The royal tour has been a staple of the British royal family playbook for as long as the mass-media age has existed. When preparing a new royal duo for primetime – either as the monarch or the heir apparent – it is seen by the palace as important to achieve some form of success overseas.
The Queen and Prince Philip managed exactly this when they embarked on a royal tour of Australia, just a year after her coronation – after an earlier trip had been cancelled by the sudden death of her father. The trip was a triumph, and was credited with halting republican sentiment in the country for decades.
Prince Charles and Diana also opted for Australia for their highest-profile trip, again attracting extraordinary crowds, but perhaps a more ambiguous success: the best-remembered photo is that of Diana crying in Sydney, and of rumours of Charles’s fury at being outshone by his then-wife.
The various palace PR teams – clearly convinced that there is no need to change a “winning” playbook even after decades pass, social media rises, and the cultural context of colonialism changes radically – decided once again to send a future monarch overseas for a PR win.
So it was that Prince William and Catherine (as the often-ignored royal protocol insists we should all call her, instead of “Kate”) took a trip to the Caribbean, including Jamaica, against a tumultuous political backdrop.
The wisdom of this decision is debatable. Jamaica has a strong movement calling for the replacement of Queen Elizabeth as its head of state, and there are numerous political tensions with the UK too – not least the Windrush scandal, still clear and present in the minds of many there, as well as their relatives living in the UK. Even if everything went smoothly, the palace was taking a risk sending William and Kate to Jamaica: there is every chance the country will debate independence within months, which would now be a personal humiliation to the future king.
Moreover, the deference to royals of the 1950s is long past, and barely even a memory. The country is also, as a society, more acutely aware of the pains of colonialism and the difficulties of appropriation. A royal merrily shaking maracas or tapping a steel drum doesn’t always come across as lovable so much as painfully awkward – at best.
That will not be the awkward visual we remember from this trip, though. That prize is won by a series of photos showing William and Kate stiffly shaking hands with a crowd – overwhelmingly black – who are pressed up against a chain wire fence. It is genuinely difficult to think of a worse visual for the royals that doesn’t involve actual criminal activity.
The reality, of course, is less damning: the royals were guests of honour at a football match, people were crowded against the chain fence to watch the game, and the couple greeted some of them as they were leaving. But if anyone should know that image is more important than reality and that this image would look particular dire, it’s the royal family – and their paid staff and minders.
It’s easy to suggest that William and Kate’s PR team should have stopped the photos happening. But in reality, they should have prevented this trip entirely. It was quite simply too high-risk a tour to be worth it. Cancelling, however, would raise one burning question: if the royals aren’t right even for glad-handing trips like this, what on Earth are they actually for?