For a tour that should have been an unmitigated success, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to the Caribbean has ended up being surprisingly controversial, described as nothing less than ‘a PR disaster’. Even if some of the negative coverage feels confected, especially in light of the exploits of Prince Andrew and Prince Harry, it seems extraordinary that the supposed outrage could not have been anticipated.
It has been an inauspicious curtain-raiser to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June: from the unfortunate images of the Duke and Duchess shaking hands with Jamaican children through a chain-link fence to the protests that have greeted their progress from local republicans.
Yet it has produced two notable news stories. The first is Prince William’s admission that he is unlikely to become head of the Commonwealth, given that he feels intrinsically uncomfortable with ‘telling people what to do’. A speech that he made in which he expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ for slavery may have been well-intentioned and an attempt to fend off the anti-colonialist protests, but it was immediately criticised for being little more than a rehashing of the white saviour narrative, made by one of the most privileged men in the world. It did not help that Keir Starmer said this morning that the Duke ‘could have gone further’ in his remarks and explicitly apologised for Britain’s role in the slave trade.
But the second – and perhaps more epochal – story is that Prince William has turned his back on one of the central tenets of the royal family: the credo ‘never complain, never explain’.
It has been briefed to the press that the tour has ‘brought into sharper focus questions about the past and the future’ as regards the Commonwealth’s relationship with Britain and its monarchy. But the briefing also acknowledges that, when the Duke does become king, he will do so in a world where the certainties that his grandmother relied upon for decades may no longer exist. Therefore, implicitly, the royals will no longer raise themselves above public opinion. They will instead deal – painstakingly – with every slur, accusation or criticism. One imagines that a rapid rebuttal unit will have to work overtime.
While this is unlikely to be an imminent prospect, it seems as if Prince William has been taking lessons from his estranged younger brother in terms of how to handle the media. The mixture of suspicion, aggression and unexpectedly seismic news stories is a toxic one, but it seems as if both the Cambridges and the press are beginning to tire of a narrative in which they are presented as the ‘good’ and responsible side of the family, smilingly doing their duty, while the Duke and Duchess of Sussex revel in their celebrity from their Californian estate. Perhaps the Cambridges, too, want their share of the controversy.
Amid the negative coverage of a royal tour that would have been uneventful even a decade ago, there is a sense that the second-in-line to the throne is frustrated and wants to cast himself as a moderniser. He would be well advised, instead, to look at the path that his grandmother and grandfather took. Both were, in their different ways, firmly committed to taking the monarchy out of the quasi-Victorian rut that they had inherited, bringing it into the modern world. But they acted with a mixture of caution and care that their forebears now seem indifferent to.
The Queen may be looking to what happens after her reign, but she remains comfortably the most popular member of the royal family and a byword for decency, integrity and consistency. Those who would follow her might do well to learn from her example.