Once upon a time there was a Queen and a nation of reverent subjects. No, this isn't a history lesson or even a fantasy novel, this is a description of our nation for much of its history since our truly Glorious Revolution. However, in recent years, the House of Windsor has presided over yet another revolutionary stage - our perception of 'royalty'.
The closing of what was otherwise a yawning gap between the royals and the commoners has been accelerated by the 24-hour news media, the rise of blogs, social media and the rest. Curious and critical, members of the public have developed a near-obsession with various princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses; the royal family is now one of the nation's favorite subjects of conversation. In fact, a combination of ground-breaking documentaries, high-profile weddings and births and, let's be honest, the very existence of Lady Diana took the royal family into a new level of fame - that of reality-show-style celebrity stardom.
Compare and contrast the respectful coverage of the Queen's first state visit to the Republic of Ireland, in May 2011, an important political event, embodying principles of progress and mutual respect, which ought to be celebrated and cherished, and the frenzy over whether or not to publish topless (or bottomless) pictures of Kate Middleton. The latter represents not just a neglect for privacy but an unhealthy and populist obsession with the private lives of the royals, perhaps built upon proving their newfound fallibility in some sort of post-divine-monarch complex.
So much of our coverage of the royal family is born from the same
sensationalist and event prurient mindset which drives the nation's (or the tabloids'?) coverage of Big Brother and Towie 'stars'.
Yet the majority of Britons continue to profess a love and respect for the royals, and a patriotism built on that love and respect, so what type of
unearthed an unapologetic admiration and adoration for the most exclusive and privileged of people, as we suspended criticism to enjoy a few days of royalty-driven 'British-ness'. Even the rain doesn't dampen that burning sense of pride. Our ever-changing and selective perception of the royal family expresses a deep and confusing reality - we have rightly reduced their right to tell us what to do but bizarrely retained our right to let us watch them do it.
And now Wills and Kate, Harry and Pippa, reside in the public eye as firmly as a reality-television graduate, with Google Hangout sessions
to prove it. They have even come to represent archetypal characters - William is the ideal mature son and therefore king-to-be, Harry is the wild-child and Kate, of course, fulfills the mythical construct of 'Princess' that every Disney-watching girl aspires to become. The Queen, meanwhile, pretends to fall from the skies in order to entertain us at the Olympics. In case you've forgotten. The Royal family have proved to be as malleable, in image terms, as our own emotional addition to them.
As the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor observed in 2002, the current Queen has presided over a transformation "from a rather magical monarchy to a public service monarchy".
"In 1952 we were a very deferential society. Apparently, one third of people thought she had been chosen by God," he added, pointing out how the monarchy then was a "distant and remote institution". Today, however, "it is a much more utilitarian institution, to be judged by what it contributes to public service and community feeling," according to Bogdanor.
But public service isn't public relations and community feeling can't only be an obsession with their pictures and private lives. As we welcome the next generation of royalty - step forward, Prince George! - we need to come to a new and agreed relationship with the House of Windsor. Either we give up our obsession with them altogether and allow them to assume a role which fits with fading ceremonial tradition, to the dismay of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, or we decide that they are still relevant to our lives, but on the cover of Hello! rather than on the front line.