Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Commuters read copies of the Evening Standard newspaper, featuring a front page headline about the engagement of Britain's Prince William to Kate Middleton, at Victoria rail station in London, November 16, 2010. Britain's Prince William is to marry his long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton next year, after an on-off courtship lasting nearly a decade, bringing months of speculation about his intentions to an end. (Paul Hackett/Reuters/Paul Hackett/Reuters)
Commuters read copies of the Evening Standard newspaper, featuring a front page headline about the engagement of Britain's Prince William to Kate Middleton, at Victoria rail station in London, November 16, 2010. Britain's Prince William is to marry his long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton next year, after an on-off courtship lasting nearly a decade, bringing months of speculation about his intentions to an end. (Paul Hackett/Reuters/Paul Hackett/Reuters)

A royal revival in the public's image Add to ...

It appears to be a trend in Britain: When things are at their darkest, with rioters on the streets, unemployment rising, the pound falling and governments slashing budgets, the country will rescue its mood by marrying the heir to the throne to an attractive bride and falling in love with the ruling classes again.

More related to this story

It happened in 1981, when a Conservative government faced economic decline, general strikes and a public angry at budget-slashing austerity; suddenly, Prince Charles hooked up with Lady Diana Spencer, the whole country fell for her and troubles were forgotten for months.

And it happened once again on Tuesday, with the announcement of the marriage of Charles's eldest son William to Kate Middleton next year.

It was the culmination of one of those moments when Britain, badly bruised by economic and political devastation, had reversed its earlier view of the land-owning classes.

"A few years back I would have bet my socks that the electorate would resist voting for a government dominated by people who may not all be aristocrats, but who speak in accents, and conduct themselves in a fashion, identified with the old ruling class," observes Max Hastings, the veteran London columnist and social observer. "After decades in which it has become a cliché to assert that 'we are all middle class now,' toffs have climbed out of the tomb."

It was only five years ago, at the height of the economic boom, that Britain witnessed the unlikely spectre of aristocrats rioting on the lawn outside Westminster, green-Wellington-clad country gentlemen smashing property and being truncheoned by bobbies over a Labour Party government bill to ban the fox hunt.

That year also saw the Diana Memorial Fountain open in Hyde Park to general public derision and widespread disinterest, a damp squib of a moment that marked the low ebb of public concern for the monarchy: After the brief flare of affection provoked by her 1997 death, there was a long hangover.

And just as suddenly, the world has turned upside down again: Now, with the boom years decidedly over, the green leather benches of the House of Commons are occupied by the most aristocratic government in modern history. Its cabinet is packed with the children of the landed gentry - including both Prime Minister David Cameron, an Old Etonian grandchild of nobility married to a blue-blooded wife, and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, grandchild of Russian aristocrats.

Britons happily elected this plummy-accented government at the very moment they turned Downton Abbey, a TV series that celebrates nineteenth-century aristocrats housed in country manors as enviable figures, into the biggest television event of the decade, its interiors and wardrobes influencing middle-class design and dress and inspiring a spinoff industry of pro- toff literature and journalism.

So, as things went from bad to worse in the economy this autumn and scenes of angry rioters filled the TV screen, a royal revival seemed almost inevitable.

This week, as in 1981, news of the wedding arrived as a deus ex machina for the government of the day, rescuing politicians from awkward situations.

The headlines Wednesday morning would have carried news of the government paying millions in compensation to its former Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and of Mr. Cameron deciding it was a bad idea to have his personal photographer on the public payroll; instead, the young couple buried all other news.

Today, it might seem as if the blue-bloods are back on the podium, and the commoners rioting in the streets outside, a return to a certain sort of British normalcy.

But it isn't quite what it seems. In some ways, it is a complete reversal: In 1981, the people were turning to the upper classes for reassurance. Now, the aristocrats are turning to the people.

"It is superficially the same, but this is not the same world it was in 1981 - those days are gone forever," said author Peter York, whose chronicles of the moneyed classes - including The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, a dissection of the fashionable band of aristocrats that produced Diana - were bestsellers in the 1980s.

"For one thing, I sense that the public are decidedly underwhelmed by this. And besides, she's a commoner."

Indeed, while Diana, 19 at the time, had a background more aristocratic than her husband's, Ms. Middleton is untitled, the 28-year-old child of people who actually work for a living - her mother was a flight attendant and her father an air-traffic controller.

And, in the ultimate reversal of roles, whereas all of Britain seemed determined to imitate Diana in 1981, adopting her hairstyle and clothing tastes, today it is the prospective monarchs who are imitating us: Prince William has adopted the clothing, musical tastes and even the Estuary-English accent of the ordinary British subject. That was evident in Tuesday's wedding announcement, which seemed to become a contest in which blue-bloods outdid each other to sound more common than the TV hosts who interviewed them.

Prince William, it emerged, refers to Michael Francis Middleton, the man who will soon be his father-in-law as "Mike," and Mr. Middleton, for his part, described the future king and his wife as "going together." William confessed that he had carried the wedding ring in his backpack for three weeks, waiting for the right moment to drop the question - the sort of language and behaviour that could not have been imagined from monarchs and aristocrats even a decade ago.

And Ms. Middleton's prospective mother-in-law, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, outdid them all by loudly describing the wedding announcement news as "wicked." She did not mean it was sinful; rather, in high-school slang, she meant that it was truly awesome indeed.

So the people may have embraced their well-heeled gentry once again to get through a bleak moment, but this time, Britons have been careful to make the upper classes fit their own popular image.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories