David Cameron was in the middle of chairing an important cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on the morning of November 16 when someone passed him a piece of paper. Prince William and his sweetheart Kate Middleton, it said, had just become engaged.
“There was a great cheer that went up and a great banging of the table,” the elated British Prime Minister said later. “It’s great to have a piece of unadulterated good news that everyone can celebrate and be happy for them. I’m sure it’ll be something when the whole country will come together.”
Economically, Britain is steeling itself for hard times, and good news is as hard to come by as examples of British manufacturing. It was appropriate then, said British commentators, that Prince William’s winsome fiancée is from a family whose links with the royalty are only distant and tenuous. She chimes with the modern times.
Kate Middleton is not an isolated example. A member of Britain’s upper-middle class (who are described as wealthy, well-educated but without titles), she joins the world’s first family of royals which itself is modernising — perhaps not as quickly as other royals in Europe but, given its status, making a good fist of it.
In her easy manners, Kate is being compared to Princess Diana — like her late mother-in-law she too is a “breath of fresh air” in an ossified family. “She is perceived as relatively normal,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine. “And William and Kate come across as a nice couple — not stuck up.”
Now is as good a time as any for a little bit of niceness to be let in through the 19 state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms of Buckingham Palace, the London home of Britain’s reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II.
After all, memories of Diana can still make this nation wince. The royal family came out badly in the aftermath of her death in 1997, when it failed to soothe a grieving nation. In the tradition of the British aristocracy, it kept aloof; the louder the nation howled, the more hurriedly the royals withdrew into their rooms.
Ordinary Britons hit back, creating a vast field of flowers outside Diana’s residence.
Public perception has since turned and anger melted as the aged occupants of the House of Windsor have reached out to the public (with some timely prodding from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was so alarmed by the Diana affair he sensed a danger to the monarchy).
Support for the monarchy these days is said to hover around 70% at any given time — ironically, some would say, given that Britain itself is rapidly secularising and its cities are utterly multicultural.
“We are seeing the birth pangs of the middle class monarchy,” says Philip Collins, former speechwriter for Blair and now a journalist with The Times. “In the end though, the essential point about monarchy is that it is not upper-class. It is above and beyond class.”
It is this arena of a maturing ‘connect’ between British society and its royals that is preparing to welcome Kate, middle class baggage and all. She will be Queen Catherine to King William one day, the nation hopes.
In the meantime, she will need to step gingerly. Already, her mother Carole, who was born in Southall — now the world’s most recognisable Indian Diaspora neighbourhood — and used to be a BOAC stewardess has been called a “ferocious social climber.”
In April 2007, when William and Kate broke up temporarily, the Daily Mail ran an article on Carole, which quoted an unnamed royal source as saying: “She is pushy, rather twee and incredibly middle-class. She uses words such as ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘toilet’ and ‘pardon’.”
Rather than, ‘How do you do’, ‘lavatory’ and ‘excuse me’, presumably.
Happily, Kate, 28, has been spared this sort of snobbery. If anything, by drawing parallels with Diana, the media is in full-on praise mode. Mentions of how her ancestors toiled in coal mines for slave wages these days are likely to elicit cries of ‘Attagirl Kate’ rather than ‘how dare she snare our William.’
In 1992, in the middle of the last recession, the Queen began paying taxes and bearing a large proportion of the household costs from her own income. As Britons prepare for fresh spending cuts after the latest recession, there already are questions over who will fund William and Kate’s gala wedding in 2011.
The feel good factor doesn’t come cheap. But Elizabeth II knows that in the 21st century, the perpetuation of the monarchy hinges not so much on tradition as on adaptation. Wedding bells in the House of Windsor