Hating Wills’n’Kate: the new conformism

The smart set’s disdain for the royal engagement is driven less by republicanism than by a desire to prove their superiority to the masses.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

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The release this week of the official photographs for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s engagement has unleashed yet more snidey commentary about the royal couple and their allegedly slavish followers amongst the British public. Ever since the royal engagement was announced on 16 November, members of Britain’s cultural elites, including significant sections of the media, have devoted more energy to congratulating themselves than congratulating William and Kate.

Britain’s nouveaux smart set has adopted the social protocol of affecting a studied indifference to anything to do with the impending royal wedding. From its perspective, even a hint of interest in the proceedings is a symptom of the vulgar tastes and conformism that afflict the little people of Middle England. This smart set takes delight in portraying itself as a beleaguered minority defending enlightened values against an army of daytime TV addicts.

‘I’m afraid I just can’t get excited about the royal wedding but, unfortunately, if [the] media frenzy is anything to go by, it seems I am in the minority’, wrote one journalist. Flaunting the self-selected minority badge is mandatory for an entrée into the smart set. Tanya Gold of the Guardian declared: ‘I am going to be tried for saying this, but a royal wedding will make idiots of us Brits.’ As the 999th journalist to declare a fierce sense of independence from a fictitious royalist consensus, Gold only betrays the conformist take on the wedding that is now rife amongst the commentariat.

Within a few hours of the announcement of the engagement, the refrain ‘who cares?’ became the slogan of choice for an elite keen to exhibit its allegedly non-conformist identity. The performance of feigned indifference played a central role in the cultivation of the idea that ‘we’re not like them’. The sensibility that we – the cultivated, enlightened, non-conventional and special people – are not like those dim-witted tabloid readers was summed up by one broadsheet writer, who said: ‘It’s easy to mock the hysteria of a royal wedding, but state occasions help reveal what kind of country we are.’ In casually introducing the word ‘hysteria’ into the mix, the commentator made an implicit moral contrast between his posture of objective detachment and the madness of the mob.

When journalists say it is ‘easy to mock’ the royal wedding, what they really mean is that reverse snobbery comes naturally to them and their media mates. Of course, the affectation of ‘who cares’ was just that: a studied display of contempt for the apparently deferential public. The cultural elite was desperate to make sure that its censorious disapproval of the wedding plans was widely known.

Typically, the statement ‘who cares’ served as a prelude to the question: ‘Who will foot the bill?’ Take columnist Molly Lynch, writing in the North West Evening Mail. After noting that ‘I had to wonder, who cares?’, Lynch pauses before arguing that ‘there is one thing about the royal wedding which does concern me, though, and that’s who will foot the bill’.

Questions about who is going to foot the bill were followed by statements questioning the appropriateness of holding a lavish royal wedding. Expressions of concern about the cost of the wedding are designed to deprive the event of any moral legitimacy. The moral devaluation of the wedding was constantly communicated through the presentation of William and Kate as a couple of social parasites living it up at taxpayers’ expense. Not surprisingly, this provided a warrant for competitive insult-hurling. One Labour councillor described the royal family as ‘inbred aristocrats who’ve never done a day’s work in their life’.

Even members of the progressive section of the Anglican Church took it upon themselves to devalue the moral status of the forthcoming wedding. The Reverend Peter Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, predicted that the marriage of William and Kate would only last seven years. He also used the occasion to make fun of the appearance of William’s father, Charles, and to liken William and Kate to tawdry celebrities.

If you were to listen in on all the public and private exchanges among Britain’s cultural elites in recent weeks, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that a complacent form of faux-republicanism has become the new big thing. This mean-spirited lashing out at royalty has nothing to do with traditional forms of republicanism.

Historically, republicanism justified itself through its belief that sovereignty should lie with the people. However, this confidence in the democratic potential of the people is conspicuous by its absence in the worldview of Britain’s modern-day smart set. On the contrary, their studied hostility to the royal wedding can be interpreted as disdain for the behaviour and beliefs of ordinary people.

Many commentators argue that actually the royal wedding is a carefully constructed diversion designed to distract the gullible masses from opposing the government’s austerity measures. One academic told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that with ‘a downturn coming, the British establishment [is] toying with the idea, at least, of trying to distract everyone with these circuses’.

Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror claimed: ‘The biggest beneficiary of Prince William’s forthcoming nuptials is the Cabinet.’ Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian suggested that the wedding was a ‘handy distraction from the economic gloom and spending cuts that are due to bite in the early months of 2011’. Obviously, unlike the plebs who can be distracted at will, Reade and Freedland and the rest are clever chaps who will not be deceived.

Of course, any state occasion can and should be held to account if it manipulates national symbols and tries to achieve some political ends. However, the real objection of the faux republicans is not to the idea that the wedding will be an extravagant distraction from recession, but the very values that seem to underpin the royal engagement and wedding.

A wedding that threatens to celebrate the values of Middle England is bad enough. But what’s even worse is that this event seems to be having some resonance with the public mood. Contrary to the myth of a public hysteria, the public’s reaction is actually characterised by a restrained sense of delight in a young couple’s good fortunes. Yes, the supermarket giant Tesco’s replica of Kate’s engagement dress sold out in an hour. And yes, the mags are full of pictures of the beaming couple. But the idea of public hysteria exists only in the heads of those who are so self-obsessed and detached from reality that they wouldn’t even know what it means to take pleasure in a couple’s devotion to one another.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. An edited version of this article was published in the Australian on 27 November 2010.

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Topics Politics UK


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