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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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