You don’t have to be a royalist to see this.

Having been a public presence for the better part of a century, Elizabeth is one of the few living threads which still connects modern Britain to the lost age of empire and war, to Churchill and Dunkirk, which remain such powerful and damaging touchstones of nostalgia in the UK’s political culture. When she vacates the throne – after a brief explosion of royalist feeling – Britain will be left with a largely unloved successor, and a family increasingly mired in ill-feeling, narcissism, and mutual recrimination.

Prince Andrew – who is presumably perspiring in a cupboard in Balmoral between lawyers’ calls these days – scored a 83% negative rating, but doesn’t yet seem to be tainting his mother’s reputation, as she seeks to exploit the crown’s privileges to insulate her third child from legitimate legal scrutiny in the United States. Somehow, you can’t imagine King Charles III would be inclined to deal with his wayward brother with the same indulgence.  

Alan Bennett once suggested that “to be Prince of Wales is not a position – it is a predicament.” It must be a source of mild anxiety for Prince Charles that his accession to the throne has been anticipated in at least two works of fiction – both of which resulted in him bungling the gig and losing his crown.

Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III – adapted into a film starring the late Tim Piggott-Smith in 2017 – depicts the heir apparent finally securing, then blowing, his opportunity to wear the jaggy bunnet. The second season of House of Cards, first broadcast in 1993, follows a similar trajectory. Michael Kitchen played an only very lightly camouflaged Charles Windsor who tangles politically with Francis Urquhart and doesn’t survive the encounter. In real life, the son and heir is consistently the least popular of the leading royals.

And the weans? They’ve turned to the power of celebrity, bag and baggage, and will live and die by its merciless diktats. A celebrity, in one sense, is just a famous person. But modern celebrity culture demands much more of its marionettes these days. Smiling nicely for the camera doesn’t cut it. Celebrity culture is often and rightly criticized for its superficiality, encouraging folk – particularly younger folk – to over-value relatively unimportant things. Notoriety. Beauty. Wealth. It does all of this. But if you think it is just a game of surfaces and painted faces, you’re missing out on one of the peculiar features of modern celebrity.

The illusion of intimacy is now fundamental. For modern consumers, it is not enough for their icons to be stunningly beautiful or talented. It isn’t even enough for them to date and then divorce appropriately stunning co-stars, or to live in disgusting opulence. The modern consumer – and the outlets who keep them fed – now demand intimacy. And often as not, that means the stars and starlets “opening up” and “baring all” for the cameras. Tell me your problems. Show me your pain.

One of the most staggering lies which has gained a grapple-hold over our popular culture is the idea that it is a good idea to therapise yourself in public, and that you’re likely to derive any spiritual benefits from giving strangers unconditional access to your inner life.

For the modern celebrity to thrive, however, intimacy must be forthcoming. One problem with our confessional culture is that once you embark on this kind of thing, you’re left confessing, and confessing, and confessing. A gyroscopic, untherapeutic “opening up” flogged for viewers, readers and clicks. And this false sense of intimacy inevitably has diminishing returns. Why? Because once you’ve laid yourself bare in your supposedly tell-all interview, what’s your next look-at-me story going to be? What new personal revelation will you bring to the next auction of public concern?

So the savvy modern star doesn’t take one big intimacy dump, but calculatedly ration out their personal lives. They wear masks under masks under masks. How else can we explain the peculiarly modern phenomenon of the second and third autobiography, as if anyone’s life really merits more than one memoir?

You can write this off as a devil’s bargain. Intimacy grifters and their publicists each get a cut of the attention: each in their time has profited from the other. But as countless personalities have learned – this is a treacherous terrain.

Hardly a month goes by without Prince William or his prodigal brother “opening up” in the media about something or other, sharing another banal reflection on life which is loyally recast as searingly insightful and moving by the court press.

Every desperate banality is repackaged as some kind of profound thought. The royalist media are the modern grooms of the stool, cooing at the exercise of every bodily function, as if Kate Middleton and her husband deserve a round of applause for remembering to keep breathing or consistently putting on clothes before leaving one of their houses.

Earlier this month, Prince WIlliam claimed he “starts his day rocking to AC/DC” – I’m afraid I’m quoting directly – a fact which was picked up by most of the newspaper front pages, while the nation began choking on surging Covid infections. This revelation was regarded as more newsworthy than the then emerging story of a certain Number 10 work meeting, fully catered with Gorgonzola and lukewarm plastic cups of Merlot.

The royal PR machine is dutifully pumping out propaganda attempting to frame the coming generation as a vision of wholesome domesticity. But by fully embracing the transmutation of monarchy into celebrity – the young royals have exposed themselves entirely to its savage logic and tendency to eat people alive.

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