The Kate Middleton topless photos are the grossest invasion of privacy

If you buy into the worst kind of paparazzi antics, you are throwing away your own privacy too.

The royal boobs have apparently been seen. It might seem comical, or silly, or daft, a discussion that prompts sniggering and adolescent chortles. But with every fresh photo set there's a testing of boundaries going on and a new stripping away of privacy - not just of celebrities, but of all of us.

I haven't seen the photos. Why would I want to? Many media commentators have begun their discussion with a sadfaced confession: Yes, I have seen the royal breasts, I forced myself through professional necessity to look at them, like a surgeon inspecting a bundle of diseased organs.

Well no, not me. I have no interest in seeing sneaked photos of someone in private - the photographs of Kate were apparently taken while she and William were on holiday at Viscount Linley's chateau in France. Now, I don't go round on Weston Beach, say, gawping at other people's bodies, so why should I do so at home? If someone wants to walk around in their pants, so what? It's no business of mine. Let them live their lives.

Imagine walking around with a normal pocket camera, asking to take photos of someone on the beach. You wouldn't. Because you'd feel like a pervert. Because you would be. Add on a long lens and a hide, though, and suddenly this behaviour somehow becomes acceptable - acceptable enough for a magazine to pay for your dirty photos.

It's a slightly different situation from the Prince Harry pictures. He, the dozy fool, was mucking about in a Las Vegas suite the size of Blackpool, and got snapped by an onlooker. He, the buffoon (sorry, I mean the Brave Boy Battling the Taliban, having entirely coincidentally gone on a PR-boosting tour of duty since) may have been in a private space, but wasn't exactly acting in a way that didn't attract attention.

Kate, on the other hand, is not being drunk, not partying, not mucking about, but just standing there, I'm led to believe. What justification can there be for that? We all know human beings have holidays. This Kate incident has all the nasty hallmarks of the worst excesses of the paparazzi: the sneaking in bushes, the enormous long lenses, the grainy photos, the popular trashy press lapping it up.

Lapped up in France, at least. Closer magazine proudly declared that William and Kate were alone on a romantic holiday: "Well, almost. Closer was there!" Can you imagine a British magazine using such a jolly tone, post Diana?

In Britain, the dead-tree press have voluntarily agreed not to print photos of Kate other than at public engagements - not as a sop to the chilling effects of nasty Brian Leveson, by the way, but to keep things sweet with Buckingham Palace. So this is another example of national borders and old media being pretty meaningless when it comes to breaking stories.

For once, our press will be doing the right thing, though not just because it's the right thing to do. There's no public interest. There is no value other than curiosity and prurience. There is no reason for anyone to see those photos, which are a huge violation of privacy.

But how many of us are going to have a sneaky look at the photos? That's the telling factor. Searches for "Kate Middleton t*pless photos" are probably soaring into the stratosphere as I write this. People want to see. How soon before the lines get blurred again between "things people want to see" and "things which are genuinely in the public interest"? We may all claim the moral high ground, but how many of us can resist the temptation?

Royal flesh makes money. From Prince Charles's cock to Harry's bum and Kate's boobs, it seems we think we're entitled to a piece of them. I've written before about the expectations placed upon Kate, as the uterus on legs, with the maiden-aunt nation demanding she become pregnant immediately.

I don't think we are, because they're just people. Massively wealthy, privileged people, but people. So what if they have bodies, like every other person in the world? They don't belong to us.

One day it's Kate, the next it might be you with a lens hidden half a mile away taking pictures of what you're up to. If you buy into the celebrity photos, you're throwing away your own privacy.

A nice, non-invasive, picture of the Duchess of Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide