Power couple

 

ROYAL WEDDING: For some, the British royal family are a throw-back to a privileged past for the few; yet up to two billion people are ready to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton next Friday, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor. So is the wedding an indicator of a resurgent royalism, or is it The Firm’s last hurrah?

UNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people, Union Jacks in hand, will line the Mall and other roads leading from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey on Friday, April 29th to witness the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. For many, it will be vindication that the British royal family is still central to British life, and will be celebrated at thousands of street-parties that will seek to evoke the memory of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977.

For others, the fact that so many standing along the Mall will be foreign tourists, while locals use the four-day bank holiday weekend to get away to the sun, will be proof that the royals are merely part of an international celebrity set, divorced from ordinary life.

It has, perhaps, ever been thus. In November, 1947, a Gallup poll questioned Britons living with post-second World War rationing and difficult economic times about their views of the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Fifty per cent thought the arrangements for the wedding were “about right”, although 29 per cent replied that they were “too elaborate”, while just 13 per cent thought that they were “too simple”.

For months, William and Kate, along with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, dozens of royal courtiers and hundreds of civil servants, have sought to navigate the preparations through today’s minefield of conflicting public expectations. To satisfy one audience, the service in Westminster Abbey must evoke all of the pomp and circumstance traditionally associated with the royals; yet, equally, it must not be so lavish as to put an unacceptable distance between the institution and those struggling in hard times.

The Firm, as it is known – even by some of its own members – has managed to regenerate itself . Undoubtedly, Queen Elizabeth II, bar a disastrous dip in fortunes in the days after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, has won the respect of her subjects during her near 60-year reign, although her offspring have not always kept the bar high. Prince Andrew attracted a slew of bad headlines recently after it emerged that he was too close for comfort to an American billionaire who had been jailed for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution.

Although the throne is safe during her lifetime, there is a question about its status after she passes away. Prince Charles, although more popular today than he has been, is still far short of universal approval.

An ICM/BBC poll, taken in March 2009, found that 76 per cent of people living in the UK believe in maintaining the monarchy after the reign of Queen Elizabeth, compared with just 18 per cent who favour a republic. However, a detailed analysis of the poll illustrates interesting changes beneath the surface. In 1990, 95 per cent believed that the monarchy would survive for a further 10 years, while 69 per cent said it would still be a feature of British life in 50 years.

By 2006, a similar poll found that 82 per cent were certain of the monarchy’s survival for a further decade, while just 41 per cent of them were equally sure that it would be around in 2056.

Such polling could be pointless star-gazing but it could equally offer warnings to an institution that has always thought in generational terms that survival will become more challenging in the decades to come.

So far, the couple’s impending marriage has been greeted in Britain with benign good-will, rather than the more excitable public mood that surrounded Charles’s marriage to Diana Spencer in 1981.

Looked at coldly – and one can be sure that some in the upper reaches of the British establishment have done exactly that – the latest nuptials offer the possibility, in time, of a chapter of births and christenings of new princes and princesses, all reinforcing “the brand”.

Certainly, some of the public is ambivalent, at best, about the prospect of having Charles as the next monarch, preferring the idea of William in his stead; but much of this is tabloid froth, rather than a constitutional possibility. Constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor says “a break in the succession is as unlikely as an abdication. He says: “It has never yet happened, and would be highly undesirable.”

The tide of public opinion has changed. In a recent poll for YouGov, 37 per cent thought William should succeed his grandmother, compared with 45 per cent believing that Charles should get his hereditary due. Five years ago, just 37 per cent believed that Charles should inherit the throne.

So far, Middleton, who met William when they were students at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, has impressed, displaying grace during public appearances. Both have been careful, however. William’s stag-party, organised by his brother, Harry, who obeyed the instructions of his brother for “nothing flash”, was held on a country estate, far from prying eyes.

Memories of Diana – “the most hunted person of her age”, according to her brother, Earl Spencer in his eulogy at her funeral – haunt the palace, particularly after the treatment meted out to Middleton in the early days of her relationship with William.

When she was photographed looking out of the window of a London bus in 2005, her lawyers wrote to editors urging privacy, although the scrum was out in force two years later as her 25th birthday approached, surrounded by rumours of an impending engagement.

Described as “‘conservative, but chic”, Middleton, is the first “commoner” – a phrase beloved of the British media – to marry a prince in line to the throne since Anne Hyde wed the Duke of York, later James II, in 1660. She has had a privileged life to date. Her parents, Michael and Carole Middleton, met while working for British Airways as a flight dispatcher and air hostess. Their party supplies business thrived in the late 1980s.

By seven, Middleton was attending a private preparatory school, St Andrew’s in Pangbourne, although in 1995 she was bullied when she went to Downe House School, an all-girls boarding school in Berkshire. The memory of that has much to do with the couple’s decision to include Beatbullying.org on a list of charities they have asked friends to contribute to in lieu of sending a wedding gift.

The couple first met in 2001, when “her nice sense of humour” appealed to the prince, who was living away from home and without the usual glare of attention for the first time in his life. By 2002, they were house-mates, along with two other friends. By Christmas 2003 they were romantically involved.

The royal link engaged the attention of the media. In 2006, she featured in a Daily Telegraph’s style list while Tatler, Vanity Fair and People magazines subsequently added their own endorsements. In March 2006, she appeared at Cheltenham alongside her beau, in the company of Prince Charles and Camilla.

However, the relationship hit a brief rocky patch in 2007, leading to a separation of sorts, although she was in attendance in April 2008 when William was awarded his RAF wings, and was formally presented to the queen at Windsor the following month. By June 2007, it was clear that she was William’s intended after she accompanied him to a formal occasion in Windsor Chapel.

For the next two years, the romance was “conducted steadily, but largely stealthily – the couple were rarely photographed together – preferring to keep under the press radar”, according to Debrett’s, the bible of the British upper-classes, which notes that she quietly became “the first prominent royal bride-to-be to cohabit before wedlock”.

In a bid to fan the fires of royal sentiment about Prince William’s engagement, Prime Minister David Cameron, who was one of those in the crowds for Prince Charles and Diana, has encouraged the holding of street-parties to mark the event. Some 4,000 are planned, according to the latest figures from the Local Government Association, compared to the tens of thousands that were reported to have occurred 30 years ago.

Even Loyalist areas in Northern Ireland seem less than enthused. Just 70 official parties have been planned, with only nine out of the 26 local authorities there having received applications from members of the public hoping to host a royal wedding event.

In Scotland, royalist fever, at least when it comes to an on-street demonstration of it, is noticeable by its near-complete absence. Just 20 are planned: half of them in the more-establishment-minded Edinburgh. Glasgow is set to have none.

Cameron has blamed local bureaucrats for impeding plans to hold such parties, rather than a lack of public interest. “It’s very important to understand if anyone wants to have a street party you don’t need a food licence, you don’t need an entertainment licence; you don’t need to have written documents about closing your street.

“You don’t have to pay for street closures, you don’t have to have special health and safety permission because there are councils out there that are telling you that you do need these things: You don’t,” he said earlier this month.

Police will be imposing a major security crack-down in the city in the days running up to the wedding, particularly given the violence on the margins of last month’s TUC march in London’s Hyde Park against spending cuts.

Police snipers will line the route, while plain-clothes officers will mingle with the crowds in a bid to identify trouble-makers, or those intent on more destructive actions early on, while the “ring of steel” – a phrase beloved of journalists – will be much abused.

Security has become a much more serious issue since the Rolls Royce carrying Prince Charles and Camilla was attacked in an opportunistic, rather than planned fashion on Regent’s Street in November during protests against third-level tuition fees.

Metropolitan Police commander Bob Broadhurst, who faced criticism on both sides for his handling of the Hyde Park demonstrations, insists that protesters will be quickly dealt with: “My message to those thinking about it is: Don’t.”

Opinion is divided on whether the wedding will offer a boost to the British economy, though it is sure to offer the UK priceless advertising from the hundreds of TV channels that will cover the event live.

The Nottingham-based Centre for Retail Research believes “the retail gain” will top £525m – with £156m going on food and drink, along with £110m from those who will go shopping, rather than stay at home in front of the television.

Nearly £200m is expected to be spent on souvenirs, though not all of it will be cheap tat, judging by the experience of upmarket ceramics company Portmeirion, which has reported record revenues, with the help of sales from a £400 commemorative vase.

However, the Federation of Small Businesses has warned that the day could cost the economy £6 billion, although many employers – including the National Health Service – have made it clear that they will not pay overtime, while others have said a day off will be docked from holidays.

The biggest economic impact, however, will be felt by travel companies and airlines, who report that the numbers heading abroad – seeking to make the best use of a four-day bank holiday weekend, has risen by between a third and over half.

Indeed, the flight abroad has been intensified because, along with the Easter break, the UK will enjoy two four-day interruptions in April, with just a three-day working week between them. “Holidaymakers now only need to take five days’ annual leave to benefit from a 14-night holiday,” says Richard Calvert of Thomas Cook holidays, who is handling hordes of Turkish- and Canaries-bound travellers.

Hotel prices in London have naturally escalated, tripling in some cases, although the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in Knightsbridge is leading the pack, with a six-day special for £11,300-a-head including a “ringside” seat on the Mall for the big day.

Even the Spencer family is involved, since the earl is making the family seat in Althorp – where Diana is buried – available to the Mandarin’s rich guests, while the family’s former London townhouse, Spencer House overlooking Green Park, is also on the itinerary.

For those on more modest budgets, there has been an explosion of offers on websites such as Gumtree and London Rent My House from Locals willing to make rooms available in their homes for visitors.

Meanwhile, up to 10,000 people are expected to base themselves at Camp Royale on Clapham Common for three days with the promise of “a quintessentially British atmosphere, complete with free cups of tea and Union flags” for £75.

With 24-hour security, hot showers, toilet facilities, a dedicated quiet zone, and a family zone, Camp Royale will also offer tepees, complete with beds, sheepskin rugs and tables for those averse to spending three nights in a tent.

For those determined to stay in the UK but who also want to avoid the wedding, Welsh cultural group Balchder Cymru (Pride of Wales) has organised a five-day Escape the Wedding camp at a site near Machynlleth.

Indeed, Balchder Cymru is mulling over whether it should organise a march through Machynlleth to celebrate Welsh independence hero Owain Clydwr, who was crowned as Prince of Wales in the town in 1404.

In London, Republic, a group that campaigns for an elected head of state for the UK, is holding “a republican shindig to outshine all the rest” in a bar near London Bridge for those “who want to get away from the wedding fuss”.