The world may be dazzled by Prince Harry marrying a divorced, mixed-race American TV star. But his grand friends and royal cousins will hardly bat an eyelid. Because they’ve been marrying celebs (and Americans) for the past decade or so. In a subtle, gradual change in the British upper classes, the aristocracy has given way to the glamocracy.
Gone is the blue-blood obsession; gone the marrying off of smart cousin to smart cousin which has continued since Agincourt; gone the Mrs Bennets frantically flicking through Burke’s Peerage, desperate to marry off their boot-faced daughter to the local squire. These days, young royalty and aristocracy are increasingly mixing with, and marry-ing, international money, beauty and fame.
Harry’s wingman Guy Pelly married Lizzy Wilson, an American Holiday Inn heiress; Ben Elliot; Camilla Parker Bowles’s entrepreneur nephew, married Mary-Clare Winwood, daughter of rock star Stevie. Zara Phillips married England rugby player Mike Tindall. Harry’s second cousin once removed, Lord Freddie Windsor, married Sophie Winkleman, a TV star and sister of Claudia, the queen of Saturday night TV. Peter Phillips married Autumn Kelly, a Canadian; his father, Mark Phillips, married an American equestrian, Sandy Pflueger.
The pattern trickles down through the aristocracy. Viscountess Weymouth, the future Marchioness of Bath, is a mixed-race model. The Countess of Devon is an American ex-Baywatch actress; Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, the future Countess of Sandwich, is the American star of Ladies of London, an American reality show. Kate Moss is going out with a German aristocrat, Count Nikolai von Bismarck. Lady Mary Charteris, daughter of the Earl of Wemyss, is married to rock star Robbie Furze, and joined his band The Big Pink as a singer.
Young royalty and aristocracy are now just another arm of the international, rich, celeb glamocracy. They are rich celebs. In an age of soaring land and art values, any peer who’s managed to cling on to a few thousand acres and the family Rembrandt is as rich as Croesus; as is Prince Harry, thought to be worth around £30 million. Throw in the column inches that he and his circle attract, and they have become de facto celebs. Gone are the 19th-century days when the Duke of Marlborough had to contract a miserable, desperately ill-matched marriage to American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt to keep the roof on Blenheim Palace. Today’s aristo-crats are just as rich as their inter-national spouses and share the same worldview, the same clean-eating habits, the same Netflix binges and the same taste in Grey Goose vodka martinis.
Snobbery will never disappear entirely. But it has certainly declined as the royal-aristocratic life increasingly melds with the life of the glamocracy. The young Lord Emsworth type invented by P.G. Wodehouse studied classics at Eton and Oxford (with a spell in the Bullingdon), then devoted himself to White’s Club in town and pig-rearing in the country, before marrying a fellow aristocrat. Today’s young Emsworth studies economics at an American university, works for a hedge fund and is a member of 5 Hertford Street, the glamocratic Mayfair club. If he did go to Eton, Oxford or similar, he found them packed with fellow glamocrats.
Like Prince Harry, young Emsworth shares his American girlfriend’s therapy-speak. His relationship troubles on the Fulham Road are much the same as those suffered by the future Lady Emsworth in Hollywood or Greenwich Village. They’ll visit the same shrinks and do the same military fitness sessions with the same personal trainers.
The old aristocratic world — unintelligible school slang, unintelligible consonants, dog hair on the bedspread, a bottle of claret with the grouse, red trousers — is as dead as Nineveh and Tyre to young Emsworth. He won’t have heard of Nineveh or Tyre, either. The classical and Biblical education that even Bertie Wooster, winner of a Scripture Knowledge prize, excelled in, has largely gone for good. As for the Bullingdon, the last time the club tried to have their annual photograph taken at Christ Church, they were laughed out of Canterbury Quad as fellow undergraduates played the Benny Hill theme tune ‘Yakety Sax’ on loudspeakers.
Incidentally, I’m writing this on a plane. On the luggage locker above seat ten in front of me is a red sign saying ‘Prohibited area for class divider’ — that impenetrable curtain between Club Europe and Euro Traveller class. Well, among the glamocracy, class dividers are prohibited too. The linguistic, educational, and geographical signals that would once have marked out the aristocracy have gone for good. Take the traditional English season: from Henley to Wimbledon, from Cowes to Glyndebourne, it is a glamocratic season, rather than an aristocratic one.
Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, who made comic hay by placing clueless, fey, artistic, ironic, upper-class Englishmen among blunt, money-obsessed Americans, would get no more comedy out of the situation. Today’s Charles Ryder has much the same outlook as Rex Mottram. Bertie Wooster would be working for a Wall Street hedge fund in the same suits as his fellow bankers. The outfit Harry wore for his engagement interview — slimfit suit, white shirt, sober, dark, thin tie — is the same uniform worn by fellow trustafarian and constitutional princeling Jared Kushner for his global, diplomatic shuttling on behalf of his father-in-law.
It is undeniably, objectively marvellous that racial and class-related barriers to the British elite have fallen. They have been replaced by the admittedly less insidious (but still deeply unfair) barriers of beauty and money. Intellectual assortative mating, whereby fellow Oxbridge graduates and fellow megabrains from America marry, has been producing planet-brained couples and offspring ever since women were admitted to the universities and the professions.
Now glamocratic mating is producing a group of lovely-looking children with bottomless pockets. Step forward the Beckham clan and the offspring of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, already taking up their inherited place on the catwalks and fashion and gossip pages.
The meritocracy was always a pipe dream. The deserving rarely got a look-in during the centuries when aristocrats ruled the roost. Now cash, good looks and celebrity are king. The poor, the plain and the unknown will never make it to the king’s court, however deserving they may be.
Harry Mount and Sophia Money-Coutts discuss the new glamocracy on The Spectator Podcast.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking).