How did this nonsense come to pass?
Celebrity culture has seen a near-irresistable trend toward irreverence. Celebrities are there to be loved, hated, mocked, praised, derided. They are tabloid fodder and, ultimately, can be exchanged for any other celebrity - regardless of talent (or lack thereof). But what is interesting is how, in many ways, the monarchy has swam against this tide of irreverence.
It wasn't always this way, of course. Go back 20 years and the papers were full of princes-pretending-to-be-tampons, "squidgy-gate", Texan toe jobs and other (faintly nauseating) bed-hopping antics. Factor in the Windsor Castle fire and tales of dysfunctional parenting, you could be forgiven for thinking this hapless, decadent bunch had written the undistinguished final chapter of the British monarchy. But from tragedy and crisis came the opportunity to turn their fortunes around.
On the 31st August, 1997 the "people's princess" met her untimely end in a Parisian tunnel. The genuine outpouring of public grief, which, in turn, was fed by unceasing wall-to-wall coverage for endless weeks marked the last occasion the press turned on the Queen. In headlines that blazed "Where is our Queen?", the family came in and were stung by criticism for being lofty, out of touch and completely removed from the mourning of her subjects. She was pressured into contrite public appearances and forced into flying the flag at half-mast. Indeed, it was the newly-elected Tony Blair that led and spoke for the nation as the single most popular (but estranged) Royal was celebrated and beatified as a secular saint. But after Diana's funeral, after the undignified barbs from her brother aimed squarely and bitterly at the Windsors' icy hearts, everything changed.
The suggestion an out-of-control paparazzi were in some way responsible for the fatal crash forced the tabloids into damage limitation mode. Very quickly the press accepted that William and Harry were out of bounds until adulthood. And even more remarkably, bar the odd hiccup the press kept a notable distance. Also, not to let a couple of expirations go to waste the deaths of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother in quick succession consolidated the regrowth of Royal support. The latter, who commanded wide respect and affection, saw those qualities - in the Golden Jubilee year - pass down to the Queen. Just as the Queen Mother was once off-limits (despite well-known gambling and booze habits, as well as animus to Diana) so now became the Queen. The irreverence of the early 90s has passed into its opposite. Cap-doffing reverence.
William has been the primary beneficiary of the 'hands-off' attitude. As anyone who follows the papers knows, there was endless speculation about a relationship between him and Kate Middleton before they 'came out'. But this was almost of the innocent 'will they, won't they' variety. For once, salaciousness took a hike. And then came the royal wedding, which was an opportunity for the couple to ascend the heights of media beatification. Therefore when the pap photos of Kate in the altogether surfaced in the summer, there was a tidal wave of hypocritical outrage from the tabloids (who wouldn't have thought twice about printing them had the subject not been royalty). The politicians and celebs joined in the condemnation. There was talk of legal action against the French publishers and implied threats against anyone who would print them here. Who could have imagined the same 20 years ago? And then, on top of that, came the hours of footage and countless column inches on the heir, then the countdown to the birth and, right now, the sycophantic absurdity of news teams REPLETE WITH HELICOPTERS camped outside St Mary's hospital. And there I was thinking dignity was supposed to be a national trait.
Harry has also benefited from the halo of invulnerability. As someone doomed to be in his brother's shadow, he has seamlessly combined the roles of soldiering, charity do-gooding, boozing, and womanising. Last summer's naked pics, which The Sun splashed on their front pages (thereby breaking the press's gentlemen's agreement), didn't actually do his reputation any harm at all. In fact, he was subtly positioned as yet another red-blooded bachelor. This is Harry as a lad, a bloke, a rogue straight out of 90s Laddism. As an army grunt and party animal, he inspires reverence less than identification. Out of the lot of them, Harry is the one most like *us*. Shit, even I can't help but like the posh clown.
Thanks to clever and skilful marketing and the acquiescence of the press, the Queen now stands at the pinnacle of a state and a dynasty. She is aloof, above politics and takes no part in the mundane cares of everyday life. But rather than the most privileged of the privileged, she has come to be seen as a dutiful public servant who, while clearly being separate and apart from ordinary people, takes her obligations to her subjects very seriously indeed. She is the rallying point, the eternal and undying social anchor that will not be dislodged. She is, to put no finer point on it, emblematic of stability and security. And we could all do with something to cling to when we live in an age of uncertainty and rapid change.
Kate 'n' Wills, and the imminently due baby are practically a single entity who now occupy the 'Diana space'. They're young, safe, traditional, glamorous, friendly and photogenic. They are celebrities, but celebrities you can believe in. Provided no scandal attaches to either of the pair as it did with William's parents, it is very difficult to see how their child can't carry the monarchy into the next century.
But there is one problem. Royalist? Think the line of succession should skip a generation and bring William to the throne after the Queen dies? Tough. Charles is very different from Mummsy and either of his sons. He is the very epitome of the bumbling aristocrat. Patrician, definitely; but with all the charisma of a brick, there is something profoundly alienating about the person he projects. As a tax dodger and unaccountable political meddling, it's difficult to see how the monarchy won't take a hit as his behaviour continues regardless. No amount of Wills, Kate and Harry soft-soaping can cover for a monarch as contemptuous of as he is estranged from the modern world. Hopefully, Royal reverence will prove to be a temporary phenomenon and that the gales of scrutiny, critique and irreverence howl about his ears.
So, as far as I'm concerned, let the Royalists and the press have their jamboree. Let them make fools of themselves as they slap themselves on the back to cries of "a king is born!" But let us republicans stop wingeing and moaning and do something to ensure that the British monarchy, the values, and the entrenched system of privilege it represents is consigned permanently to the pages of history.