It is the happy fate of the British royal family to live on long past the announcements of its inevitable demise. Were this institution to have died each time its obituary had been written, I’d be sending this from a republic many times over. One of the sharpest in a long line of such eulogists, Tom Nairn confidently pronounced in 1997, on the eve of Tony Blair’s victory in the general election that May, that “all that the Crown now accomplishes is to counterpoint and somehow exaggerate an ambient unreality: the new, motherless country left behind by its moral decease.” If only. A few months later, the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in Paris was to unleash a wave of public mourning that, rather than stoke the flames of republicanism, gave the monarchy a new, and modern, lease on life.
Now, once again, the death of a leading royal has opened Pandora’s box. The death on April 9 at the age of ninety-nine of Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband of seventy-three years, has, if the nation’s press is to be believed, brought the country into mourning. His passing was met with blanket coverage on British TV and in the nation’s supine press, with the schedules for both of BBC’s main channels, as well as for the independent ITV, cleared on the evening of his death and replaced with rolling coverage; the BBC showing the same two-hour tribute on repeat on both of its terrestrial channels. Nor were we spared by the nation’s newspapers, which featured such overwrought displays of grief as the fourteen-page commemorative supplement from the Times as well as gushing articles from nearly the full range of identikit columnists.
While such heartfelt laments for this (apparently) most modern of princes were appearing, the public response was unexpected. The BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage swiftly became the most complained about moment in British television history, with the Beeb receiving over a hundred thousand letters of protest to its endless public memorial. Earlier this week, I walked the few miles into central London to see the expected scenes of mourning outside Buckingham Palace. What greeted me on the Mall was nothing like the vast sea of flowers left at Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana. The only sign that something amiss was a handful of cheap floral tributes resting on some iron railings. If this is a grief-stricken nation, someone should tell it.
Here then we see Britain’s self-presentation colliding with public sentiment. Little about the royal family itself can explain such displays, made up as it is of a plethora of dull aristocrats and their various hangers-on. The public response to the Windsors, and more specifically to Prince Philip’s death, has veered between grotesque deferential sentimentality for those who rule over us by dint of birth and a steely indifference long present, yet never able to coalesce into a genuinely popular republicanism. In each, we can see symptoms of the cultural health of the nation.
Prince Philip was born in 1921 on the island of Corfu. His parents, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, were descendants of the Danish aristocrats placed on the Greek throne in 1863. Their short and tempestuous relationship with that country came to an end following a coup in 1922, after which they were forced into exile, first to Paris and then on to Britain, where Philip was educated at the private Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Typical of the incestuous lineage of European nobility, Philip was, like his future wife, the great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria; he first met his second cousin, then Princess Elizabeth, in Devon in 1939, when she was just thirteen. By then, the eighteen-year-old Philip was studying at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, and after graduating he served in the Royal Navy during World War II. A few years after the end of the conflict, Philip married Elizabeth, with the couple tying the knot at Westminster Abbey in 1947.
Philip once grumbled, when it was clear his children would be taking Mama’s maiden name and not his own adopted moniker of Mountbatten, “I’m just a bloody amoeba.” This rather overstates his usefulness. While our single-celled cousins cause any number of ghastly diseases, our Phil has spent the majority of his life idling in various castles and palaces. Even still, since his death, many earnest headlines that have appeared that have portrayed him as the hardworking father of the nation. These are, of course, easy to mock. Many others have sought to marshal Philip as a trailblazer for modern manhood, or as the rock at the Queen’s side and a shoulder for the nation’s grandma to nuzzle in her darkest moments. The most egregious was perhaps a much-mocked article from the Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff, who rather preposterously claimed that the prince came to “define a different kind of masculine ideal; one rooted in devotion, support and the kind of strength that does not need to show itself by muscling endlessly into the limelight,” as if the husband of the Queen could do anything else. But his role was, at least in part, a stabilizing one.
When the Queen took the throne after her father George VI’s sudden death in 1952, she became head of a dynasty in disarray. The biggest shock to the monarchy’s status had come years before, in 1936, with the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne after his proposal to the American divorcee and Nazi-sympathizer Wallis Simpson, an event that caused a constitutional crisis that looked, for a time, to be the beginning of the monarchy’s final demise. The idea that, less than a century on from the abdication, not only would the once-divorced heir to the throne be happily married to his longtime mistress, but another leading member of the family would wed, with much fanfare, another American divorcée — and a mixed-race one, to boot! — would have been ludicrous.
Such scenes show that those in the top family are masters of reinvention. Elizabeth, with her departed husband once trudging a few paces behind her, has now been on the throne for nearly seventy years, in which the institution she heads has weathered many storms. And the reasons for such longevity have much to do with two at the family’s head. If the Thatcherite revolution dissolved the bonds of deference in what sees itself as the oldest of old countries, then, quite unexpectedly, the invented ancient tradition of our inbred hierarchy has shifted with it. No longer do they have just the “glamour of backwardness” of Nairn but a rather modern sheen as well. The Windsor clan has not merely lurched between its various crises but positively thrived through them all, even the one that could have turned the public off them entirely following the family’s apparently callous reaction to the people’s princess’s brief tryst with a Parisian underpass.
The latest crises to hit the Windsors occurred in the past few months. The biggest splash being Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah in which the couple revealed the family’s racist reaction to Meghan and her subsequent struggles with mental health. But, rather than bringing the Crown into disrepute as many feared, a YouGov survey showed that it in fact reflected worse on Harry and Meghan, whose popularity plummeted after the broadcast was aired. The Queen, on the other hand, is still riding high with an approval rating of 80 percent. While it appears that the nation’s granny can do no wrong, if any remain warm on Meghan and Harry, it is the young, a by-product, perhaps, of their mutation into another nouveau riche California celebrity couple, all linen suits, Silicon Valley start-ups, and plush charity fundraisers. The aura of secular sainthood has been carefully cultivated.
The other disaster to strike the Windsors was the much-publicized friendship between convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, and his car-crash interview with the BBC that followed. While the Windsor’s PR machine is still reeling from these twin disasters, the summoning forth ex nihilo of mourning by the nation’s press of a particularly unloved royal is sure to act as a balm for conservative monarchists. And as the lack of weeping mourners show, the mourning is a thoroughly imagined one.
One response to such sickly and confected displays of manipulated grief has been to focus on Philip’s various gaffes. He was, so we hear, an old-fashioned racist who, while visiting Beijing in the late 1980s, referred to the “slitty-eyed” Chinese, and once infamously asked the black Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick, “What exotic part of the world do you come from?” (the answer was Birmingham). He was also an unapologetic misogynist and, would you believe, a dreadful snob; the kind of out-of-touch aristo who could tut, while the country was in a deep recession caused by the first round of Thatcherite shock therapy that sent unemployment rocketing, that “everybody was saying we must have more leisure. . . . Now . . . they are complaining they are unemployed.”
Such horrendous displays cannot in themselves conjure forth a renewed republicanism. With Philip gone, Elizabeth remains, the kindly old head of the national household and her increasingly PR-managed kin. Nor can republicanism alone cure the maladies of the nation. The structures of power in contemporary Britain are far away from Windsor Castle, their roots much deeper than the old networks of aristocratic privilege. Breaking them will require far more than cosmetic surgery.
But symbols, however empty, matter. Rather than attempting to untie the Gordian knot of the Royal family’s enduring popularity even among the working class, many on the Left have found it congenial to hold one’s hands up and proclaim that the monarchy doesn’t really matter that much after all. To do so, however, is to misunderstand the centrality of the monarchy to British, or, more specifically, English, national culture.
The monarchy serves as a focal point for a nation in decline, one whose industrial base has been gutted after decades of neoliberalism (papered over by the parallel upsurge of the city), its empire long since dismantled, and its global role vastly diminished. In response, the ghosts of the past are summoned forth in a giant national séance. Yet, as with all such performances, once the curtain is pulled back, the specters appear as nothing more than the cheap conjuring tricks they are.
A Family Business
One of the most enduring arguments in favor of the monarchy is the money generated from tourists seeking a brush with glamour, as if this vast national circus could be reduced to a question of value for money. While the argument that we’re raking in tourist dollars falls flat, money is certainly central to the modern monarchy.
Here, we should take the nickname given to the Windsors by royal watchers at face value: they are “the firm.” And like any modern firm, Windsor PLC is a global and financialized concern. Prince Charles is the largest private landowner in England, with his estate stretching to some 135,000 acres, spread across twenty-three counties. Other members of the Royal Family earn vast sums in both private and public income. The Queen’s personal assets amount to an estimated £340 million, stretched between investments, art, jewels, and two vast estates at Balmoral and Sandringham, alongside the £82.4 million received in 2019 from the state in the form of the Sovereign Grant, a flow of income that other members of the Royal Family gain from as well. All of this has come about while the royals trumpet their charity work, as if Her Majesty’s perpetually shaking hand and the endless talk of “public service” could justify such ludicrous wealth.
As in Prince Charles’s village of Poundbury, a feudal Disneyland built on his estate from the early 1990s, meant as his answer to the horrors of modern planning, the traditionalist appearance of the royal household hides a particularly modern excess — one that is linked to flows of wealth, land, power, and influence. Britain’s uneven political economy, geographically skewed, financialized, and dominated by low-paid service work, is the reality that lies beneath the pomp and ceremony of the royal family.
George Orwell famously described England as “a family with the wrong members in control.” It would appear at first glance that the emphasis is meant for the final clause, those “wrong members.” The condition of England, however, gives lie to such familial scenes. England is no family; rather, it is a class-riven society, driven as much by the flows of global trade as the old aristocratic paternalism. The royal family itself does much to sustain this image, the cuddly and lovable patriarchs at the head of the table with us lowly plebs watching on from somewhere near the bottom. Changing the members of the family who are in charge will, in itself, not be enough. We cannot merely replace the old aristocracy with a new one based on talent. What we need to do is to get rid of the image of the nation as family itself. And it is the royal family that does much to sustain the tawdry carnival of privilege that is Britain in the twenty-first century. To get rid of such national myths, a necessary first step will be the abolition of the family at the top. It’s the least we can do.