monarchy

   In recent years, the monarchy has all but fallen into disrepute in Britain. It was the butt of sophisticated humour on television programmes such as Spitting Image, was lampooned in Sue Townsend’s novel The Queen and I (1994) and became the subject of much tabloid treatment which ridiculed the affairs of Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and their wives. To compound such adverse publicity, Buckingham Palace has proved inept at handling the British media. Opponents of the Palace used the newspapers against them, publishing for example Prince Charles’s conversations with his long-term lover Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles. Broadcasts of this and other gaffes turned the royals into a beleaguered, if not endangered, institution. Already, for many years the country had regarded those other than the immediate Royal Family as ‘hangers-on’ and questioned why they should pay for their support. But in the 1980s the Royal Family was hit by an avalanche of negative responses to rumours of the extra-marital affairs of the younger royals, none of whom had succeeded in contracting a marriage which endured. Princess Anne divorced Captain Mark Philips, Prince Andrew divorced Sarah Ferguson (Fergie) and Charles divorced Diana Spencer. Some people suggested that the royals should only contract arranged marriages with other royals. Conversely, supporters said they were only mirroring society at large.
   In addition to problems with public relations and handling of the media, the monarchy made a number of other significant miscalculations of what the public would (under)stand. People might have tolerated the younger royals’ peccadilloes if complaints had not been treated with lofty disdain, and if the monarchy had not chosen to ignore many crucial twentieth-century changes in society’s outlook. For example, adherents of Margaret Thatch-er’s 1980s ‘me’ generation were unlikely to be as ready to continue to fund lifestyles which they themselves were never likely to emulate. A result of these miscalculations was that royalty lost more than it otherwise might have. For instance, conveniences like the Royal Train and the Royal Yacht Britannia, and more importantly the Queen’s tax-free status, have gone. However, a number of royal palaces are still maintained.
   The loss of tax-free status occurred after the Windsor Palace fire in the late 1980s, when the Queen thought she would be able simply to call on the government for help with the refurbishment costs. Instead, after an embarrassing public outcry, not only did she have to pay the £70m involved out of her own purse, but shortly thereafter had to pay income tax on her entire income.
   An index of the worldwide interest in British royalty was the media coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Palace was seriously out of touch with the mood of the people when Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in the summer of 1997. She was accompanied by Dodi Fayed, son of the Egyptian owner of Harrods department store, Mohammed Al Fayed, who had been denied British citizenship. Traditionalists feared that any offspring produced by this relationship would be in line to inherit the throne, and were thus seen as ‘relieved’ by the accident. Buckingham Palace appeared to think it could downplay the death of someone with whom it had had public quarrels, but people were well aware of the antipathy between the Palace and Diana (her early 1990s television interview with Martin Bashir drew 14 million viewers). There was thus a huge outpouring of public grief, and the Palace had both to lose face and to upgrade the funeral obsequies to three days of national mourning. The Royal Family has always paradoxically drawn support from large segments of the working class, and no member has attracted affection more than the Queen Mother. Nearly a centenarian, at her every public appearance she is greeted with genuine affection possibly because of the gratitude which an older generation felt for a monarchy which chose to live in the heavily bombed city of London during the Second World War, and which insisted on carrying on construction of a cathedral at Liverpool, a ‘futile’ project at a time when bombs were dropping all around.
   The monarchy continues to be much better received overseas than in Britain. Americans display much more interest in it than in their own ‘aristocracy’, and in Canada the young princes William and Harry received a rousing welcome to British Columbia in November 1998.
   See also: Establishment, the; privacy
   MARIANE SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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