A week has passed in the new royal era. Prince William is back at his airbase. Kate is in the supermarket. The Queen is at Windsor Castle. The media circus has packed its satellite dishes and left town. The bunting has been recycled. Like a cartwheeling verger, we’ve watched the world turn upside down and then revolve right-way up again. Everything looks as it did before. But everything has changed.
These unremarkable days are actually momentous. Historians of tomorrow may look back on them as the point at which either the British Crown reinvented itself to prosper for another hundred years…or at which it gave one final hurrah before slipping into terminal irrelevance.
A touch melodramatic? Consider the options. On the one hand, with the wedding of the decade triumphantly behind us and the prospect of royal babies growing closer by the day, the monarchy is set fair. But on the other, by any realistic actuarial assessment, the next two candidates for the throne will be grandparents by the time they ascend it. That’s obviously not in itself a bad thing – wisdom being one of the qualities most prized in a king – but in a country itself inexorably ageing, who could blame today’s teenagers for being disenchanted by a system that will never deliver a head of state for their generation.
Meanwhile the royal relegation stakes are quietly delivering their own verdict on the future. In a rigidly stratified organisation like a royal family it couldn’t be otherwise. Insert a new team in the first division and everyone shuffles down. We should mark last week’s images of the brave Duchess of Kent, the dignified Duke and all the other uncles and cousins on parade. The Royal A-list is slimming its ranks and we won’t see them refilled again.
The Buckingham Palace balcony was once the place to show Us how many of Them there were so we didn’t worry about running out of Windsors. Now those previously consigned to the chilly wing positions might as well stay indoors with the coffee cups: we don’t need that many spare parts, just the main machinery, please.
This is the cue for the optimists to claim the future is bright. Here is the monarchy adapting pragmatically to changing expectations, as it always has. In the new Age of Cambridge we get the best of the new to complement the best of the not-so new. April 29th really did start the royal comeback and all we have to do is thank our lucky stars and settle back to watch William and Kate take the world by storm (as they surely will).
Meanwhile, buoyed by favourable opinion polls, the entire institution can enjoy the pleasant floating sensation felt whenever a rising tide lifts all boats. The glamorous newly-married couple have generated a popularity in which even less-favoured royal relatives can share.
So which is to be – glorious new age or slow, senile decline? One clue might be found in the most encouraging of all the post-wedding polls. A Reader’s Digest survey concludes that William, scoring 93%, is the most trusted member of the royal family, beating even his grandmother the Queen into second place.
Trust is of course the holy grail of politicians. The fact that they find it so elusive – in the same poll the Deputy Prime Minister scored 32% – owes much to the common view that they’re mostly a bunch of chancers who spin the truth to trick us into giving them our vote.
That’s why royal attempts at spin are so short-sighted and so damaging. They lower our royal family to the level of politicians and celebrities and they infect courtiers with hubris. It’s surely no coincidence that the most enthusiastic royal devotee of PR, William’s father, in the survey lags far behind his unspun son. By contrast, William’s high rating is surely because, at the altar, we saw two people at their most honest and uncontrived. We liked what we saw, we found it genuine and we want more of it.
In this context the royal optimists can feel encouraged. The best bits of the wedding were when we felt we saw through the layers of formality to glimpse the real William and Kate. The unscripted bits. Even – as we surely agree – the bits that weren’t quite perfect. This is the authentic evidence of our own eyes, we and our friends recognise it and we love and trust it accordingly.
Having spent the best part of eight years watching close-up a royal superstar at work, I can certainly confirm that it’s the ad libs that the crowd loves, much more than the courtiers’ carefully-crafted speech or immaculate event planning. It might have been to my chagrin but, as one of the men in suits, I recognised I could only set the stage and provide the props; the magic had to be supplied by the royal performer.
So when The Duke and Duchess fly to Canada next month and then progress to California – California? Playground of the fake and shallow…are we quite sure about this, chaps? – we know that the producers who gave us The Wedding will deliver another perfectly-staged production. Which is just as it should be – since so much of royalty’s function is theatre. But it will be those precious moments of spontaneity that will get the traveling press pack onside and us back home oohing and aaahing over our colour souvenir supplements.
Which brings us to a key issue for the course of the Cambridges’ royal career and with it the fate of the crown they will inherit. The very quality which endears them to us – their unaffected spontaneity – is the one the planners can’t control. Perfect planning may set the stage for perfect spontaneity – but perfect control will kill the spontaneity dead. And with it the trust and, ultimately, the love.
When Diana kissed William’s father on the Palace Balcony thirty years ago it was an unscripted moment and all the more powerful for that. By contrast, TV producers knew to the very minute when to expect last week’s balcony smacker. And very lovely it was too.
But one day, events will go off-script. Not badly – but enough to unsettle the men in suits. When that happens, I hope they won’t fret too much. This is where the statistics of trust synchronise with the evidence of our eyes. This was where William’s mother – who never had a full-time press officer – showed the limitations of the script and trusted her instincts.
It was untidy. It offended my petty bureaucrat’s brain and mortally unsettled the palace old guard. You couldn’t have put it on a website. But it was real… and the world loved her for it. We can be confident the world will love her son and daughter-in-law for it, too. If the scriptwriters give them the chance.