Show Hide image

Decoding the royal guest list: Laurie Penny on the new elite

Celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

The English royal family is a devious dynasty. Over centuries of bloodletting, back-stabbing and intermarriage, the monarchy has used all possible means to secure the one thing that matters to it above all else: its own survival. Although the withering of the English aristocracy has been dinner-table discussion in this country for generations, you need only glance at the publicity for the coming royal wedding to understand that the royals plan to be around for a long time yet.

After over a decade of mutual hostility, this wedding represents a strategic thawing of relations between the monarchy and the world of celebrity. Every photo shoot has been posed and distributed with care and the gossip press has been permitted to gorge itself on endless morsels of irrelevant detail about the intimate lives of the happy couple. The awful, see-through dress in which, according to the rather strained tabloid legend, the prince first saw Kate at a student fashion show is now apparently an icon of modern tailoring, even though it looks like a tinsel-edged colostomy bag.

All of this has nothing on the guest list. Alongside the usual dukes, diplomats, generals and bishops, a number of pop stars will be in attendance, including the first couple of British celebrity, David and Victoria Beckham. When the Spice Girl and the superstar footballer married in 1999, they seemed to be the people's answer to the tarnished rituals of the post-Diana aristocracy.

At their wedding, the Beckhams quite literally held court to an adoring international press on two enormous, gleaming, custom-made thrones, with matching sparkly fake crowns. For the royals, the iconography couldn't have been more baffling if Rob Brydon had bought a plastic sceptre and declared himself the prince of Wales. Yet, in a culture where the terms "rock royalty" and "fashion aristocracy" are used without irony, celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

Posh and posher

Victoria Beckham, for example, has made the transition from pouting, post-pubescent pop star - whose "Posh" moniker served only to highlight her relatively humble origins - to multimillionaire model and designer partying with royalty. Other significant wedding guests include Elton John, who has done more than anyone else to fashion the royals into a mawkish celebrity freak show.

Fourteen years after the singer howled his way through an updated version of "Candle in the Wind" at Diana's funeral, the royals have finally come out of hiding, sliding into an entente cordiale with the latest upstarts.

None of this is new: the English aristocracy has always responded to enemies it cannot face down by inviting them in. Every decade, the British declare that they have buried class and, every decade, the grave stays empty as the elite choose to evolve rather than fade away.

This royal wedding, with its guest list and sleek PR machine, might seem a refreshingly populist operation but it merely signals the determination of the British monarchy to weather the storm of celebrity. Above all, the English aristocracy are survivors and, in tight situations, it plays the class card better than anyone else.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.