Royal wedding fever: Why Left and Right put aside their differences for William and Kate’s special day
The monarchy is a central part of who and what we are. It transcends ideology and binds the nation together.
It’s a rare event in the life of the British nation that has the Daily Mail and the Guardian singing from (almost) the same hymn sheet. But such is the peculiar spell wound deeply inside our national identity by the monarchy, and few occasions bear testament to its bewitching powers like a royal wedding.
For those on the right who draw their inspiration from classical liberalism and for those on the left who draw theirs from egalitarian socialism monarchy, and especially the pageantry which announces its centrality to our constitutional set-up, rubs uncomfortably against the grain of core philosophical beliefs.
And yet, mostly, they join with the great mass of their compatriots in bending the knee to the quintessentially ancien regime conservatism that underpins it.
Of course, one could simply dismiss the contradiction as more apparent than real: politics is the art of the possible; one chooses one’s battles carefully; a pragmatic, fatalistic kind of opportunism dictates that hoisting the republican flag against the massed ranks of the nation’s royalists is to confine oneself to the lonely margins; better to pass over the issue in silence.
Possibly, for some. But there seems to be something deeper, something that stands outside the realm of philosophical consistency or pragmatic avoidance of the issue. It also helps explain why the great republic on the other side of the Atlantic has a love affair with the monarchy to rival our own.
The point is surely this: there is no available or even imaginable version of British, let alone English, identity that excludes royalty as one of its defining components. From the legends of King Arthur to the King and country nationalism that inspired victory in the second world war monarchy is at the heart of the British narrative.
Even Magna Carta and the liberal, democratic and parliamentary traditions that flowed from it derive meaning and significance in terms of the relationship, both conflictual and consensual, with the kings and queens that have served as the constant in a stream of national consciousness stretching back into the mists of time.
And the monarchy is everywhere.
The metaphorical architecture of the national narrative is matched by a physical architecture named after the monarch of the day: our houses are Edwardian, Georgian, Victorian, Elizabethan, Tudor.
The courts are royal courts. The postal system is the Royal Mail. The air force is the Royal Air Force.
The great works of Shakespeare, central to the national character, pivot in many cases around the affairs of kings and their relations with the people. The transformation of Prince Hal from the callow youth drinking “sack” with the debauched but loveable Jack Falstaff in Mistress Quickly’s tavern in Eastcheap to the dignified King Henry V who rejects his old friend with the words, “I know thee not old man”, is an allegory about the place of the monarchy in British society that has stood the test of time.
It starts at an early age. Every schoolboy knows and loves the stories of Henry VIII and his six wives. And even if the practice of chopping your spouse’s head off because you fancy someone else is not the greatest custom ever handed to the people by an English king, it’s still not possible to imagine a British narrative without it.
Of course, there are those that will say this is all highfalutin nonsense. People love a good story because, well, they love a good story. The monarchy is Britain’s best soap opera which is why America, the land of the soap opera, is so enchanted by it, the more so as it comes packaged in an oldy-worldy accent.
But the argument doesn’t stand up to a moment’s reflection. There are plenty of royal families around the world. Why get so obsessed by this one? And there are plenty of fabulously wealthy and glamorous families outside the royal class some of which do get a share of media attention but not to anything resembling the intensity of Britain’s royal family.
The real answer to the conundrum seems to be that foreigners know who we are, even if sometimes we have doubts of our own. The Americans know it better than most since they defined their nation in opposition to us. Their national narrative is tied up with ours.
What they and everyone else outside Britain also understand is the role the country has played in shaping the modern world. From the ubiquity of the English language to a Commonwealth of more than 50 former colonies (there are even two, Mozambique and Rwanda, that weren’t part of the British empire but liked the concept so much they joined anyway), the world-historic status of Britain is undisputed.
True, everyone knows that Britain is not the power it once was. But everyone also knows that a decent slice of what is good in the world – parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the end of slavery, the works of Shakespeare, the great scientists such as Darwin and Newton, the list goes on – was bequeathed by Britain.
It is one reason why Britain continues to punch above its weight as a player on the international stage. A significant part of that stage was made in Britain.
And so when the world comes to look at us, its focus naturally turns to the institution which gets to the heart of the matter: a constitutional monarchy offering a line of continuity from the present to the past.
Friday’s royal wedding gave everyone a lift. It was not a euphoric, dancing-in-the fountains kind of lift. It was proportionate, measured and appropriate to the hard times that many Britons are now living through. But it was packed full of meaning nonetheless. It was a glimpse of Britain at its best, and most of us liked what we saw.
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