Royal wedding: does it matter? In some ways, yes

It was magnificent and on the day it went without a hitch.  Good luck to William and Kate, whose patent happiness together made a few million others happy too, a matter not to be sneezed at.  But some of the underlying politics were darker.

Like all such patriotic union-jack-waving occasions, hyped up by television and the press until one felt like being force-fed with clotted cream, this one will have given a boost to the government’s popularity almost as potent as if David Cameron had just liberated the Falklands.  There’s no logic in it, but there it is.  It’s a highly convenient time for the Tory-led coalition to get a boost, just as the evidence begins to come in that its ill-judged, self-defeating economic and fiscal policies are choking off growth and recovery, its doctrinaire plan for effectively privatising the National Health Service is beginning to fall apart, and the impetuous decision to commit British air and naval power, what’s left of it, to the defence of civilians in Benghazi has increasingly obviously landed us in gross mission creep and yet another military quagmire.  On top of that, the AV referendum is imposing genuine strains on the coalition’s marriage vows.  The royal wedding euphoria will help for a while to compensate for all these Westminster woes.

On the other hand, Martin Kettle in the Guardian makes a convincing case for the proposition that the Tories are full of self-confidence now that they’re back in the saddle, and that the royal wedding will have cemented in the feeling that life has returned to normal after the brief aberration of Labour government.  Cameron has succeeded beyond all rational expectations in capturing the centre ground from Labour, and clearly means to keep control of it by constant repetition of the myth that it was Labour’s failures which brought Britain almost to its knees, with the implication, both implicit and explicit, that Labour must never again be entrusted with responsibility for the economy, once Cameron and Osborne have completed their rescue of it (with a little help from their junior coalition partners).  Cameron’s other spectacular success — seducing the LibDems into the Tory embrace instead of having to rule as a minority government, vulnerable at any time to parliamentary defeat on controversial issues — further sidelines Labour by pushing into the far future any risk of a left-of-centre Labour-LibDem alliance against the Tories. The LibDems are now tarred with the Tory brush, perhaps irretrievably;  they are compelled to join the Tories in defending the Tory record, and (even more usefully from Cameron’s point of view) effectively prohibited by their membership of the coalition from advocating radical changes of policy at future elections that would mean disowning what they themselves have been doing in government.  Kettle reasons from this analysis that Labour’s only hope of regaining government may lie in the success of the AV referendum.  He urges Labour supporters to take the long view accordingly, and vote Yes to AV.  I’m not convinced by this argument, however.  AV would inevitably bring more votes and seats to the LibDems, making single-party government even more unlikely:  the LibDems, despite their present dire ratings in the polls and probably dire results in the elections on 5 May, would be overwhelmingly likely to hold the balance of power in any post-AV-election to the house of commons, with the ability to decide whether to hand the keys of No. 10 back to Cameron or to pass them over to Ed Miliband;  and after (probably) five years locked in marriage to the Tories, forced to accept responsibility for virtually everything the Tories will have done, a transfer of affection to Labour would seem much more unlikely than likely.  But Kettle’s arguments are certainly not to be lightly dismissed.

How does the Wedding come into all this?  Very consistently.  Not only is it a classically Conservative occasion, emphasising ceremonial, continuity, monarchy and triangular hierarchy, the supremacy of our social superiors:  not only does its success seem to redound to the credit of the government of the day, like winning a war or the World Cup:  but also the (surely deliberate) exclusion of any trace of a former Labour government from the spectacle reinforces the idea that Labour is discredited, exiled and irrelevant — in the sin-bin, off camera.  It’s naive to suppose that the spiteful denial of invitations to the wedding for Blair and Brown, so that only Tory former prime ministers (Thatcher and Major) were invited, was an oversight or a clerical error.  Martin Kettle sees in this, as in other aspects of the arrangements for the wedding, the anti-Labour hand of Prince Charles (“bad-tempered and self-pitying”, Michael White had called him earlier in the same issue; “reactionary” was Martin Kettle’s word for him) :  I’m more inclined to see the arrogant and vindictive hands of Cameron and Osborne in it.  Whoever was responsible, Martin Kettle’s harsh verdict is right:  the failure to correct these two glaring omissions “only confirms the miserable, petty, ill-advised disdainful nastiness of the original deed.”  Kettle sums it up:  “Not inviting Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to the royal wedding, while inviting Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major, is a cold, calculated act of high establishment spite against Labour.”

Another related point, less obvious:  we know that Ed Miliband was invited — he could hardly have been excluded, as leader of the opposition — and that he had accepted, promising to wear morning dress like the higher orders;  but I have yet to find anyone who had even the briefest glimpse of him in the television coverage, in the Abbey.  We saw plenty of Cameron and his sensible-looking wife, Ken Clarke (seemingly a non-singing member of the Abbey choir), Sir Elton John, royals galore (the lesser royals had arrived in a fleet of minibuses!) and of course those top celebs the Beckhams: but no sign of Ed.  Perhaps Mr Miliband was strategically seated behind a pillar. Labour has been shown the red card for allegedly fouling up the economy, and sent off.  Labour is simply invisible in the Tory game plan, and the scandalously partisan character of the wedding guest list was a singularly nasty part of it.

The extent of party political meddling in the guest list was amply confirmed by William Hague’s cowardly capitulation to media ignorance in ordering the withdrawal of the invitation to the hapless Syrian ambassador, casually ignoring the presence at the wedding of a host of ambassadors and assorted kings and sultans representing even more despotic and murderous régimes than Syria’s.  It’s obviously Rule 1 for  state occasions that you invite either all or none of the diplomats representing countries with which you have diplomatic relations, whatever you think of the human rights records of some of them.  The moment you start treating formal invitations to formal occasions as a reward for good behaviour, you’re deep in a morass of invidious, inconsistent and indefensible judgements.  The proffered excuse that this was not officially a state occasion is laughable:  if it was not a state occasion, why were the whole diplomatic corps (except the Syrian, himself only uninvited at the last moment) and a dozen foreign heads of state invited to the wedding?  This is an even more insulting excuse than the explanation for not inviting Blair and Brown that unlike Thatcher and Major, neither is a Knight of the Garter.  What kind of fools do they take us for?  As Simon Jenkins, gadfly Tory and former editor of The Times, put it with his usual incisiveness in another Guardian article, —

The global brain clearly has trouble dissociating the fascination of a happening from its significance, or otherwise. Confusion has certainly been sown by the wedding being attended, unwisely, by so many of the pseudo-trappings of statehood, such as the attendance of dotty foreign monarchs and dodgy ambassadors. This was bound to pollute a family occasion with political controversy, and so it has done. Whoever thought the occasion suitable to the diplomatic corps should be fired. William is not a serving monarch but a serving junior air force officer.

Simon Jenkins stresses in the same piece the essential triviality of the whole occasion, pouring scorn on the fantastic resources devoted to reporting it by, for example, the BBC, NBC (which he says  flew over its entire anchor team) and most of the print media.  The hours of time and acres of print devoted to speculation about the wedding dress, the bride’s hair style, and which units of the three armed services would be honoured by having their uniforms worn by the assorted princes who participated in starring or supporting roles — all these are indeed matters of the utmost insignificance.  But it’s right to pay attention to an event which obviously made millions of people happy, if only for a day; which unarguably demonstrates that for all the antics and follies of some of its members, the royal family continues to exercise an almost mystical hold over a large section of the population, anyway in England;  and which was expertly manipulated by an arrogant, cocksure and otherwise incompetent Conservative party leadership to promote the permanent banishment of Labour from the national scene.  You’ve got to hand it to the Tory toffs!


7 Responses

  1. On the matter of the Syrian ambassador, here are two of my Facebook posts which may have escaped attention:

    ‘The options available to any government to show its disapproval of another include the recall of its ambassador for consultations, the reduction of diplomatic relations to consular relations, the breaking of diplomatic relations altogether, the imposition of sanctions, and the withdrawal of cooperation in various areas. So long as diplomatic relations exist, there is a minimum level of behaviour required both by diplomats and their hosts. On the part of the hosts, or at least on the part of civilised ones among which I would hope we might still be included, it includes treating the duly accredited representatives of foreign states without discrimination.’

    ‘Whatever Meyer [aka SirSocks] or anyone else says, the wedding of a future monarch cannot be a private occasion, and if it is not a private occasion, what is it? It’s quite patently an extremely important public occasion to which it is quite right that the diplomatic corps should be invited en masse. Tinkering with the formalities of protocol for political ends is exactly what we might expect of less scrupulous governments.’

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Barrie. Absolutely 100% correct. I was sorry to see and hear a good friend, former colleague and regular contributor to this blog saying on television yesterday that he thought withdrawing the Syrian ambassador’s invitation was one of several legitimate ways of sending a signal of disapproval to the Syrian government. It was a cockup on stilts. (As I have said in this post.) Also see my quotation from today’s Guardian article by Simon Jenkins about the status of the occasion. Hague is looking increasingly second-rate and out of his depth.

  2. Tom Berney says:

    >> We know that Ed Miliband was invited — he could hardly have been excluded, as leader of the opposition .. but I have yet to find anyone who had even the briefest glimpse of him in the television coverage.  We saw plenty of Cameron <<

    And not  a glimpse or mention of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond either.  Obviously the Beckhams are more important. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tom. A very good point. Perhaps Mr Salmond, himself no shrimp, and easily recognisable, was deliberately tucked away behind the same pillar as Ed Miliband so that the cameras should not be tempted to distract us from the stars of the show (i.e. David and Samantha Cameron — SamCam shown, with reckless courage, hatless: will the Palace ever forgive her?).

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    It was a splendid spectacle (and I admit to shedding a manly tear during the singing of ‘Jerusalem’), but I wonder whether the country is collectively such a sucker as to really suppose that the Event reflected the competence and wise benevolence of the present government.  The establishment of that sort of bogus connection would surely require, and still not be guaranteed by, complete control by the regime of the media and of the  right to public expression of opinions.   For example, in the days when the DDR was winning lots of Olympic medals, did the average East German praise the Party in his heart or merely reckon privately that that’s to be expected when the State catches them young? 

    What grabbed me were the number of male second cousins and great-nephews in the uniforms of fashionable regiments.  Put young Prince Whatsisname, who’d really like to be a vet, in the Umpteenth Guards or on a ship where the media can’t get at him and there’s always a wise old RSM or CPO to whisper the word of command.  But that’s another story.

    I suppose all those postillions in cricket caps perched up behind the personages in the open carriages were packing machine pistols. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. I agree that ordinary people (like thee and me) are not going to give humble thanks to our all-wise, all-benevolent coalition government, nor even especially to that nice Mr Clegg, for granting us the rare privilege of being allowed to watch this heart-lifting spectacle. I simply observe that when a spectacle and celebration like this raises almost everyone’s morale either a little or in some cases a lot, and makes a huge number of people happy for a while, there’s invariably a support dividend for the government of the day, even if its ministers obviously had no hand in the genesis of the Event. At least, we must suppose that they didn’t: surely Wills and Kate (or the Duchess of Cambridge, as we must call her in preference to “Princess William of Wales”) weren’t discreetly prevailed on to linger together for all those years before getting officially hooked while they waited for a Tory, or Tory-led, government on which to bestow the benefit? Perish the thought!

  4. Tony Hatfeld says:

    Like Tim, I’m not persuaded that the British public will  be   hoodwinked by this event. we’ll have to see  whether the toffs get a royal bounce in the polls.
    Frank Keating, the Guardian’s former sports writer, has an interesting take on the 1970 election. Just four days before polling day, England, having been two goals to the good against Germany in Mexico, managed to get themselves knocked out of the competition. And  an election Wilson ought to have won., was lost.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tony. I don’t think it’s a question of being hoodwinked. It’s just that mass euphoria generated by a great and happy public event makes people feel better about everything, including the government: and general gloom, e.g. because of an unexpected defeat in some sporting event, makes people disgruntled about everything, also including the government. The Frank Keating article which you cite seems to me to get it right (I have corrected the hyperlink, I hope). I doubt whether in the case of yesterday’s royal wedding the public mood of euphoria will last very long, when it comes up against a spike in sackings and redundances, inflation and prices and a fall in disposable incomes, all resulting from the swingeing cuts in the last budget which were brought into operation on 5 April, so only now beginning to hurt.

  5. ObiterJ says:

    I do not think the Royal Wedding will do the Coalition any good.  The negatives – you listed them – massively outweight the relief which this one day of joy for many brought.
    Can Labour ever be trusted with the economy again?  Not unless they can show that their policies somehow did NOT actually bring about or contribute signficantly to the economic crisis.  They have a long long road to travel before they get anywhere near convincing the thinking electorate on this.  Of course, what I have just written is far from saying that the coalition are getting it right.  Actually, I agree with you when you refer to “self-defeating economic and fiscal policies .. choking off growth and recovery …”
    The political record of the government will be seen to be just as much a record of the Conservatives as of the Lib Dems.  I realise what you are getting at and, at times, it looks as if the Lib Dems are losing the greater amount of credibility but people are not so stupid as to think that the Lib dems are to blame for the bad bits and the Tories get the credit for the good bits.
    The Royal Wedding guest list was a shambles and I am delighted that you have posted your comment to this effect which, given your former distinguished diplomatic status, will hopefully have some impact.  You either invite all former PMs or none.  You invite the entire Diplomatic Corps or none.  We will have won no friends in Syria even though His Excellency indicated that it was not a big deal.  It was a typical knee jerk reaction to some media comment.  Invitations to these events do not indicate in any way approval or disapproval of anything.
    I am not sure why any politicians should have been granted seats near the high altar.  The “inner sanctum” so to speak should have been for family, clergy and, of course, the superb Abbey Choir.
    regards, ObiterJ

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree with virtually everything you say, although I doubt if my comments on the shambles over the wedding guest-list will make the slightest impression on those responsible for it. If The Wedding does give the government a bit of a boost, I suspect that it will be short-lived, given the pain that seems likely to be just round the corner for the economy and people’s living standards.

    I also agree that Labour has a long way to go before it can convince moderate and uncommitted opinion that its policies and actions during the years of the Blair and Brown governments were basically not responsible for the banking collapse and the recession that it brought about. This task will be made even more difficult by the constant assertions to the contrary uttered on every possible occasion by LibDem leaders and their MPs, as well of course as by the Tories, all singing to the same mendacious hymn-sheet. Nor will it be easy to persuade people of the truth that Labour’s initial measures for bringing about recovery and growth were just beginning to show results, when the newly elected coalition ditched them all and slammed the engine into reverse, bringing us now to the very edge of a double-dip recession.

    The arguments are all pretty intricate and some of them are counter-intuitive (such as that in a depression and with a big increase in government debt, the right thing for the government to do is to borrow even more and to spend even more, so as to plug the gaps left by the collapse in private sector spending and demand), so it’s easy for the coalition to deride them. Every time a Tory or a LibDem manages to drag into his or her answer on the Today programme or Newsnight that lethal phrase about “the mess we inherited from the Labour government”, it becomes just that bit more difficult for Labour to set the record straight — especially as it’s undeniably and literally true that they did inherit a dreadful mess from Labour. The point, though, is that Labour wasn’t the primary cause of the mess and that Labour was beginning to clear it up when the coalition turned up and choked off the recovery. The two Eds have a man-sized job on their hands to get any of that across.

    I’m not optimistic. My guess is that despite the misguided efforts of the coalition, by 2015 the economy will have largely recovered (more slowly and after more pain than will have been necessary), the coalition will crow about their enormous success in clearing up Labour’s mess, and Labour’s demonstration that the recovery should have happened earlier and with far less sacrifice will cut no ice at all.

  6. ObiterJ says:

    Yes, that’s politics I suppose!   The Labour Party will need to and MUST break with the Blair / Brown governments.  This may mean that they need to get a Leader and full Shadow Cabinet of people who did not serve in the Blair / Brown governments.  It is going to be difficult.
    IF there is a YES vote to AV then the Lib Dems will probably get more seats due to 2nd preference votes.  Thus they will be able to determine the future of government for decades to come.  Speaking personally, I hope this does not happen.  I think that Labour are less likely to win seats through 2nd preferences.  The Scottish Nationalists on the other hand might increase their representation by taking some Scottish seats from Labour – again through 2nd preferences.
    Of course, thanks to the disgraceful Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, there will not be an election until 2015.   I think this gerrymandering of the constitution ought to stop.  They have increased substantially the number of life peers but have enacted a reduction in the size of the Commons.
    Although it is not my area of expertise, I am not very happy with the government’s foreign affairs agenda.  We did not need to be as involved in Libya as we are.    I am wondering whether UNSCR 1973 actually permitted this attack on a place where Gaddafi was either known to be or presumed to be?  There certainly seems to be some “mission creep” involved.

    Brian writes: Thank you: I agree with almost all of this. If the current polls are accurate and unless there’s a change between now and Thursday, it looks as if the SNP will win outright in Scotland, without needing second preferences. In any case, if the last two parties left standing after the final redistribution of preferences in most Scottish constituencies are the SNP and Labour, Labour’s second preferences will never be redistributed to the SNP. On the Fixed Term Parliaments ploy (allegedly designed to prevent the Tories ditching the LibDems half-way through the parliament, calling an election, and hoping to be returned with an overall majority), if there are sufficient LibDem defections to deprive the coalition of a majority in a vote of confidence, and unless Labour could form a government with the LibDems and enough of the nationalist parties and the Green to secure an overall majority (unlikely), there would have to be an election before 2015, whatever the Fixed Term Parliaments Act might say.

    I agree with you about Libya. SCR 1973 is pretty ambiguous, or anyway flexible, but I doubt if it can be interpreted as permitting the specific targeting of Gaddafi. I suppose the coalition, or NATO, might argue that they were targeting a military command and control centre, and if Gaddafi and his family happened to be in it at the time of an attack, that’s their bad luck. Pretty unconvincing, though.

  7. Oliver Miles says:

    Is it conceivable (I know, you’ll tell me I should get out more) that Blair and Brown were not invited because the Queen disapproved of the Iraq war?
    There is evidence that she strongly disapproved of the Suez War in 1956. According to Philip Ziegler’s official biography of Mountbatten, Lord Avon (as Eden became) read an article in 1976 which implied that the Queen had been strongly opposed to Suez but unable to prevent it. When challenged the author, Robert Lacey, replied that his sources were two intimate friends of the Royal family who were in a position to know the truth. Avon taxed Mountbatten (who himself very strongly opposed Suez) with being one of the sources. “I did not attempt to deny it,” wrote Mountbatten in his diary. “I said I had been asked officially… to see this man to help him, and had answered all his questions.”

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. I suppose anything is conceivable, but I doubt (a) whether this could have been the only or even the main reason for the snub, and (b) whether the Queen would have been personally involved in drawing up the list of invitations, although I imagine she would have seen it before it went to No. 10. The media seem to believe that Prince Charles was the principal author and negotiator of the list, on what evidence (if any) I don’t know. Personally I regard the likeliest explanations from the royal family’s point of view as being T Blair’s actions after the death of Diana (I doubt if the royals saw him as having rescued the monarchy) and Cherie’s account in her memoirs of the visits to Balmoral. Speculation about David Cameron’s motives for allowing the omission of Blair and Brown to stand, or even for having recommended it in the first place, is less interesting because they are more obvious!