Friday, April 29, 2011

Political Aspects of the Prince William-Kate Royal Wedding: From the Dress to the Syrian Ambassador

I am trying to squeak this post in, before we all become blinded by "THE DRESS". The imminent Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has multiple political aspects which have repercussions far beyond the festive day. I thought to share ideas about some, and look forward to your comments on the topic.

A Distraction from Austerity, A Salve for the Economy

I am one of those who thought from the very announcement of the engagement that the timing of the announcement, the preparations, and the wedding were all part of the Royal effort to distract the British from recently budgeted austerity measures to come into effect on January 1, 2011. And it certainly has done so for many. Technically there was no need for a huge fuss--Prince William is not yet the Crown Prince (his father Prince Charles is), and this is not a State Occasion. Yet all the pomp and circumstance will apply as if both were true.

The wedding is a boon to the economy through tourism before, during, and after. Even if that boon proves insufficient to redress much of Britain's economic woes, there is a perception of economic activity and a hopefulness about revenues. Taxpayers are bearing a significant part of the expense with the Royal family bearing the rest. Many think it is worthwhile--economically, socially, historically. Others do not, but protesters and naysayers, including satirists have been largely silenced.

Assuring the Succession--A Bait and Non-Switch

Support for the British monarchy has declined in recent times and the unpopularity of Prince Charles has many wondering whether the monarchy would survive his reign, or even survive beyond the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Prince Charles is disliked not only for how he treated Diana, or for his perceived oddities and eccentricities, but for his political interventionism and plans to continue on in the same way. His book Harmony, which is something of a political manifesto, and the interviews he has given about it make that clear.

He is most active in areas where he not only has firm beliefs but where he has firms that stand to profit. I was aware of the British medical establishment's dismay in his holding forth as if he were an expert on various medical topics and favouring naturopathy and alternative medicine where they are inappropriate. I wasn't aware that his organic farming extends to private companies selling naturopathic products and alternative medicines. I was also aware that he openly reviles modern architecture, but not that he had used his personal influence to block a much needed public housing project in London because he didn't like the much heralded and award winning design. Not coincidently, he has his own housing developments business which would stand to benefit from blocking others. I was enlightened by a worthwhile article, Britain's crisis of succession: Charles and the story behind the royal wedding.

One idea is that the imminent wedding is a necessary step to putting William and Kate front and centre in the hopes people will wait out the as short as possible reign of King Charles IV. The wedding benefits from and enhances their popularity. Moreover, it resurrects the popularity of Princess Diana whose son the popularity of William and his mother Diana who has been resurrected through this marriage of a son who looks like her, wishes to include her, and whose wedding is an occasion to revisit hers, from engagement ring to the kiss on the balcony.

The wedding also lends weight and time pressure to modernize the Act of Settlement to allow the monarch's firstborn to become the heir to the throne whether a boy or a girl--true primogeniture, as opposed to the current succession through the male line, and only passing to a woman if there is no direct male heir. There is an expectation that the newlyweds will have a child almost immediately, and that the succession should be modernized within the next year.

Creating A Monarchy for the 21st Century

At least one pundit has remarked that Charles is barely in the 20th century. Indeed, some of his interests and beliefs are rather more 19th century and transcendentalist. His architectural preferences are definitely pre-Modern, that is from the very earliest years of the 20th century at the latest. He is also known for a more general disdain of post-Enlightenment Modernity and a preference for a spiritualist approach to life exemplified in his book Harmony.

In following the traditional social dictates in his choice of bride and his marriage, Prince Charles was also behind his own times. As has been pointed out only recently, and by comparison with Prince William, he did not assert his authority to find greater latitude within the tenets of the monarchy to marry the bride of his choice. Instead, he followed along with all the out of date customs, much beyond the legal requirements to keep his place in line for the throne.

From the aristocratic sacrificial virgin to the upwardly mobile commoner

Royals historically married other royals: Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip of the royal Danish and Greek houses; or, at least, aristocrats, King George VI to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon of the Scottish aristocracy, Prince Charles to the aristocrat Lady Diana Spencer, whose family is longer standing in England than the House of Hanover, changed to Windsor, from which Prince Charles descends. Prince William, second in line to the thrown, is marrying a commoner. Kate Middleton is not the first commoner to marry into the British Royal Family. Wallace Simpson (whose marriage to Edward VIII precipitated the Abdication Crisis), Sarah Ferguson (ex-wife of Prince Andrew), Sophie Rhys-Jones (currently married to Prince Edward) are among the women to do so. Kate Middleton is the only one expected to become Queen.

Camilla Parker-Bowles, also a commoner, upon her marriage to Prince Charles was given the title HRH the Duchess of Cornwall, in parallel to one of Prince Charles' titles as Duke of Cornwall. This was done to avoid giving offense to the public by taking the usual title of the Princess of Wales, still associated with Princess Diana. The public was further mollified by assurances that upon the coronation of Prince Charles as King Charles IV, Camilla would take the title HRH The Princess Consort--consort to further emphasize that she would in no way be regnant. However, unless there is an Act of Parliament to change the usual law, Camilla will become Queen Camilla. Also, as King, Charles could advocate or insist that she have that title. Does anyone doubt he would, or at least would want to and try?

Not only is Kate Middleton a commoner, but she comes from a highly upwardly mobile family--coal miners only a few generations back, her parents moving from modest careers in the airline service to self-made millionaires through a mail order business in party decorations. They sent their children to the best schools and to the best recreational facilities where they would also meet all the right people. By income, they are considered upper middle class--not really the average British family.

Kate Middleton attended university and worked in the family business, and briefly as a fashion buyer. Some argue convincingly that she has made more of a career of being Prince William's future wife, negotiating the potential pitfalls of the relationship with skill and purpose. It is as if she has learned from the mistakes of Diana and Sarah Ferguson--over-emotionality, over-exposure, and over-sharing in public--and from the proper discretion and reserve of Camilla.

Kate will be expected to produce and heir and a spare--a primary function of a Queen--though there is more discretion about that task than there was for Diana. Rarely mentioned now, it is well documented that prior to her marriage Diana was examined by the Royal Obstetrician and publicly pronounced to be fit to bear children, and a virgin.

Diana's young age and still being a virgin in the post-Pill, pre-HIV/AIDS late 70s and early 80s was a main reason for her selection as the one to marry Charles. She met these  customary virginity and fertility requirements of a Queen, as well as the British legal requirements of not being Roman Catholic and having the reigning monarch's consent. Many of the women Prince Charles had dated, including Diana's older sister, and his beloved Camilla Parker "had a past" that made them unsuitable.

In fact, since Prince Charles was over 25 (32) when he married, he could have married the woman of his choice, subject to the approval of Parliament (according to the Royal Marriages Act) not the Queen. He wasn't willing to put up the fight to do so, it seems. So instead, he married Diana, out of duty, and "whatever love means".

From inherited savoir faire to professionalism

Whatever "career skill" Kate may have used in getting to the engagement, one thing that has been made clear is that the commoner Kate has been receiving training in being a Royal that the aristocratic Diana never did. It seems it was assumed that since Diana was "to the manor born" she would have the skill set to handle her "job" within "The Firm". That she had such difficulties was proof more of the highly specialized skill set required to be a contemporary British Royal, and of the media demands, sense of entitlement, and lack of restrain than personal failings. It seems the Royal Family do not wish to repeat the fiasco of the scandal and divorce-ridden middle generation.

Kate is embarking on this Royal career at an age when many professionals are just finishing their training and becoming the junior whatever. Like other professionals she has a university degree, and now the 6 month on the job training period. Diana was not only a very sheltered 19 year old, she had little formal education, and little confidence in her intellectual abilities or worldly knowledge. That she succeeded so well as a humanitarian when she was a bit older suggests she managed to mature into a role for which she had had little preparation.

The People's King and Queen

Kate Middleton has been heralded as having the "common touch" and Prince William has won accolades as "the People's Prince" for his surprise walk about to chat with those already along the procession route near Buckingham Palace and planning to camp there over night.

Both are much better at cultivating their popular appeal without over-exposure than other Royals have been in recent years. They will need to be, as the waves of republicanism which are currently waning, even in Australia, inexorably rise again. The idea of Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla becoming King and Queen already feeds that movement.

Republicanism is expected to be that much more potent a force when the current Queen passes and the coronation of Charles becomes a reality. The British monarchy, despite its great wealth, and its long tradition has little real power now. Furthermore, in a way, all monarchies exist at the will of the people. That is more true of ones where the people are free to protest, demonstrate, and actively seek to transform the government, including ending the monarchy.

The survival of the British monarchy in its present form depends on William and Kate being dear enough to the people, and palatable enough as future King and Queen to keep the republicans at bay.

The Guest List and the Uninvited Ambassador from Syria

Like the guest lists of most weddings this one includes people the bride and groom know and want there, people their parents want to invite, and who are otherwise important to the family. In the case of a Royal wedding, though not a state occasion, a certain protocol--given Grannie's job--must be followed. Protocol sets obligations and guidelines but has a certain flexibility and plasticity for the times. Royal supporters have been at pains to find a plausible explanation for the inclusion of Conservative but not Labour Prime Ministers.

The collection of dictators and human rights abusers among the international government representatives is explained as the automatic invitation of certain head of state or their representatives based on diplomatic relations. If Britain has normal relations with a country it is represented. Not only long standing offenders but recent shifts in the Middle East have resulted in a number of invitees to whom protesters in Britain object. The Crown Prince of Bahrain who had accepted his invitation, later declined citing political exploitation of his attendance. However, Bahrain's Ambassador to Britain will attend. The Libyan government of Colonel Gaddafi and the Colonel himself have been excluded--understandable what with Britain's participation in NATO's bombing against Gaddafi's military capacity.
Just yesterday, the Ambassador of Syria to Britain was uninvited, given the Al-Assad's murder of 500, mostly civilians, in the last 6 weeks.

The Dress

While it might seem the most frivolous, if the most speculated upon aspect of the wedding, the dress does have political implications. Whatever she wears, Kate is expected to be stylish--in keeping with the styles of today--while showing personal flare and respect for tradition, including Diana's memory in the form of the engagement ring and perhaps the choice of tiara. The dress is to contribute to her persona as a thoroughly contemporary woman with elegant and streamlined taste, not too ostentatiously luxurious in an economic downturn.

In that sense, Kate is expected to do much as most Royals have done throughout the ages. With a little knowledge of the history of fashion, it is easy to see that most Royal brides have worn a dress that is obviously within the styles of their specific time, yet with some detailing or distinction that expresses both individuality and their high position. Often the dress has been designed with the bride's suggestions, but by the court stylist who is well aware of tradition, classic lines, and station.

Not so Diana's dress, which was created by the husband and wife design team of David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Her dress was a collage of styles, none of them in contemporary fashion. While some wedding dresses of the time (check Google Images for "wedding dresses 1980's") had puffy sleeves, or a frilly neckline, or a full skirt, or a long train, none had as giant and floppy elements of each so awkwardly combined. The train was so long as to border on the grotesque. The back of it was still in the carriage when the front of it had already reached the top of the steps at the entrance to St Paul's Cathedral.

It was the quintessential meringue wedding dress, one that dwarfed even the very tall Diana. Though better proportioned meringue wedding dresses were popular in the 80's, many other styles were available. Diana's meringue in particular was reminiscent of an unfortunate combination of styles from a much earlier age like the Renaissance, perhaps in keeping with Charles' pre-Enlightenment preferences.

It is more likely that Kate's dress, like those of other Royals will make a statement about being a contemporary bride, one with her own imprimatur, but with a certain restraint in the lines. It would be in keeping with the motif of this "wedding of the century" actually being of its time, and leading the monarchy forward in a 21st century bid for survival.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

1 comment:

Shahirah Elaiza said...

Very interesting perspectives! I definitely agree that Kate adds a nice, friendly and approachable image to the royal family. I think they really need a Princess Diana-like figure. Let's face it, one of the main reasons why the relationship and wedding received so much attention is because William is his mother's boy.

Will this marriage boost Britain's tourism? Maybe. It is now the site of a modern day fairytale!

I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.


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