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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

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change