The sycophantic coverage of the royal wedding sidestepped the essential debate on the monarchy
The most cloying moments in public debate come when everyone is happy. When the public does not want to hear awkward facts, when the editor knows that the public does not want to hear awkward facts and when the journalist knows that the editor knows that the public does not want to hear awkward facts, a wet blanket suffocates essential discourse.
National euphoria produces a bias quite unlike the standard prejudices of the media. You will not normally read an article in defence of the European Union in a right-wing paper or of Israel in a left-wing one. Editors do not patrol the newsroom threatening to fire writers who step out of line, for they do not need to make threats. Everyone who works for them knows the score, and unspoken commands and social pressures ensure uniformity. A general censorship does not obtain, however. Just because you can never read a good word about the EU in a conservative paper, does not mean you cannot find praise for it elsewhere.
Events like the royal wedding, Blair’s 1997 election victory and the mood of good cheer that enveloped the nation after David Cameron and Nick Clegg went into coalition, produce a wider suppression of unwelcome information for entirely different reasons. Editorial prejudices count for little, and market forces come into play. The public wants to hear good news, so that is what it gets. At best, broadcasters and editors give a small amount of space to a dissenting voice. But the dissenters are usually poseurs engaged in mere contrarianism: saying the opposite of what everyone else is saying just because everyone else is saying it. Readers and viewers realise the “dissent” is only for show, and rightly ignore it.
Disconcerting news is another matter. Before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, a story emerged with long-term consequences for Britain, and few journalists wanted to face up to it. In a petty and pointed snub, the royal family refused to invite Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to the celebrations, while welcoming all previous Conservative prime ministers and many serving Tory ministers. Its efforts to deny that the monarchy was becoming politicised became ever more ludicrous. Blair and Brown were not members of The Most Noble Order of the Garter, it said. But then no more were former Labour prime ministers who came to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Ah, replied the Palace, but Charles was heir to the throne in 1981. Prince William is not, so this wedding was a private affair rather than a state occasion. The explanation could not have been true because the Palace invited the ambassadors of dozens of countries to the supposedly private ceremony.
The truth in Blair’s case is that no good deed goes unpunished. The Windsors have never forgiven him for saving their reputation after the death of Princess Diana and quoting Prince William in his memoirs. With Brown, they appear to dislike him for refusing to spend public money buying them a new yacht, or maybe they simply loathe centre-left politicians. Aristocrats generally do.
The BBC wheeled out various “constitutional experts” to fill the gaps in the celebrations. Simon Schama was to the fore, and showed that he has finally turned from a serious historian into a courtier in the Malvolio mould, who dealt with the politicisation of the monarchy by ignoring it. I never trust an intellectual who appeals to anti-intellectualism, the better to get down with the kids, and found everything about Schama’s performance phoney.
“Well, y’know there’s a lot of really solemn talk from on high about learning to be British again and what a national community is that sounds boringly like a professorial seminar,” the professor gushed. Having dismissed the professorial seminars, which provide him with his living, he gave one. “That’s what it actually means,” he continued, gesticulating to the crowds outside Westminster Abbey. “It’s the instinctive outpouring of millions of people. Royal weddings used to be about power. That’s why they weren’t actually here but were locked away in Windsor Castle. It was basically mergers and acquisitions. Not now. Now it’s really all about the next generation making something very old very fresh for the future.”
Maybe you think I am being too hard on the royal family and Schama. And in truth, the refusal to take what looked like the politicisation of the ruling house seriously would have been a forgivable omission, if it had been an isolated incident.
Unfortunately, it is not. When people say the British respect the monarchy, what they mean is the British respect the Queen. Apart from one moment in the 1980s when she made her disapproval of Margaret Thatcher public, she has stayed out of politics. Charles III — and how hard it will be to spit out that title — has made it as clear as he can that he will use the throne as a bully pulpit. When Vanity Fair talked to him last year, he said he would rule “in a different way” from his predecessors, “because the situation has changed”. He said his parents should not have sent him to schools where they taught pupils to take the initiative if they did not want him to speak out. “So it’s their bad luck, but that’s the way I intend to continue.”
Conservative readers who think that Prince Charles will be on their side should study his recent writings. He is “conservative” only in the sense that he is a true reactionary who regrets every improvement in man’s control over nature and advance in human wealth and knowledge since the Middle Ages. “Nature has been completely objectified — ‘She’ has become an ‘it’ — and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme,” he told the doubtless appreciative audience at Oxford University’s Islamic Centre, as he explained that the scientific worldview was an affront to the world’s “sacred traditions”.
The prince has immersed himself in the deep twaddle of deep greenery, an ideology that would reduce the population of the world by billions if it could, and treat with respect every crank, mystic, shaman, fakir and bigot.
He will also be our unelected head of state, and as he has explained, he will not hold his tongue. Schama said the British monarchy may no longer engage in the mergers and acquisitions of the powerful but he could not bring himself to add that it is about to become a highly politicised and crushingly embarrassing institution. Hints of our future were on public display at the royal wedding. But journalists did not want to talk about them because they did not want to be spoilsports.