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Alastair Roderick Headshot

The Strange Death of Liberal England

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I recently wrote on this site that, in reference to the recently published photos of the Duchess of Cambridge, pregnant and on holiday, that '...our morbid fascination with this bizarre, ordinary family invests them with a sort of inverted dignity just by them doing and saying nothing of real consequence.' I didn't expect such a vivid illustration to present itself so soon.

Whilst the predictable voices on both left and right erupted to defend either the Duchess or Hilary Mantel following Mantel's piece in the London Review of Books, I couldn't help but think that this has become somewhat formulaic. Blushing young bride, still unsullied by the misfortunes that have befallen a number of her in-laws, gets one mixed review; one half of the media blows up in outrage; the other half groan at the faux-bluster; both halves of the media spend the next two weeks making themselves the story. Jobbing authors and long-lensed paparazzo look for their next Royal opportunity.

The Royal Family has just become another depressing chapter in the British version of the Culture Wars, with one side standing against (as they see it) sneering metropolitan values with no sense of the importance of the institutions that bind society together, and the other side equally convinced that Royal apologists defend the indefensible, desperately and futilely putting off the day at which they will have to grow up and live in the real world. There is a danger that each side cares more about depriving the other than they do about their own nominal concerns.

A thoughtful review by Mantel, which was about the place of monarchy generally and contained about five paragraphs on the relationship of the Duchess of Cambridge and the media (none of which was excessivelylèse-majesté) made exactly the same point as I tried to, that the British monarchy had stopped being interesting with Henry VIII, and was now populated entirely by the mediocre and careless. Except Mantel made the argument in the august London Review of Books, more eruditely than me, and presumably got paid for the article (hint-hint, HuffPo).

There was one other difference too, of course. Hilary Mantel's words received a stern rebuke from the Prime Minister whilst on an official visit to India (if stern is a word that can be ascribed to this limpid, distracted, man.) Cameron, who cares so passionately about the issue that he managed to get the Duchess of Cambridge's name wrong twice within one sentence, took time off from reorienting British Foreign Policy towards an emerging super-power to shore up the Daily Mail vote which, incredible as it seems, he is in danger of losing and which he patronisingly assumes won't hold up unless an unsullied diet of images of nice Kate (nice hair, nice teeth, no troubling opinions) is served up to a grateful public on an regular basis.

The briefest of glances at the Mail Online (I only pick on them because their online celebrity-watching site is so wildly successful, and God don't they know it) will show that there is a well-worn and trusty formula for treating female celebrities - set them up as shallow manqués, potential friends we have been privileged to be granted access too, just like you and me really but with a smashing wardrobe and set of teeth, who will either provide an endless pipeline of daily stories of smiley smashingness, or will at some point inevitably stumble (because of the whole, you know, humanity thing) and provide endless stories about the trouble she now causes, and all the problems she creates, and aren't her clothes and hair just a mess nowadays, and what a God-awful liability her sister is now she's lost her looks.

Rewind the tape thirty years. As that nervous virgin walked slowly down the aisle, lamb to the slaughter, would anyone really have imagined that the country was in for the traumas of squidgy-gate, tampon-gate, the divorces, the bankruptcies, the death, the fancy dress parties, the general failure to engage with modernity? Can we really say that anyone other than certain sections of the print media have benefited from there being a Royal Family in this country over the past generation? Sure, the press will be as obsequious and ingratiating as possible when cornered, but is there any evidence to suggest that they view the Royals as being anything other than relatively un-litigious celebrities, who have the two chief benefits of being incredibly recognisable (so shifting papers, or increasingly, prompting clicks on links) whilst never be able to resort to the nuclear option of withdrawing their fame?

The media considers the Royals to be a just another branch of celebrity, and just as they discard Big Brother 'stars' when they start to fade, Kate is just being set up for a bigger fall. France discarded its Royals with the guillotine; the Americans renounced their loyalty to the crown with some of the most powerful political scorn committed to print; even the sordid, grubby, dispatching of the Russian Tsar involved drama and intrigue. We are in serious danger of having the slowest, most agonised, and downright humiliating unravelling of a monarchy ever: death by tabloid nihilism. The Royal Family was once known for its love of blood-sports, it must be truly squalid to find yourself the quarry.

A consistent complaint of pro-Monarchists, not without merit, is that republicans are patronising, condescending sneerers and metropolitan elitists, too quick to dismiss fans of the Windsors as unsophisticated bumpkins. Republicans are seen as insensitive to the quiet dignity of civic pride, the glories of patriotism, and the admirable qualities of diligence, hard-work and selflessness that the Royals, and especially the Queen, represent. But a large part of this must be due to republicanism being the sin that dare not speak its name. Rather than healthy, principled opposition to Monarchy, many settle for snark or (more commonly) just ignoring the Royals altogether.

Institutions are fine and valuable, and if the Monarchy is the institution that you hold most affection for, then root for it with all your might. We are a democracy, after all, and ultimately democracy wins. But Britain has more than enough institutions to make up for the loss of the House of Windsor, and so those who think that British democracy and public life is more than the sum of Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, should have the courage to say so.

Britain was fortunate, rare apart from the bicycling Scandinavians, in being able to combine liberal democracy with monarchy. Figureheads, avatars, are useful things; but don't confuse them with actual institutions that work and adapt and remain relevant, like parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, a professional civil service, the free movement of people and capital, and a welfare state. I wish Elizabeth II a long life, but she is eighty-six. The moment is ripe to rediscover if this country remains the cradle of democracy and pluralism, or whether we are destined just to be a playground for the tabloid press.