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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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.