Note: This is a revised and updated text of an article originally published in Livingmaps Review and posted online in 2021. It is due to appear in a new collection of occasional piece Waypoints Volume 2 : Studies in the Grey Zone, to be published by eyeglass books in the Autumn of 2023.
How do you map a monarchy? Depict the location of its palaces and other places of residence? This may be quite an undertaking , given that the House of Windsor has so many mansions, not to mention castles, grace and favour apartments . A recent estimate of their land and property portfolio registered it at 21.5 billion . A wealth map then would be an obvious starting point, although members of the Royal Family are understandably a bit touchy , not to say secretive about the exact extent of their personal and collective wealth. The exact wealth of the Queen was unknown during her lifetime , although guesstimates put it somewhere between 300 and 400 million sterling and she received an additional 30 million a year from the Civil list to help with her running costs. The royal art collection of old Masters has been valued at more than the whole of its other assets put together.
So far so predictable. But so what? Hands up anyone who thinks the future of the British monarchy depends on its wealth, whether hidden or manifest? Or that its abolition will be triggered by public outrage at the expenditure of so much tax payers money on supporting the royal life style during a cost of living crisis when so many of their ‘subjects’ have to choose between eating or heating? The current debate between Monarchists and Republicans does indeed pivot on the issue of whether the Royals give value for money as ambassadors for UK PLC or whether it is an increasingly dysfunctional and unaffordable relic of a bygone age, one which has no place in a modern democracy. Yet this is to presuppose that the question can only be formulated and resolved in terms of cost benefit analysis. The fact that such an economistic perspective is beside the point is illustrated by the fact that while inherited inequalities of wealth and privilege are condemned by over 80 per cent of the British adult population , and the Royal family are prime exemplars of this, nearly 70 per cent of the same people think that the House of Windsor is an institution worth preserving, even if they have misgivings about some aspects of its operation.
How to account for this exceptionalism ? One reason is the way the monarchy has absorbed the aura of celebrity culture. This emerges clearly if you draw a network map showing the social connections of the Windsors with other royal families and members of the hereditary aristocracy , as well as with what used to be called High Society . This latter has now expanded to include a the super rich and the super stars of sport, entertainment , fashion and the creative industries. Debutantes may no longer be presented to the Monarch at court , nowadays it is the glitterati who give audiences and hold court, but the Season still continues in all but name , with Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley Regatta, Oxbridge May Balls, and the Queen’s Summer Garden parties its hotspots. A social network map would thus show just how closely integrated the new and old aristocracies are , not only in terms of inter-marriage, but through shared interests and life styles.
The British Royal Family , or what is sometimes called ‘The Firm’ is a very peculiar kind of business, exerting behind -the- scenes influence on the political culture while maintaining scrupulous formal distance from the operations of government. The fact that Britain is a constitutional monarchy but has no written constitution has allowed a grey zone to emerge in which an informal and largely invisible network of patronage and preferment meshes in seamlessly with other hierarchies of public prestige, most evidently in the public honours system. The ability of the establishment to absorb even the most apparent radical people into its ranks is one of the most open secrets of its historical success. One of my favourite photographs of 2023 is of a black film maker and cultural activist well known for his excoriating attacks on Britain’s colonial legacy taking the knee as he is tapped on the shoulder with a sword by the new King in the ancient ritual to consecrate his knighthood. The royal touch is still needed for this purpose , and social elevation still demands a prior act of submission. In this case an act of political protest inaugurated by Black Lives Matter finds itself travestied and its meaning reversed. All the more weird then to see the congratulations pour in on social media from the radical Glitterati while the subject himself basks in peer adulation and enthuses about the quality of the Royal Art Collection.
The transition to celebrity culture
If you are reading this , the chances are that, like me, you are not that interested in following the detailed doings of this elite and indeed you may feel indifferent or even hostile towards their existence. This antipathy is quite widely shared but is still a minority view. The gossip columns are as alive as ever with the news of the Great and Not so Good , their comings and goings on , with social media making it possible for everyone nowadays to be their own gossip columnist. Royal watching is now part of a more general fascination with the Spectacle of wealth and power; it may be driven by voyeuristic identification or envy , a desire to emulate or to see the high and mighty taking a fall; whatever the motivation, this form of star gazing shows no signs of decreasing in popularity and seems quite compatible with holding political views which are diametrically opposed to the existence of self- perpetuating elites.
Scandal and rumour are grist to this particular mill. It could be argued that celebs are only getting what they ask for, if not what they always deserve. After all these are people who live in and for the public gaze and who often operate a carefully crafted public persona designed to excite this attention. Although they may, at the same time, go to great lengths to ensure that their private lives are safe from media scrutiny, this inevitably becomes the focus of intense public curiosity. This tension between public face and private life is the fulcrum around which the culture of celebrity revolves; the secret of its attraction lies in the secrets which the apparatus of fame both conceals and potentially reveals. Enchantment and disenchantment are two complimentary sides to the frenzy of renown.
The British Royals are at once highly dependant on the media which sustains celebrity culture and continue toattempt to occupy a special position of inaccessibility in relation to it.. It is that contradiction which is tearing this monarchy apart , even and especially when it is denied or displaced; when it is dramatically acted out , as it was in the case of Lady Di and now with Harry and Meghan, the arranged marriage between monarchical and celeb culture falls apart.
So to that interview. After the long campaign of vilification in the Tory gutter press , Meghan and Harry get their chance to dish the dirt on ‘the firm’ and the media. Washing dirty linen in public evokes a homely image of ordinary folk living cheek by growl in back to backs, in fear of the prying eyes of nosey neighbours. But applied to a family sequestered in castles and stately homes, guarded from the madding crowd of paparazzi by an army of security guards , it takes on a hallucinatory quality: all those skeletons in the Royal family closet suddenly emerging blinking into the glare of the TV cameras.
I did a straw poll of close friends and colleagues, most of whom are very much on the Left politically with quite a few admitting to being republicans. They almost all watched the Oprah Winfrey interview , as did your correspondent. Some claimed it was in the line of professional duty ,other admitted to ‘curiosity’. I asked them if their attitudes to the Monarchy had been changed as a result of watching the interview. A few said they now felt more sympathetic to Harry and especially Meghan, for having to put up with such an up -tight and racist establishment . The majority said it confirmed their view that the Queen and other members of the Royal Family were simply out of touch with the modern world and ordinary people , and that the institution itself was well past its sell by date. Some thought it could be modernised, although unclear how this might be done. Interestingly those who were most sceptical about the possibilities of reform, were also reluctant to propose abolition. The historical association of republicanism with regicide still leaves a bad taste in many British mouths. Protector Cromwell’s democratic reputation has not exactly improved over the past three hundred and fifty years.
The Royal Touch
What struck me in these responses was the constant refrain that that the ‘establishment’ of which the Royal Family are still a conspicuous part, were seen to be ‘out of touch’ , not just with the people, but with their own feelings. The stiff upper lip sense of public duty which the Queen is still seen to embody has come to represent not an ideal , but a socially distanced and emotionally remote stance on the part of a privileged elite. In contrast Lady Di, the ‘People’s Princess’, was seen as someone who wore her heart on her sleeve , in a series of interviews she made no secret of her emotional turmoil . She also went in for a lot of hugging , including patients with AIDS. As a result she was widely seen as having ‘the common touch’ even if she was a Sloane Ranger .
We are living in a period of touchy-feely identity politics, remember David Cameron when prime minster urging his fellow Tories to ‘hug a hoody’ ? No doubt to console these young people for the fact that his government’s policies had ensured that they had no jobs and no youth centres to hang around in while waiting for one. In fact, touching is not a new instrument of the body politic. The royal touch and its supposed healing powers was an intrinsic part of the monarchy’s equipment from the middle ages onwards. In the age of Feudal absolutism , the laying on of royal hands was a sign of possessing God’s gift to cure all classes of people of particular diseases . The practice was thus a means of claiming and legitimating – we might even say performing- a divine right to rule. English monarchs made use of this device right up until the end of the17th century.
Although the application of the royal touch fell into abeyance, the notion that the monarch’s body possessed special powers continued. This derived from the idea that the monarch had two bodies , a physical body that ages , gets ill and dies like any other human’s and a spiritual body that was immortal and transmitted its hereditary powers from generation to generation. This distinction became the cornerstone of a political theology of king and queenship whose traces can be found in the more modern distinction between the sacred and profane aspects of the monarchy as an institution. The two are brought together in the bio-political concept of breeding which is central to the aristocratic model of society. Within this frame ,as Hilary Mantel has reminded us, the Royals are essentially carriers of a bloodline and as such a collection of organs.
In the cult of Gloriana , for example , the virgin queen’s body, and especially her vagina , this ‘precious jewel’ as Shakespeare called it , had to be protected from the laying on of foreign hands, so that the physical integrity of this ‘earth of majesty ‘ would remain intact along with the Queen’s own thaumaturgical power. This fascination with Royal genitalia and theirs procreative capacities has remained albeit more out of prurient curiosity that as an agency of statecraft. In a documentary made about Prince Harry’ s tour of duty with the British army in Afghanistan , he was asked by a group of young fellow officers what colour his pubic hair was. Fast forward a decade and he finds himself interrogated by a member of his own family as to the likely skin colour of his new baby.
Nowadays the therapeutic laying on of hands is left to the Clergy, masseurs and Reichian psycho-therapists, but the aura of royal presence continues to exercise a metaphysical power. The continued legitimacy of ‘regality ’ has increasingly come to depend on maintaining this aura in the secular form of ‘pomp and circumstance’ via elaborate public ceremonials – for example the trooping of the Colour on the Queen’s birthday . The royal handshake not longer claims any miraculous healing power, but it does affirm a certain ritual contact between a ‘majestic presence’ and its subjects which conjures up a harmonious social order in which each has their appointed place.
Indeed one possible reason for the continued public support for monarchy is a pervasive desire for some version of social harmony that transcends or at least magically suspends bitter divisions based on structural inequalities of class, gender, generation and ethnicity. Even though the institutional existence of the Royal Family embodies these very inequalities, its members, and especially the Monarch are still often regarded as somehow being ‘above them’. However given the increasingly disunited state of the ‘United ‘ Kingdom, with the rise of determined regional nationalisms in Scotland and Wales, and the imminent advent of a demographic majority in Northern Ireland in favour of unification with the republic in the South, it is likely that in the foreseeable future the Monarchy’s writ will be confined to what has always been its bastion , namely England.
There is clearly a danger that a monarchy still wrapping itself in the Union Jack will be adopted as a symbol of a last ditch unionism or even of a resurgent little Englander nationalism promoted by the populist and xenophobic Right with its dog whistle messages about white supremacy. In principle the Monarch as the titular head of the Commonwealth is officially committed to ‘multiculturalism’ but given the current move by many of these ex-colonies to secede and embrace republicanism as the final stage of the decolonisation process , it is looking more and more unlikely that King Charles III will be able to play this particular card.
I well remember a 12 year old boy from an ex-dockers family and an Irish background with whom I worked as part of an anti-racist project in East London schools. He was vociferous in his fear that the growing presence of BAME communities in this part of London would complete the destruction of its traditional working class culture which started with the closure of the docks. At one point in the discussion he turned to me and said ‘Come off it sir, you can’t imagine Britain with a black queen , can you’? I replied’ Well may be not, but you clearly can!’. We have just witnessed a situation in which the arrival of a Black baby in the royal family was too much for the TGP and called forth a wide range of negative reactions directed at its parents, and especially its mother .
History – and the tainted legacy of Empire – is at the epicentre of the culture war just now . Certainly we have moved on from the kind of history I was taught at school , whose principles of periodisation were nothing if not regal ; we did the Plantagenets, then the Tudors and Stuarts and European history ended abruptly in 1789 with the Louis the Sixteenth’s head in the guillotine. Yet we have not entirely abandoned the monarchy as an epochal structure: we still talk of Regency furniture, Georgian architecture and poetry, Victorian values , and the Teddy Boys who were working class kids dressed after the fashion of the Edwardian gentleman.
In this context it is perhaps worth remembering that the ‘Windsors’ are flying a flag of convenience. In 1917 during the First World War, at the height of anti-German feeling they anglicised the family name from Battenberg to Mountbatten , and adopted their favourite castle as their patronym in order to lay claim to home- grown patriotic roots, and to dissociate themselves from their German ancestry. Perhaps what keeps the British monarchy alive, if not well, is that it is so conspicuously an invented tradition, a historical anachronism which is a reminder of a once upon a time when Britain felt itself Great. Nevertheless exchanging a rather delicious marzipan cake ( a Battenberg) for a greasy brown Windsor soup seems in retrospect like the wrong choice of culinary traditions.
The monarchy may well lose its institutional raison d’etre in a de-colonialised Britain, especially if a devolved country has a new written constitution , even further marginalising its already limited power of social harmonics. But this does not necessarily means that its function as a natural symbol of traditional authority will vanish. To understand why we have to grasp what Majesty unconsciously represents and the terms and conditions of the Royal Family’s anchorage in popular culture and everyday life.
A Right Royal Romance :the making of an aura
At this point I make no apology for the argument turning auto-biographical. As a child I was told by my mother, an enthusiastic monarchist , that I was named after the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip. In response my father who was a staunch republican, informed me that in fact I was named after his father who was a an Russian Jewish immigrant and a follower of the Russian anarchist, Prince Kropotkin. Family arguments , which mostly took place around the dinner table, thus frequently took the form of a replay of Royalists versus Roundheads in the English Civil War. I generally took the side of the Roundheads, ganging up with my dad. But in my secret fantasy life it was a very different story.
For my Freudian family romance I had a choice of two Princes , the romantic Russian revolutionary , or the dashing young Greek naval officer who was the consort of the Queen. Having transitioned from the frilly frocks of early babyhood to the sailor suits of boyhood , I was given a model sailing boat as a seventh birthday present. In the early 1950’s the regalia of maritime empire were still furnishing the identity props of middle class childhood . So the choice between Princes was a no brainer. Clearly my real dad was the Duke of Edinburgh ; as his illegitimate son I had been sent to this weird half -Jewish family to be brought up in order to avoid public embarrassment to the Royal family. As Prince Charles’ unofficial half brother I awaited the call from the Palace to tell me that I had at last been recognised as having royal blood.
Sadly the call never came, although as a precautionary measure my mother followed in the Queen’s footsteps and Invested in a corgi thus at a stroke affirming her Welshness and her royalism. Alas for her ambitions and mine, the dog in question routinely pissed on the carpet, mistaking it for grass, and took against humans, especially visitors. Our brief flirtation with canine royalty ended when ‘Binky’ sank his teeth into the calf of a prominent Tory MP who came to tea , much to my father’s delight. My mother subsequently attributed the foreclosure of her career as a Tory councillor to the late Binky’s actions, as well as to her son’s in occupying the Queen Mother’s old house at !44 Piccadilly in what became known as the HippyDilly Squat.
It so happens that my best friend at my prep school had a father who was Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and as the Queen’s representative in the county lived in an appropriately stately home, where I sometimes stayed on holiday. Despite this I eventually grew out of my royal family romance. Nevertheless through my teenage years I still had the occasional dream of visiting Buckingham Palace and getting lost in its corridors in search of some secret treasure, or. on hot Summer nights, Brigitte Bardot. Then in my early twenties I had the opportunity to turn dream into reality.
I attended a disco organised by the Gay Liberation Front and got chatted up by a burly guy in his fifties who had short hair, wore a blue blazer with knife edge creases in his trousers. I felt sorry for him as he looked so out of place amongst all the long haired willowy hippies cavorting to the Grateful Dead . It turned out he was a butler at the Palace . He told me that there were a lot of gay people employed as servants in the Royal household; they were preferred to heterosexuals on the grounds that they were unlikely to get pregnant and have to take time off work. No ideological commitment to gay liberation then just good old fashioned heterosexist pragmatics!
‘My’ butler let me know in quite explicit terms that he had a few other servants under him and that the position was always open to new recruits. All too predictably he had interpreted my friendly curiosity as a sexual advance but as he did not quite live up to my image of Prince Charming I politely turned his invitation down-attractive though the prospect of getting laid in Buck House was to a budding anarchist.
This experience did however alert me to the fact that there is more than one way of being a Queen. Contemporary gay culture has entirely democratised the practice of queening around. Anyone who dresses the part can do it. Coming out no longer means upper class girls learning how to curtsey. In fact the queering of monarchy , it’s promotion as a spectacle of High Camp , might just possibly be its only saving grace. All that dressing up in gorgeous Ruritanian uniforms and parading about in leather boots with swords flashing ,spurs jingling and horse whip in hand, how very BDSM!
There are in fact quite a few opportunities for dressing up fancy currently on offer. Themed parties for both children and adults regularly feature a cast of Princes and Princesses , as well as popular characters from films, TV and sport. You can go as Lady Di or Darth Vader, play at Superman or Godzilla for a night. Prince Harry once notably attended a celeb party dressed as a Nazi – perhaps an oblique tribute to the fact that one of his forebears, Edwards VII , like many members of the British Establishment in the 1930’s, waved the Union Jack for Hitler.
Between memesis and masquerade
The purpose of this cautionary tale is to suggest that if royalty did not exist we would probably have to invent some version of it . The aura of majestic presence is a quasi permanent feature of the contemporary media Spectacle, a chronic counterpoint to that disenchantment of the world which capitalism and its instrumental rationalities has achieved. Thus it enables ‘commoners’ to practice a form of royal baptismal naming in claiming entitlement to public recognition of their star quality. Cue Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, those Queens of Swing and the Blues, not to mention the singer formerly known as Prince (aka Rogers Nelson) . Here at least the social imaginaries of celeb and monarchical culture go hand in glove.
More significantly in the idiom of popular culture the association of regality with the capacity to regale others with richly entertaining stories about one’s accomplishments speaks to a pervasive desire to give a local habitation and a name to yearnings for some other possible world than the mundane one we actually inhabit. This imaginative world is already heavily populated with characters from the fairy stories we grow up with , it is full of frogs turning into Princes at the first kiss, Cinderellas meeting them or Paupers becoming them in rags- to-riches romances, so many occasions in which a fixed social order is magically turned upside down and those at the top and bottom of social hierarchy people temporarily trade places.
These make believe stories address an existential predicament intrinsic to our contemporary culture of competitive individualism; we are daily told we are the authors – and heroes -of our own life stories, and encouraged to become whatever we want to be , while at the same time our actual lives grow ever more uncertain and circumscribed . The result is to institutionalise that Freud called the narcissism of minor difference. From an early age we learn to big ourselves up by belittling the peers of whatever realm we happen to inhabit. We first learn the tricks of this trade in the playground. I am the King (or Queen) of the Castle, You’re a dirty wee rascal. The same script is enacted in the factional struggles for power within our infantilised political class.
Under these conditions , the quest for some – any-form of transcendental identity can become overwhelming. There are no shortage of fame academies, both official and unofficial, to fan the flames of personal ambition. Do -it-yourself Royalty simply provides the vocabulary and syntax for these aspirations to become articulate . These narratives are structured like day dreams but they are perhaps best cast in the form of an ongoing soap opera. One reason we have become so immersed in the Harry and Meghan story is that each episode ends with the promise ‘to be continued ‘ and whatever our views of the monarchy we want to remain in touch with the story line to find out what happens next..
The modern monarchy- that still fashionable oxymoron- exists in a strange limbo between mimesis and masquerade. It projects itself as a model of democratic values whilst its very conditions of existence are their living negation. Its dynastic placeholders are supposed to embody an ideal version of modern family values but their actual family relations are as dysfunctional as they are patriarchal. So they are forced to pretend to be something they are not while their ‘subjects’ are supposed to pretend that they are taken in by the performance of regality and in turn perform rituals of deference in which they no longer believe. This unwritten contract is thus a kind of folie a deux which we re-enact every time we sing the national anthem imploring a God we do not believe it to save a Queen or now King we no longer wish to rule over us. If we were not so busy dressing up in the cast -off trappings of majesty, to conceal what we have been told are our mundane ( and hence despised) realities, we would indeed be able to see and to say that the King or Queen has no clothes other than those with which we invest them. But the magic of mimesis is that it so easily slides into masquerade, simulation into dissimulation and this process is greatly facilitated by the meme culture that has grown up on digital media platforms like Twitter.
This was brought home to me while I was watching Harry and Meghan in conversation with Oprah Winfrey, who it turned out is now a close neighbour in Santa Barbara . Ostensibly a conversation between billionaires about the impact of emotional poverty and family abuse on their lives , we were in fact witnessing a carefully orchestrated transition from majesty into commoner . For a start Harry no longer spoke the Queen’s English. Gone was the strangulated vowels and clipped consonants . that peculiar mixture of languid drawl and beying which we associate with the entitled voice of the English upper class . In its place there was a transatlantic version of Estuary, no doubt heavily influenced by Meghan. We were being treated to the spectacle of a nice young suburban couple talking openly about a nightmare they had lived through and just about survived. Mr and Mrs Everyone, except, of course , for the apparatus of wealth and celebrity just out of shot which made the whole thing possible and to which the accolade of appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show to hold court in front of millions only added further kudos.
Nevertheless there was something in Harry’s heartfelt anguish about his treatment by The Firm and by the Media which went beyond the special pleading rhetoric of the contemporary culture of complaint. I found parts of the interview genuinely touching. Harry has evidently been deeply traumatised by his experience of seeing his mother hounded to death by the paparazzi , while members of his family, including his father ,stood by and did nothing , passively colluding in the unfolding tragedy . The rawness of that moment, comes through vividly in his skilfully ghosted memoir. In Spare. Harry’s words culled from countless interviews , have been translated into a highly wrought literary memoir by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist J.R Moehringer whose own memoir was a tour de force coming of age story. It is his hidden authorial hand that gives Harry back his own authentic voice , while turning him into a kind of ventriloquists’ dummy .
What must it be like to grow up with a mother who is the light of your life, but who also features as a central figure in the national family romance , the proverbial ‘People’s Princess’ who appears nightly in a thousand dreams , and in the waking fantasies of countless more. Lady Di had the ‘common touch’ that the Windsor’s signally lacked, a touch that both excites and heals, as when Diana embraced an AIDS patient during a hospital visit at a time when the LGTBQ community were being pilloried and ostracised as carriers of a ‘gay plague’.
Harry’s first response to his mum’s death was to imagine that she had simply disappeared, gone on the run to escape her hounding by the Media and the Firm. Perhaps she was in Paris or had found a hideway , a log cabin perhaps, in the French Alps?. He might run away and join her, start a new life away from the madding crowd of admirers, courtiers and other hangers on . The longing to escape the merciless public gaze which your position attracts , to kill off the false persona of ‘fame’, and become your true self , that is a frequent day dream of self made famous men and women. But for young Prince Harry this phantasy involved abdication from a position of regal privilege which had always and already been denied him by virtue of his birth rank. As Charles’ younger son, he was never regarded as a once and future king, at best an understudy to his older brother for the starring part. Perhaps he might have identified with his great grandfather , George VI, who stammered his way through a wartime reign he never expected or desired . But that particular legacy of abdication was foreclosed by an altogether different kind of war – a war within the royal family itself , with even the most everyday interactions weaponised and no hostages taken.
In Harry’s case what might in other family circumstances be put down to a bad case of sibling rivalry, took on a much more viciously Oedipalised aspect. Growing up, Harry was infatuated with his assumed position as his mother’s favourite , yet as an eight year old he was powerless to protect her from the slings and arrows of her outrageous fortune. And so she died. Harry took on the burden of her death and its representation in a way that none of the others did. He took her passing personally, as an attack on their relationship and the brilliant future it might have afforded him. Had she lived , his inferior status in the pecking order of regal succession would have been compensated for by his special standing as the youngest child , the princely apple of his mother’s eye. With Diana gone he inevitably became hyper- sensitised to all the real and imagined signs of his secondary role, every mark of his brother’s official preferment as king- in- waiting felt as a calculated slight. Harry’s emotional abdication , his repudiation of the tight arsed, stiff upper lipped codes of etiquette which still obtained in the culture of the court, was another way to honour his mother’s memory.
The Duke and Queen are Dead , Long Live King Charles’ head!
The fact that Royals die just like everyone else , is perhaps their only possible claim to share a common humanity with their subjects, yet of course they do not die ordinary deaths . And not only because the ritual of royal mourning take the form of a public ceremonial in which the nation is supposed to come together and transcend its internal divisions in the experience of shared loss. Royal deaths are sacrificial in a special sense. The death of a monarch and their consort is so that the institution of the monarchy can be born again in the accession to the throne of their heirs. That cannot be accomplished without that peculiar kind of official closure we call ‘ a reign’.
Each reign deposits its own specific mythological event structure in the ‘grand narrative’ of the nation. The second Elizabethan era is now safely installed in a fairy tale periodicity ; It has become a once –upon- a- bedtime story of what makes Britain Great , one that permits a radical foreclosure of any account of what happened during the royal life time that might connect it to the actual course of history. What we get instead is a pseudo –historicism , in which even the most disruptive moments – the Suez Canal Crisis, The Miners strikes, the Poll Tax riots, the black uprisings, the 2008 financial crash , Grenfell Tower, Brexit, all are subsumed within the continuity of ‘ the reign’. HMS Britannia might no longer rule the waves, might even have to be mothballed, after its last trip to hand over Hong Kong to the tender mercies of the Chinese government but Queen Elizabeth II sailed on serenely , still at the helm of a ghost ship of state toward a perfect storm called Lady Die.
The real name of the ship is, of course, the Empire Windrush , the luxury cruise liner recommissioned to carry a rather different human cargo : Black Britons who never would be slaves to the island racism they encountered and who have not ceased to fight to build their own version of the New Jerusalem in England’s white unpleasant Land. By a somewhat similar rhetorical device the internal storms and stresses undergone by the House of Windsor in the making of its own family history is absorbed , teleologically enough, as so many tests to be passed, or obstacles to be overcome in the progress made by the British monarchy in adapting an essentially feudal institution to the modern world.
One key to this narrative’s appeal is its successful merger of an aristocratic notion of ‘noblesse oblige’, the duty of those born to privilege to dispense philanthropy to the plebeian multitude , with the more modern democratic notion of public service as a performance of civic bonds. But like all mergers this one was a take over bid; it allowed the conferment of royal patronage to become a recognition of public service by and for others.
Another facet of this retro-modernisation is the way the narrative has conserved an archaic model of romance within a contemporary framework of media gossip and scandalising about the sexual affairs of celebrity. We can trace the process at work in the long transition of ‘courtship’ from the expression of a chivalric code of romantic love belonging to a feudal aristocracy to the decidedly more plebean practice of ‘walking out’ , a euphemistic term for what was called ‘heavy petting ‘ , (which one of its practitioners , turned academic ,once described as ‘a form of pre-marital sexual apprenticeship widely practised before the pill ‘). Finally we arrive at the entirely profane contemporary usage in which to court means to try to ‘win influence over someone through flattery or seductive attentiveness ’. Or what we would call grooming.
In fact those who are being groomed for starring roles in the Royal Spectacle find themselves from an early age being cocooned in carefully managed scenes of social informality and family intimacy staged for the benefit of the world’s media . No sex please we are the British Royal Family might still be on the official escutcheon but it doesn’t sell newspapers , so innuendo and gossip have to do the job until it t is time for the pomp and circumstance of a Royal wedding. But then along came Prince Harry who has bared almost all ( we not only know that the colour of his pubic hair matches his beard but how he lost his virginity) except that what we really want to know is what he cannot tell us namely how the repressive character of his upbringing returns to shape his life’s ‘other scene’ as coded in his dreams and nightmares.
The retro- modernising strategy went into overdrive in the carefully prepared obituaries which were released for the recent royal deaths. So we saw the Duke of Edinburgh resurrected with a new posthumous identity , a thoroughly modern man of many parts, faithful consort , not a roué with a penchant for pinching girls bottoms , a caring father not an overweening patriarch , a pioneering environmentalist, rather than a top gun on the grouse moors , a globe trotter (albeit one who thought all Orientals had slitty eyes). The Queen was also given a make over; she was to be remembered as a standard bearer for threatened values of public probity and for defending the one true Christian faith, her work for charitable causes went hand in glove with her devotion to horse racing and the human association of good breeding with good manners.( add endnote)
The media coverage of the two funerals was a masterpiece in the stage management of the Monarchy as Spectacle , where everything that appears is good and great , and everyone who is great and good appears. Yet by special arrangement with the Crown it was the Common People, not the Celebs who were the stars of the show . Whether patiently queuing in the rain to file past the coffins or lining the route to pay their last respects Vox Populi regained its sovereignty for one day only . Yes they wanted to belong to something bigger than themselves , to be part of history without having to make it , just by being there ; like Their Majesties, these suddenly loyal subjects saw themselves rising above the mundane problems of everyday life. In the context of a profound and pervasive resentment towards the political class , the Monarchy as enacted in these ceremonies offered a temporary relief from all the back stabbing and mutual recriminations over Brexit that forms the unravelling integument of our body politic. To put it more positively , in this disenchanted island kingdom, undone by its tempestuous rift with the rest of Europe, the funerals provided the mise—en-scene for a re-enchantment with the public realm .
So what of King Charles’ head ? It is futile to speculate about his actual state of mind but In the long wait to assume his regal destiny it must surely have occurred to him that he would need to somehow step out from under his mother’s shadow and inaugurate a form of regime change, if the institution itself was to continue to enjoy a modicum of popular support. Unfortunately he has already been cast in the villain’s role, not once but twice : first the unfaithful husband to Lady Di and then the father who fails to intervene to resolve the bitterness between his two warring sons. At times he has been portrayed in the media as an arch manipulator, attempting to use his influence behind the political scenes and meddle in affairs of state which should be none of his business.. But on the whole he has cut a rather forlorn and eccentric figure, with his fulminations against modern architecture and his penchant for talking to plants , obsessions which have done little to endear him to a wider public. Already the royal gossip mongers are suggesting he might abdicate in favour of Prince William at an early opportunity. Whether or not the British monarchy can afford the luxury of an inter-regnum ,however brief, is another question. Whatever happens, we are assured that the story will run and run. Or will it?
Techno-feudalism Rules OK
Techno-feudalism Rules OK?
Maybe some day our personal Prince -or Princess -will come if we stay tuned to the right wavelength on social media. In the meantime ,though, for those, like me, who are more sanguine about the prospect of living happily ever after with or without a national anthem , we always have the alternative of watching the Royle family saga unfold in endless TV repeats. Like Jim, Barb, Denise and Anthony we too can sit immobilised in front of our screens, turning slowly into couch potatoes while the world seems to pass us by, yet consoled in the knowledge that, like any soap opera, this is a story always to be continued , and who knows, the next episode may always bring surprises. Perhaps Jim ( played by ex trade union militant, Ricky Tomlinson), may get off his arse and join his erstwhile comrades on the picket lines. Perhaps Barb will get fed up with being treated like a skivvy and start a women’s group. Anthony may have a strange encounter of another kind, come out as gay and be voted Queen of the May. Dirty wee rascals may tire of all the name calling games and demand the keys to those castles in the air they have been counselled to build for others . And The Fall of the House of Windsor, directed by Steve McQueen, may yet win the Oscar for best non fiction horror film of 2050. We continue to live in such hopes.
And maybe after all these hopes are not so ill founded . In a recent survey 42% of people aged between 18 and 35 said that they were not going to watch King Charles’s coronation and a similar demographic expressed the view that the monarchy were irrelevant to their lives and should perhaps be replaced by an elected head of state. Perhaps a younger generation whose family romances feature decidedly un-regal influencers may simply turn their back on the whole business and vote with their feet when it comes to flag waving events and all they represent .
I am writing this on Maundy Thursday when King Charles and Queen Camilla are handing out two purses of money to pensioners, 74 men and 74 women, to mark their service to the Christian community . The purses contain specially minted coins, a white one adding up to 74 pence, the red containing a five pound and a fifty pence piece commemorating Charles forthcoming 75th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the Windrush generation’s arrive in the UK. The ceremony is emblematic of the absurdity of the monarchic regime . An ancient feudal ritual of alms giving to the poor of the parish and originally serving as a commemoration of the Last Supper , has been transubstantiated into a modern public relations exercise which is its travesty. What we are offered is a set of false equivalences between acts of charity undertaken by the immensely wealthy in the hope that they may yet squeeze through the eye of a needle and enter the gates of Heaven, and the sacrifices imposed on the poor by virtue of their class and race. 
One of the innovations in the Coronation ceremony 2023 has been to include a moment in which the whole population of the British Isles is invited to make an oath of fealty to their new King and Queen, whether from the privacy of their own homes or in the pubs and other public spaces where they assemble to watch the spectacle on TV .On previous occasions the honour of performatively stating one’s subjection to their newly anointed majesties has been confined to members of the aristocracy assembled at Westminster Abbey. The extension of the royal franchise was no doubt intended to signal the intent to democratise the ceremony , although , as has been pointed out, to do this requires their Majesties to swear their allegiance to the British people , not the other way round! Apparently one idea was to allow commoners to make their declaration of loyalty on line but this plan was abandoned because polls suggested that the uptake of the offer might be very patchy and anyway too close to the kind of plebiscite on the monarchy’s future that republicans have been demanding . God forbid that the King and Queen should be voted out on the first day of ritually assuming office or indeed that the Coronation should have to be cancelled due to lack of public interest.
Meanwhile as the plans for Pomp and Circumstance unfolded, the Tory government seized the time to introduce even more draconian restrictions on the right to protest, including sending threatening letters to climate activists in case any of them were foolhardy enough to disrupt the proceedings by suggesting that Charles’ much touted green credentials were indeed ‘fake news’.
It could be argued that the way the Coronation has been marketed illustrates the emergence of a new techno-feudal order in which the customary forms of capitalist exploitation and profit have given way to new platforms of accumulation within the global digital economy owned and controlled by a monopolistic rentier class . Within the framework of this political economy , ‘The Firm’ will stay in business by combining its inherited wealth with newly financialised assets to create a global franchise platform, hiring out its exclusive services to whoever can pay for them, for example as PR ambassadors for specific policies or products, . Whether or not the monarchy could survive in this wholly secularised and commodified form is a matter for speculation and debate. But this may be its only realistic future. The House of Windsor brand may end up being worth more than all its palaces put together.
 Let us note in passing that the symbolic value placed on the Kings anniversary is ten times that accorded to the Windrush generation , many of whom are still awaiting proper compensation for the injustices meted out to them , and who in any case are unlikely to receive any of the coins unless they happen to be active member of the Christian communion. Those pensioners who are lucky enough to get hold of Maundy money can at least re-sell the coins to collectors at approximately 500 times their nominal value, which may help towards paying their energy bills, although also doing its bit for rising inflation.
Marc Bloch The Royal Touch Routledge 1973
Leo Braudy The Frenzy of Renown :Fame and its history Yale 1997
Phil Cohen ‘The Perversions of Inheritance’ in H Bains and P Cohen (eds) Multi-racist Britain Macmillan 2004
Cedric Durand ‘ Scouting Capitalism’s Frontiers’ New Left Review 136 2022
Guardian The cost of the crown: series of reports on the Royal Family April 6-13
Ernst Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies Princeton 1957
Hilary Mantel et al Royal Bodies London Review of Books revised efition 2023
J R Moehringer /Prince Harry Spare Random House 2023