Who'd be a princess?

Elizabeth II may be the last royal woman not to be subjected to rampant sexist scrutiny.

The Diamond Jubilee: it’s monarchist mentality gone mad, and there are many who, like us, have pointed out the absolute pointlessness of celebrating a hereditary right to loads and loads of dosh. As royal-loving holidays go, there are worse (when attempting to explain to a foreigner why we burn effigies of a militant protestor to usher in November, you realise just how terrifying tradition can be) but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge the more sinister subtext of marking Liz II’s sixty-year rule. Sure, she’s a little less bloodthirsty than Elizabeth I, but she still operates within that system of ‘good breeding’; of sexist ascension rules; of ascension rules, full stop; and of class inequality.

The existence of a royal family is, essentially, a logical no-brainer: it just shouldn’t exist in any supposedly enlightened society. We no longer live in a country that believes in the God-given right to wear a really camp crown, and even though a few archaic laws technically still stand, we hardly enshrine that right in politics any longer. There is literally no argument, apart from that heinous little ugly sod who keeps getting carted around by the right - ‘tradition’ - to keep the royal family in place.

Speaking disparagingly of Her Maj is still seen by many as ‘not done’. We acknowledge that anyone holding down a job for 60 years and doing that job with poise and professionalism is something to be admired. It’s just a shame that there was never an interview. There is a national affection for the Queen that is perhaps surprising - unlike her offspring, she has largely escaped censure by betraying few opinions during her sixty year reign. We suspect that this may well be her secret to avoiding large-scale massacre by tabloid: like all good women who came of age in the fifties, she is most often seen and not heard.

The problem is that no one takes the royal family seriously anymore - just check out Zoo magazine’s tasteful ‘Diamond Boobilee’ cover - and that is why they have to go. Only a few metres down the road from your straight-laced, cucumber-sandwich-filled street party, we can guarantee that you will find some twentysomething exhibitionist in a Union Jack mankini, suggestively licking frosting from the fruitcake off his fingers while balancing on a gaudy throne and proclaiming: ‘I’m the real Queen around here!’ Even if you don’t live in Brick Lane, you’ll definitely come across the Sex Pistols style bunting (or ‘cunting’, as it is termed) that has been selling just as well as its serious counterparts, draped across a table of slightly warm Strongbow and a load of enthusiastic hipsters in tea dresses. The monarchy in modern times, where heirs and heiresses like the venerable Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have cashed in on cashing in by celebrifying their heredity-given status, is little more than another sarky comment in the irony-laden mire of modern culture.

We should bear celebrity reporting in mind when we conduct our ironic celebrations over the rest of the bank holiday. Enough controversy surrounded the death of Princess Diana to let us know that the media had thought of her as fair game for borderline illegal harassment, yet now she is forever enshrined by amnesiac tabloids as the British Queen of Hearts. The enormous outpouring of grief at her death could indicate that we as a nation were sympathetic to her shoddy treatment, not only by her husband but also by the papers. In picking over the details of her divorce, her private life, her inner thoughts, perhaps those readers felt complicit.

Although the entire royal family are subjected to this to some degree, it’s always the young women who bear the brunt of it. Nowadays, the cult of Pippa Middleton, or P-Middy’s, rear end - whose Ass Appreciation Society has 241,220 likes on Facebook and counting, as well as a current admonition to enjoy ‘dat ass’ at the Jubilee celebrations - has been blown well out of proportion (no pun intended). Zara Phillips, meanwhile, became a national receptacle for crowing schadenfreude and faux sympathy following her husband’s tabloid antics, while Fergie and Sophie Wessex ‘married in’ and paid the price, and Eugenie and Beatrice couldn’t even have a Jaegerbomb at Fresher’s Week without some eager paparazzo ‘conveniently’ emerging, Stasi-like, from the men’s room with a pocket cam.

Kate Middleton has now been swallowed up by this media whale, which consumes her every movement with increasing fervour and subjects her to a dehumanising ‘baby countdown’ where the words ‘breeding’ and ‘pedigree’ are all too often applied. She is fashion icon, Stepford wife and, most importantly, womb-in-waiting. It’s impossible to know how long it will be before the adulation swerves to backlash, but the media treatment of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, following her ‘failure’ to provide an heir is not promising. We can only hope the Duchess escapes the same fate.

It is often said that every little girl dreams of being a princess. Feeding your little girl to the media’s increasingly dangerous machine, which currently churns out nothing but generic tits and female ‘emotional breakdowns’, backgrounded by male stoicism and at the worst mischievous laddishness, seems like a fate worse than death nowadays. If she does bear fruit, as international insistence dictates, how will Kate feel about throwing her young into this arena? We (the royal we) can only imagine.

Yet Elizabeth, despite being the first British monarch to have her image and her words beamed instantaneously across the globe, has, by some miracle, succeeded in escaping the usual hyping up of diets, love lives, fashion, and figures - everything that in these celebrity-driven times seems to signify womanhood. This is undoubtedly something of an achievement, and perhaps our one real reason to celebrate the Jubilee is that she has remained remarkably unscathed in the face of rampant sexist scrutiny. She may be the last royal woman who does.

Royal women: The Queen with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.