The Queen will be dead soon and with her will pass the last significant remnant of British feudalism. The future belongs to her grandson and his wife, who have judged the modern world with calculating eyes and placed the ultra-capitalist entertainment industry above old royal privilege.
They cannot stop emoting. If they did, it’s not just that they would lose money as surely as a supermarket chain would lose if it closed its stores for a summer holiday. They would lose relevance. And as status is so intertwined with the business of making money in celebrity culture that you cannot separate the two, the loss would cut deeper.
If Prince Charles, allegedly barely on speaking terms with his son, and the brother who will be king one day hope they will stop damning the monarchy for sexism, racism and other unproved sins in the interests of protecting the family, they do not understand modern capitalism’s need to keep the content production line rolling.
Last week, the Mail revealed that a semi-official biography with enough plausible deniability to cover the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s backs will be churning out fresh material. (I won’t call them “Harry and Meghan” because celebrity culture’s pretence that we are on first-name terms with the famous is the first of its many deceits.) We learned that they cannot name the royal who allegedly worried the duchess’s baby would be too black and that other royals – unnamed again – were “quietly pleased” that the duchess missed Prince Philip’s funeral because they feared she would “create a spectacle”.
The market demands that they expose themselves and their family and the market is all they have now. What would happen if they stopped? Meghan Markle could go back to acting, but Harry Windsor would have nothing to do.
Liberals can admire the opposition to racism and sexism and enjoy the admittedly unexpected spectacle of a former royal endorsing vaguely leftish causes. I hope alert readers have noticed that their commitments tend towards the self-centred and the flippant. Earlier this month, the duchess and assorted progressive celebrities launched the 40X40 initiative to help women return to the workplace after Covid by giving them 40 minutes of mentoring. You read that right. Forty whole minutes. Why 40 instead of 50? Because it was the duchess’s 40th birthday and we were meant to notice that. And why mentoring instead of campaigning to provide state-funded childcare for working women by raising the tax take from assorted progressive celebrities? The question answers itself.
Conservatives hate the Sussexes’ wokeness and the knowledge that most of their values will win in the end as their voters and readers die off. There’s undoubtedly an element of racism at play in their anger but, trust me, the Tory press would have gone for her if she was white, as they went for Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson and are going for Prince Andrew. You can decry them all you want and you would be right. But both large and small “c” conservatives are right to notice that their abandonment of royal duties shows that old certainties are almost gone.
‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels said of capitalism’s destructive power in The Communist Manifesto. “All that is solid melts into air.”
The Sussexes have followed the prophecies of Marx and Engels by concluding that the traditional aristocracy is finished. The nobility does not set style or taste, as it did well into the 20th century. The last significant aristocratic politician was Lord Carrington, who resigned as foreign secretary in 1982. (He took responsibility for the failures of his department, which can almost make you nostalgic for his kind.) You might count David Cameron, as he was descended from some mistress of William IV, but he was no more a serious aristocrat than he was a serious politician. If you doubt me, ask how many British people can name a duke or an earl, apart from Earl Spencer, who is only famous because of his sister.
The power of inherited wealth is stronger than it has been in a century and the explosion in inequality that Covid has accelerated will make it more powerful still. Yet in terms of the status the Sussexes seek, the old aristocracy of birth counts for next to nothing – even the Daily Mail’s gossip columns barely bother with it. The monarchy is all that is left.
Supposedly wised-up commentators who say “the monarchy is a part of celebrity culture” miss the point. As the duchess acutely noted: “I grew up in LA, you see celebrities all the time… This is a completely different ball game.” Indeed it is. At some level, even the most privileged celebrities earn their fame. If the market does not value them, they cease to be celebrated. In contrast, a royal born into the House of Windsor is a royal whatever their talents, or lack of them.
The death of aristocratic power helps explain the affection for Queen Elizabeth II – even republicans find it hard to condemn her. People like that she never asked to be head of state but does the job anyway. They do not care that, if truth be told, she is not a noticeably good head of state. If she were, she would not have agreed to Boris Johnson’s unlawful suspension of parliament in 2019, and insisted instead that he play by the rules. Her failings do not matter, because in this age when money bestows power, the last hold-out of old aristocratic entitlement is unthreatening in comparison.
Marx said that when capitalism had torn up the ties of religion and feudalism, and all that was solid had melted into air, man would at last be “compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life”.
The Sussexes present a real threat to the monarchy because they have seen its irrelevance, as many more will once the Queen dies. They have soberly concluded that whatever privileges it brings are as nothing compared with the money and status that belongs to the real aristocracy of the celebrity industry they are so determined to join.