April 22, 2011 10:03 pm

Welcome to the firm

Thirteen years after the death of Diana, the royal family is preparing to celebrate the ‘fairytale’ wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But, Matthew Engel says, it’s a changed and chastened institution, and no one is banking on the future
 
Kate Middleton greets well-wishers

Kate Middleton in Lancashire

September 6 1997

The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in Westminster Abbey. Her brother, Earl Spencer, had just concluded his eulogy, perhaps the most stunning public oration in the annals of modern Britain: a ringing challenge to the moral legitimacy of the House of Windsor.

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Matthew Engel

There was wild applause from the crowd outside the abbey. It spread through the stones, sounding to those inside like a shower of rain. In medieval Britain, Spencer, as uncle and self-appointed protector of the young princes, would have been the perfect candidate as insurrectionist and usurper. And at that crazed moment, had he marched on to the streets, led the crowd to Buckingham Palace and had himself crowned king, he might have been unstoppable. Unless he was challenged by the hugely popular young prime minister, who may have fancied himself as King Anthony …

“It was the only week I can remember when I felt I really didn’t have a clue what was happening in my country,” says the historian Professor (now Lord) Peter Hennessy.

Almost 14 years have flown by. Diana, saint and martyr, has passed into history or, rather, legend. Earl Spencer is a forgotten figure except when the gossip pages write about his impending third marriage or cluck disapprovingly about his charges to visit the princess’s shrine at Althorp. The Iraq war has left Tony Blair’s reputation at rock-bottom. The popularity of the Queen, as she approaches her ­diamond jubilee on the throne, seems as secure and unruffled as it was in the innocent pre-Diana days.

Prince William, the resentful-looking 15-year-old who followed his mother’s coffin, is now 28, balding rapidly. Next Friday he will return to the abbey to marry Kate Middleton, scion of a dynasty that makes party accessories.

The benchmark will not be Diana’s funeral but the event that took place across London, at St Paul’s, 30 years ago – her marriage to Charles. The bells rang; street parties were held; the nation rejoiced. The wedding was a triumph of British pageantry, commemorated by a million mugs and biscuit tins, some of them still rattling; the marriage was a catastrophe, culminating in scandal, divorce and the bizarre car crash in the Paris underpass.

In 1981, we had the excuse of innocence. We were all in thrall to the Cinderella myth: that for any young woman, the jackpot in life’s lottery is marrying a prince. But still … it is one thing for the silly social-climbing slattern in the pantomime to snub the loyal Buttons and follow her absurd ­fantasies. How on earth was Diana suckered into marrying someone of completely different temperament nearly 13 years her senior – and more like a generation older in ­attitude? How did Charles, whose prime responsibility was to contract a decent marriage and produce the traditional heir and spare, choose someone so flighty, wilful and unsuitable? Diana was more like his wayward daughter. Except for a shared lineage that, one side of the blanket or another, could be traced back to James I, this was a couple that had nothing in common. He screwed up, as they say, royally.

The resultant disaster was played out, at first in deepest privacy but ultimately amid unimaginable publicity. It was a triumph for the tabloid press whose speculation about the marriage being in crisis was at first widely dismissed. (“There are only two types of stories about the royal family,” I remember a courtier saying, “sentimental rubbish and malicious ­rubbish.”) The press was right; the royal ­spokesmen were obfuscating at best, lying at worst.

There is no doubt that on the day of the funeral, the British monarchy was vulnerable. And that was five years after 1992, the year famously described by the Queen as the “annus horribilis”, when all three of her then-married children either separated or divorced and Windsor Castle was gutted by fire.

Yet here is the strange thing: at that time the pollsters Ipsos-Mori regularly asked British voters, “Would you favour Britain becoming a republic or remaining a monarchy?” From 1993 to the moment the regular question ceased in 2006, the pro-­monarchy figures barely wavered, and fell below 70 per cent only twice. Last week they asked again. In favour: 75 per cent.

. . .

Prince William and Kate Middleton wave to the crowd

April 11 2011

On their last public engagement before their ­marriage, William and Kate went to Lancashire to open a playing field in a park outside Blackburn. They had just been opening an academy in nearby Darwen, where it pelted with rain, and cold rain at that.

A crowd waits for Prince William and Kate Middleton

The response in both towns seemed welcoming but not overwhelming. The numbers on a working Monday were respectable, but by no means huge: the crowd mostly comprised the young and the elderly (many of them grandparents on childcare duty, it being school holidays). There were flags on buildings along the route into Darwen, but they had been placed there by the council. The people had handheld flags, but these had been given away – as one side proclaimed – by Crown Paints. These loyal subjects saw the couple arrive, wave momentarily, then disappear into the dry. The sensible ones then left. “Was it worth it?” I asked a group of escaping young mums. “Nooooo,” they shouted back in unison.

It looked like being a similar scene in Blackburn. Some people left, shivering, long before the motorcade got there. But the weather then cleared. And once the royals got to work in full view, you could feel the mood change: “There she is.” “Ooh, she’s a loovly girl, in’t she?” “And he’s a nice lad.” “He’s taller than on telly.” “She is too.”

And then came the moment. The couple walked across to meet the throng. Everyone pressed forward against the fence, squelching in the mud. Mostly, they congratulated whichever one they got to, William or Kate, and wished them good luck for the wedding. Occasionally, it was possible to pick up the odd snatch of one-sided conversation. “What do you do?” the prince asked an athletic-looking girl. “Fell running! Serious stuff … How does the competition work? … Wow, fantastic! … See you at the Olympics … No, fell running’s not in the Olympics. Should be!”

This was, one has to say, pretty high-class charm. And those graced by The Presence came away like medieval peasants brushed by the royal fingers to cure the scrofula. “He shook my hand! He shook my hand!” “Oooh, loovly!” Then the royal party vanished. It could be half a lifetime before they get to Blackburn again.

Prince William greets well-wishers

The papers estimated the crowd at up to 3,000. I would be surprised if it were half that, but a fair chunk of them will have felt enough fairy dust sprinkled on them to last until the next time. “We are in the happiness business,” as Lord Charteris, a former private secretary to the Queen, once put it.

This understanding represents the British ­monarchy’s secret weapon. The least secret weapon is the head of the firm, the monarch. She is an astonishing figure, a fixed point in a constantly changing world. You have to be nearly 70 to have a clear memory of anyone else on the throne. “Just imagine, when she first started seeing intelligence reports, she was reading about Stalin,” marvels Hennessy. And, with the arguable exception of her slow and frigid reaction to Diana’s death, it is hard to ­remember her making even a minor mistake.

I should declare an interest, being a personal friend of Her Majesty. When I say that, I suppose I mean it in the Facebook rather than traditional sense of the word. We did meet once, at a press cocktail party in 2000, when she was led round to be introduced to a group of five of us – one of whom (male), I swear, did a curtsy. I have two abiding memories of what were probably the longest three minutes of my life. One is of feeling excruciating, toe-curling embarrassment. The other is of her voice. Her ­conversational tone is totally different from the one you hear in her “my-husband-and-I” or “my-ministers-will-revive-the-economy” public utterances. It is warmer, less affected, rather amused, almost ­subversive, as though she were uniquely aware of some great cosmic joke (as perhaps she is). She must have been introduced to several million people before me, and yet I had never heard this central fact mentioned.

“Among public figures, there’s always a difference between front-of-house behaviour and back-of-house behaviour,” says Hennessy. “In her case, this is very pronounced, but in a different way to the political class. She really is a much more interesting figure than people think. She has a capacity to ask Socratic questions of prime ministers, to test their policies without ever expressing an opinion on them. One permanent secretary told me: ‘She’s far more searching than any minister.’”

And it was her skill and professionalism that got the firm through the 1997 bear market in royal stocks. For some time, the royal family trod ­cautiously. And when the golden jubilee approached in 2002, with plans for a nationwide tour, there was serious concern it would be a flop. “I drove down to Falmouth for the opening day,” recalls the royal photographer Ian Jones, “and there was a lot of talk about apathy. There were 10,000 people on the streets by mid-morning. And it just got bigger, bigger and bigger. By the time they got to Doncaster a couple of months later, I couldn’t get into the town centre. It was colossal.”

Perhaps the deaths of both her 101-year-old mother and her younger sister Margaret earlier that year had helped. Indeed, one does have an overwhelming sense of royalty as a perpetual soap opera, scripted by some unseen master hand. There are figures of fun (Princess Michael of Kent, the Duchess of York) and always a stage villain, a part that gets passed around and now rests with the seemingly boorish and grasping Prince Andrew. (“Andrew,” one can imagine the Queen saying, “it’s your turn to play Mr Obnoxious. Now don’t ­complain. Someone has to do it.”)

And 2002 appears to have been a turning point. Royal correspondents talk about the huge improvement in the media operation. “The press officers used to have red carpet fever,” says one journalist. “Now they travel on the bus with us.” The press office itself is proud that the palace really is on Facebook (“325,181 people like this”), and Twitter and Flickr and all that. Perhaps more importantly, the press itself is far more subdued, less rumbustious than it was in Diana’s day. Above all, the monarchy is still working because at the centre of everything – as in all good soaps – is this enduring, indomitable yet still simpatico matriarch. And her strength ­radiates downward.

. . .

March 31 2011

I saw this phenomenon in action when I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace, one of the 25 annual ceremonies when the knighthoods and CBEs and what-have-you dished out in the honours lists are actually handed over to the recipients.

We were in the ballroom; a bit like the Savoy hotel, though it is considerably harder to get a cup of tea. On the balcony the Royal Artillery’s orchestra played a selection of light classics; below them, groups of recipients were marched in and out according to a complex but well-tested choreography. (“That’s the best direction I’ve ever had in my life,” Catherine Zeta-Jones CBE told a flunkey after she was honoured earlier this year.)

I had been expecting the Queen, but she was receiving the prime minister of Turkey. Instead, Princess Anne was on duty. You could sense the recipients’ disappointment. The princess understood that too. She also understood that while this was a routine chore for her, it was an unforgettable moment for everyone else.

Prince Charles

She reacted by being extra-attentive. Investitures always take longer on an Anne day, because she puts so much into it. Conversations lasted an average 40 seconds, which is a lot when there are a hundred-odd to get through. “She had certainly done her homework,” beamed Hermann Hirschberger MBE from Hertfordshire as he emerged into the courtyard.

The week before, Anne’s big brother had gone – with somewhat less ceremony – to an obscure building in the City to present awards to apprentices graduating from the courses in traditional crafts run by one of his own pet causes, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.

The biggest single change in the family over the past five years, one observer told me, was that the Prince of Wales – married at last to the woman he should have wed in the first place – is actually happy. And perhaps nowhere is that more obvious than in a setting like this, where he talks knowledgably and zestfully of matters he cares about. There is a striking irony, however. Here he was, nursing into the world of work young stonemasons and carpenters, having given them a head start towards a fulfilling and successful career – precisely the thing, aged 62, he has never had himself.

Charles himself remains a curiously uneasy figure. Most 62-year-olds are at heart children of the 1960s, pioneers of informality. And there he was, one of life’s stuffed shirts: stooping, double-breasted suit, sky blue hanky in his top pocket, increasingly ruddy complexion, looking more and more like his grandfather, George VI (who died aged 56). Of course, the prince is heading towards being old. But he was always old.

And there was, even in this relaxed and quasi-private setting, a sense of more general unease. Maybe it’s the inevitable effect of The Presence. As the prince worked the room after his speech, I noticed that most of the men, quite unconsciously, put their hands, Prince Philip-style, behind their backs. As he left, he walked right past me – off-duty by then, so he didn’t look up. But as he walked out, I suddenly realised something. I had my hands behind my back.

. . .

Princess Diana and Prince Charles kiss kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

July 29 1981

“Sealed with a loving kiss” was the headline on the front of the Daily Express above a picture of Charles and Diana’s wedding kiss: “The tender moment that crowned the happiest day of all”. “The ceremony was heaven,” gushed the paper’s star writer Jean Rook on pages 2 and 3. “Carnival for the Fairy Princess,” drooled the headline across pages 4 and 5. “Kiss her, they cried,” announced page 7 after the ad on page 6. “A rich love the whole nation can share,” ­proclaimed pages 8 and 9. And so on, and on.

Thus it will be next Saturday, after William and Kate’s day, too. Only churls will do anything other than look indulgently on their happiness. But since 1981 we should all have learnt much that eluded Diana and Cinderella. Being a princess is no fairytale; it may not even involve love. It is assumed this bride will one day be queen (as we assumed about Diana). But even if the best comes to the best, she faces a life in which her privileges will be balanced, and probably outweighed, by duty, constraint and the sheer embuggerance of it all. We can only hope the palace has learnt enough to give Kate the support that was denied to the mother-in-law she never knew.

Britain is now, however, a very different country. About half the adults alive in 1981 will have since died, to be replaced by a generation less committed to any institution, be it marriage, a political party or the monarchy. The wedding has allowed a pressure group called Republic to gain traction, and it now claims 14,000 registered supporters, enough to fund an ICM poll which found that 46 per cent of Britons were “largely indifferent” to the wedding and 32 per cent “couldn’t care less”. That 75 per cent in favour of the monarchy might be a pre-altar blip.

“There’s a much smaller number of street parties compared to 1981,” says Graham Smith, Republic’s campaign manager. “There’s anecdotal evidence that people are not going to travel to London in the same numbers. And we’re finding considerably less ­hostility to the idea of a republic. The monarchy has to work a lot harder now.”

And that will almost certainly become more true when the long Elizabethan era finally draws to a close. Charles III will face a series of highly political problems, starting with the currently dormant question of whether the divorcee Camilla becomes queen. He will then have to decide how he copes with his own very public views on the environment and architecture, where his quasi-political interventions have touched the boundaries of royal propriety.

But perhaps his long wait will prove futile. Actuarially, it is very plausible that he will predecease his mother, whose constitution seems more robust than Britain’s. There is a looming problem for the putative William V, too. What if his first child is a daughter, who could then be superseded by a son? This has not arisen for generations because the direct line has either produced no daughters (Charles), no sons (George VI) or the son has helpfully come first (Elizabeth II). But does anyone seriously imagine this sex discrimination would now be acceptable?

A female monarch has become the norm in Britain – there has been a reigning queen for 123 of the past 174 years. More than that, as Jeremy Paxman pointed out in his book, On Royalty, the sovereign has lost the “historic male functions of god and governor and general” and retained the more motherly tasks of “giving comfort and nurturing good causes”. Downing Street is considering reform of the 310-year-old Act of Settlement but says, “It’s not simple.” One fear is that even discussing the issue may remind the Australians they are unsure about the next monarch, never mind the next but two.

Yet it would seem to require a crisis of unprecedented magnitude actually to threaten Britain’s monarchy (“Prince Philip did murder Diana – Official”). Even Australia so far has been unable to agree on an alternative. In Britain, a change now seems as unthinkable as it did before the Diana crisis. “There’s enough uncertainty in the world at the moment,” says Hennessy. “People are not in the market for any more anxiety.”

And so we should wish William and Kate a happy wedding day. And a happy, successful and fulfilled marriage. And that, as for everyone else but more so, will be the hard bit.

The trend: the wedding caterers

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