This article was published in the Yorkshire Post
Divorced, divided, but still surviving... how the Royal Family fits into British life
4 July 2009
Is the Royal Family a family? They themselves refer to the collective of royals as "the firm" and ever since the failure of three of the marriages of the Monarch's offspring, there is less and less effort to present a model of family life for the nation to emulate.
It was not always thus. In the 1950s, under tightly controlled media management, there was a concerted campaign to present the Royal Family as very much a model family. Post Office savings stamps were sold to children with pictures of a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. In fact, the Queen and Prince Philip are typical of the 1940s post-war married couples who produced the baby boom generation: marriage was for life and the reproduction of the nation was best handled by the institution of the family. Public affection for King George VI and his Queen – who courageously lived in Buckingham Palace as bombs fell on London – was then transferred to the very young Queen Elizabeth II and her dashing young naval officer consort. After their marriage in 1947, the speedy birth of children, and the accession to the throne in 1952, their position as positive role models for the family seemed secure. Already, however, there was a worm in the bud, as it was clear that Prince Philip was of lower status than his wife and had no right to share daily involvement in high state affairs that a British monarch enjoys. Margaret Thatcher complained after she was fired from Downing Street that what she missed most was the pile of cables coming in from the British embassies reporting in detail what was happening around the world. The Queen has had that royal jelly of fascinating information as a morning feast every day of her life. But her husband hasn't. So from the moment she ascended the throne she enjoyed a professional life that was separate to her family. After the arrival of her two youngest sons there was a last effort to present the Royal Family as a model family to the nation. The famous black and white BBC documentary of 1969 was a reverential effort to show the royal parents and their children as just an average British family. It was toe-curlingly awful, as, with false bonhomie, the poor Queen was shown flipping sausages on a Balmoral barbecue while the primitive fly-on-the-wall cameras tried to sell the Royal Family as a glowing example of unified and happy family activity. The year was inauspicious, as 1968-69 marked the rejection by the baby boom generation of all the mores of their parents, especially the notion of marriage and settled family life. One can almost feel pity for Charles and Anne, and later Andrew and Edward, as they were expected to conform to a way of being that all their contemporaries were rejecting. In fact, the Royal Family did become a very typical British family with three of the children divorcing their spouses, enjoying other dalliances and relying on state hand-outs to pay for housing, food and travel. And, in turn, the next generation has reflected the hedonistic individualism which modern capitalism has prioritised over the community of family. Recent pictures of Prince Harry show him with luridly painted finger nails as he staggers out of some night club. And, unlike his grandparents who married at a young age and settled down to make a family, Prince William is showing no sign of doing so. In this, the Royal Family is closer to its subjects than is often realised. The model family of the mid-20th century had a shorter shelf life than its contemporary defenders and promoters care to admit. This does not mean the efforts to help support other families should be discarded. The family remains the best example of socialist solidarity ever created: from each according to means, to each according to need is (or should be) the central tenet of family life. Families allow the transmission of wisdom across the generations. Families are where the cocky are teased, the strong are told to do the washing up, and where tolerance has to co-exist with firmness. Capitalism always hates the family and works to segment and individualise family members. The de-regulated capitalism of Mrs Thatcher's regime was hardly challenged by Labour after 1997, which prioritised pushing people into work at the expense of finding time for them to be with their children. There is still no adequate Leftist ideal of parenting and family life, save perhaps, as usual, in Nordic countries. But the stark reality is that families cannot easily co-exist with social and income inequality. As unemployment grows, so will family break-ups. The debate is now open about what kind of institutional head of state Britain really wants, and that debate will necessarily be bound up with our conception of the family. The Commons recently debated ideas for removing the religious obligation for monarchs and their spouses to be Protestants and, according to newspaper reports, Gordon Brown has discussed this with the Queen at his weekly audience. He also raised the question of why male princes should have primacy over their sisters. (After all, women have been the best monarchs in our history). It is clearly ridiculous that William and Harry cannot marry without their grandmother's permission. As with the politics of family, the politics of monarchy are now seeing old taboos lifted and fresh questions asked, and not before time. But the fact remains that the Royal Family does not know how to invent a new 21st century model of family life. The happy Balmoral pictures from 1969 now look as quaint as Marmite and sandwich spread. The Royal Family is like too many British families: divorced, divided, but surviving.