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The meaning of a marriage

What happens on 29 April will help shape British life for the next 50 years

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

‘A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind,’ wrote the great constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot. ‘A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to men’s bosoms and employ their thoughts.’ Bagehot was writing about the marriage of the future King Edward VII to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, but his sentiments equally apply to the coming royal wedding, for he concluded that one half of the human race at least ‘care 50 times more for a marriage than a ministry’.

Intellectuals and political pundits might scoff at the idea that we might care more about a royal wedding than about an elected government, but they would be wrong. For Queen Catherine could well be sitting beside King William V on the throne of England half a century hence, whereas however well the Cameron coalition does — and no one wishes it better luck than me — it will be safely consigned to the history books long before 2061. Since Kate will henceforth be the closest person to William for the rest of his life, she is bound to play a vital role in his reign. When we look at the roles played by former monarchs’ consorts — principally Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, Queen Mary and Prince Albert, and of course also Wallis Simpson’s influence on Edward VIII — in each case we see strong-willed people who have advised, encouraged and warned their spouses at key moments in their reigns. Catherine Middleton’s personality, character and views, therefore, will matter in British history.

A new generation of the House of Windsor is coming forward to do its duty, one that will be in place long after all the MPs in the present House of Commons have retired. ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea,’ Bagehot also stated in his 1867 book The English Constitution. ‘It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life. No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales. They treated as a great political event, what, looked at as a matter of pure business, was very small indeed. But no feeling could be more like common human nature as it is, and as it is likely to be.’ That connection between the monarchy and the best parts of our human nature has proved invaluable in the past, and will doubtless be so again, making monarchists’ enthusiasm over the royal wedding anything but ‘childish’.

Yet again the royal family has blindsided critics with its never-ending capacity for reinvention. Any institution based on a family perforce rebrands itself every generation, and with this wedding the Windsors have finally closed the Diana chapter. Yet in a sense, this is a far more revolutionary wedding for the Windsors than that of 1981. For the first time since 1660, a future king of England will be marrying into the middle classes. After three-and-a-half centuries swimming in the tiniest gene pool imaginable, the royal family is finally dipping its toe into a gene ocean.

Until Prince William, future monarchs since James II have always either married other, foreign royals, or they have married into the British aristocracy. The late Queen Mother was the daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, while Princess Diana was the daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer. As there are only 194 earldoms in Britain, going back to the 14th century, and far fewer foreign royal houses, Prince William had astonishingly little choice of bride if he wanted to stick to tradition. Instead, the Windsors have taken a deliberate, collective decision to allow their bluest of blue blood to be mixed with the entrepreneurial, striving, hard-working but undeniably bourgeois blood of the Middleton family.


When the prince’s feelings for Kate became obvious, the palace authorities carried out a number of background checks on Michael and Carole Middleton’s family business, Party Pieces — ‘merely due diligence’, as one courtier put it to me recently — and they were impressed with what they found. The couple had obviously worked very hard, starting the company out of an old shed in their back garden, and spotted a gap in the market that they exploited in building a firm that now employs around 30 people. It is quite untrue that, as her detractors state, Kate ‘has never had a proper job’, because she worked hard for her parents, designing and running the website aspects of their firm. As anyone who has ever worked in a family firm — i.e. few of her detractors in the media — knows, it is often the hardest of all careers working for your parents. In this she will find no great change after marriage; Prince Philip dubbed the royals ‘the family firm’, and with the present Queen undertaking more than 500 official engagements a year even at the age of 84, it’s certainly going to be hard work for Kate, and a job — quite literally — for life.

After Princess Diana’s death in August 1997, the royal family instituted an ad hoc group of advisers called the ‘Way Ahead Group’, which examined various ways that the institution could modernise itself without losing the mystique that lies at the heart of its two-millennium-long survival. Various options were discussed, including altering the laws of succession by which younger princes succeed to the throne before older princesses. Most of the ideas proved stillborn, but, as it turned out, Prince William himself was way ahead of the Way Ahead Group. His choice of bride automatically modernises the House of Windsor overnight. (The sex equality issue will return if Catherine’s first child is female, but had the new procedure been in place in 1901, Kaiser Wilhelm II — perhaps the most psychologically damaged monarch of the 20th century — would have wound up as King of England.)

By marrying into the middle classes, the House of Windsor has also neatly sidestepped republican criticism that it has become distant from its subjects. Small wonder that the recent demonstration outside Buckingham Palace organised by the anti-monarchist group Republic against the cost of the royal wedding managed to attract a grand total of only 20 people. Republicanism in Britain today is a minority fetish, although of course it has its vocal support in the left-wing media.

‘These should be anxious times for the House of Windsor,’ intones the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books this month, complaining that, ‘They are about to stage a lavish wedding at the very moment when their subjects will feel the full chill of austerity measures billed as the most severe in Britain’s postwar history.’ Furthermore, he warns, ‘Other clouds are gathering,’ such as Prince Andrew’s Kazakh and Epstein troubles and Sarah Ferguson’s money issues. ‘Looking beyond the wedding day,’ he writes portentously, ‘the royals have ample cause for gloom,’ because ‘the ideas that underpin monarchism would appear to enjoy scant support.’

I do hope that Mr Freedland sticks his nose out of his front door on the morning of Friday 29 April and listens to hundreds of thousands of Britons full-throatedly cheering the royal family, because it might remind him that ‘the ideas that underpin monarchism’ — such as having a power in our land greater than the politicians, and having an attractive young couple who are dedicating themselves to our service for the rest of their lives — in fact enjoy huge, indeed overwhelming public support. Ideas based solely on heredity and deference have gone the way of the divine right of kings, but the idea of a family devote
d to honourable and dutiful service, instead of our being ruled over by politicians, has not.

I well recall appearing with Mr Freedland on Channel 4 in 2002, just prior to the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state, when he and Jon Snow predicted that the obsequies would turn out to be a damp squib. In the event, 200,000 people filed past her catafalque and over one million people lined the 23-mile route at her funeral. Freedland ends his article with the rather obvious fact that the Queen is mortal, and the hope that, ‘After she is gone, she will leave a gap that her son, her grandson, and his new wife — no matter how charming — will have to struggle to fill.’

Yet that is the whole point of any institution: gaps are automatically filled. The Queen is dead, long live the King. Even Guardian columnists don’t live for ever, but their passing doesn’t mean that the whole newspapers folds. Others simply step forward to fill their place. Prince Charles has been training up for the role of monarch for 62 years, and apart from one unhappy marriage — in a country where one in two marriages end in divorce — he has hardly put a foot wrong. It will be a shame if Australia becomes a republic in his reign, but hardly the catastrophe for the monarchy that the republican left will undoubtedly portray it as, and probably not the catalyst for the departure of other dominions such as Canada and New Zealand.

The historian John Grigg described Queen Elizabeth II’s role as being ‘a bastion of stability in an age of social and moral flux’. If Queen Catherine is to attain that same level of authority she will need to continue behaving in the exemplary manner that she has shown ever since she started going out with Prince William a decade ago. She will focus on her duties and responsibilities, even though, like any 29-year-old, she might yearn for fun and relaxation with friends. The fact that — unlike several other young royals — she has never once been photographed emerging ruddy-cheeked and unsteady on her legs from Boujis nightclub in the early hours of the morning implies that she has precisely the kind of dignified self-control that has made the Queen such a formidable national asset, and so universally beloved.

Queen Catherine, as she one day will be, seems to have what it takes. Those people who were so recently sneering at her background, and nicknaming her ‘Waity Katie’, will soon be lost in admiration of her poise and professionalism. So as we all enjoy the pomp and splendour of the nuptials, and pore over the minutiae of the invitation list, wedding dress, honeymoon and other social aspects of the occasion, let us also recall that we are witnessing something infinitely more important than any of that, namely the opening of a propitious new chapter in the long story of an ancient British institution.


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