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Modernising the monarchy? Hardly, says Laurie Penny

The way the royals are reported is like a Disney film.

In our storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy wellingtons over democracy.

The true purpose of the British monarchy, as the late Douglas Adams might have put it, is not to wield power, but to distract attention away from it. We can be curiously coy about the way privilege works in this country: consider, if you will, the horrified reaction to the news that Prince Charles has been allowed to dabble in the affairs of government.

Parliamentary loopholes have meant that the unelected heir to the throne has been granted power of veto over matters that affect the private interests of the Duchy of Cornwall, including road safety, planning and environmental policy. We are shocked by the reminder that the royal family is more than a tinselly relic to bring in the tourists: it actually has political influence and some of its members are uncouth enough to use it.

While all of this has been going on, there has barely been a day when the young Duke and Duchess of Cornwall have been absent from the front pages. It's as if the loveliness of the Duchess, wafting in designer gowns around various official engagements with her subtly balding beau and the international media in tow, were enough to distract the world from a nation creaking with corruption and civic breakdown.

In Britain, we are comfortable with the trappings of power as long as they are phrased in the manner of a fairy tale. At the end of last month, changes to the royal succession were made, to much fanfare, to ensure that female firstborn will be able to inherit the throne. "Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen," said David Cameron, with all the political gravitas of an episode of Jackanory. This "modernisation", which, like most recently hailed feminist triumphs, makes cosmetic alterations to the existing system while ensuring that nothing of relevance changes, is as clear a message as any that the House of Windsor intends to squat in its position of privilege for many generations to come.

Giving it welly

The real story of power and privilege in Britain is far murkier than the Disney-princess version peddled by the tabloids. In this storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy, expensive wellingtons over the democratic process.

It is worth noting, in these circumstances, that the word "privilege" actually means "private law". It means that wealthy or aristocratic influences are allowed to bend the rules to suit their own interests - and this goes on all the time behind the closed doors of Whitehall, not just with the Windsors. Documents leaked to Private Eye showed that the permanent secretary to HM Revenue and Customs personally shook hands on a deal that let off the investment bank Goldman Sachs £10m in unpaid interest on a failed tax-avoidance scheme.

The Ministry of Defence is only just staggering away from a scandal in which it emerged, among other things, that a lobbyist who had paid a reported £20,000 in expenses to Liam Fox's aide was granted face-time with the arms sales minister. Time and again, private law trumps the public interest, yet we allow ourselves to be distracted by a fairy tale of functioning democracy.

This is no time for sugarplum politics. Behind every modern fairy tale is an ancient fable of thuggery, hierarchy and blood, and the story of modern Britain is no different.

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

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Sadiq Khan to be elected mayor of London

The MP for Tooting will reclaim City Hall for Labour after eight years.

Sadiq Khan is to be elected mayor of London. Though results are still coming through, it is now mathematically impossible for anyone else to win. The Tooting MP has won City Hall back for Labour after eight years of Conservative rule.

At the time of writing, Khan is beating the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, at 45.5 per cent to 33.9 per cent, in what could be described as a landslide victory. The Green candidate Sian Berry is third with 6 per cent of the vote, followed by the Lib Dems (4.4 per cent) and Ukip (3.5 per cent). Turnout has been higher than expected, at 44.8 per cent – the highest turnout in a London mayoral election since Boris Johnson won in 2008, when it was 45 per cent (in 2012, it was 38 per cent).

The first MP of Islamic faith ever elected in London, Khan was also the first Asian and Muslim to attend cabinet meetings, after being appointed transport minister in Gordon Brown’s government in 2009. He has represented Tooting since 2005. There will be a by-election in the constituency as Khan stands down as MP.

Khan’s thumping victory is a boost for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership, after a night of disappointing local election results, and coming third in Holyrood. At the time of writing, Labour has kept the same share of seats in the London Assembly.

The result is a disaster for Goldsmith, whose campaign came under constant criticism for its scare tactics regarding Khan as a Muslim of Pakistani heritage. The Conservatives accused Khan of “pandering to extremists”.

Andrew Boff, the Conservative group leader on the Greater London assembly, called the campaign’s attempts to link Khan to Islamic extremism “outrageous” , and the outgoing Tory deputy mayor of London, Roger Evans, said it was a “foolish” campaign, which could “leave a negative legacy” for the Conservatives in London.

The result will come as a relief to pollsters, however, who were predicting at least a 12-point lead for Khan.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.