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16 March 2024

Free Kate!

If the royal family won’t feed the machine, the machine will feed on them.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a lot to be said for diving down into a lovely, cosy rabbit hole once in a while. Firstly, they’re a good place to hide from the horror of reality; secondly, you might meet a rabbit. Actually that’s not “a lot”, in the grand scheme of things, but the world is awful, and it’s this or writing about the Tories’ self-interested destruction of the British state for the umpteenth weekend in a row, and it’s lovely and warm down here. 

And so – I’m merely asking questions, you understand – what is going on with Kate Middleton? The line in January was that the Princess of Wales would be recovering from abdominal surgery until Easter, and it is not yet Easter, so from one perspective nothing is going on. From another, though – from the perspective of TikTok, and Twitter, and the less deferential foreign press, and an increasingly noisy chunk of the British one – what aren’t they telling us? Why haven’t there been more regular updates on what the surgery was and how her recovery is going? (If the people aren’t to be regularly updated on the state of their bowels, then what’s the point of even having royals?) What is really going on? 

For the last few weeks, a growing share of the internet has dedicated itself entirely to answering this question. Official statements have been raked over like QDrops; photographs scoured for “clues”. (Do the bricks on either side of that car definitely match? Does this new picture of Kate match this old one because it’s the exact same picture photoshopped in, or merely because it’s the same woman with the same face?) A viral video put forward a detailed theory to explain how the “new” official mothers’ day picture was actually taken in November, its core thesis hinging on the fact that, thanks to modern photo-editing software, black can, in certain strictly controlled circumstances, be white. At the same time, armchair experts have relayed rumours of all sorts of medical or marital problems. Lengthy profiles of third parties have appeared online without explanation.

Like all sources of online clout, people have found themselves drifting towards nicher specialisms or more extreme positions in search of retweets. And positions once taken with knowing irony have shaded, unconsciously, into genuine obsessions. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony.) The delightful thing about this controversy, though, is that, unlike most such stories, no one actually stands to get hurt, except maybe a couple of royals; and if history has taught us anything it’s surely that they’re not actually real people with real feelings anyway. I’m not saying I believe a word of any of this – you don’t need to, to enjoy it. I’m just saying I don’t not believe it either. Join us, down here in the rabbit hole. It’s lovely.

[See also: Abolishing National Insurance is a great idea]

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There are a couple of reasons, I think, so many of us have got sucked into this nonsense. One is the aforementioned issue that, with the actual state of the country, the economy and the international landscape, all the real news is depressing. An Onion headline dating from October 2001 feels instructive: “A shattered nation longs to care about stupid bulls**t again”.

Then there’s the fact that there are few things that make a story more intriguing than refusing to tell it. Occam’s razor suggests that the Kensington Palace press team are simply not up to much in a crisis. But by doctoring a photograph, they’ve admitted that they are covering something up – even if it’s merely that it’s impossible to get all three of the royal kids to smile nicely and into a camera at the same moment.  

After that, given that no one much trusts what they see online anyway these days, there was no turning back: every official communication was inevitably going to be analysed not for what it said but for what it didn’t. It brings to mind the #FreeBritney movement that, in 2019, began finding evidence that Britney Spears’ Instagram posts were no longer being written by the singer herself, and to relay covert communications from unnamed sources claiming she was effectively being held against her will. In its barest details – anonymous insiders; a secret code, legible only to the elect – this sounded like every other celebrity conspiracy theory you’ve ever encountered. And yet, it turned out to be bang on. Why couldn’t it happen again? This time, after all, actual news agencies have said the Palace is not a trusted source.

All we know for sure at this point is that social media abhors a vacuum – and in the 21st century, providing us with stupid bulls**t is what the monarchy is for. If any one of a dozen rumours is true, the people at the heart of this story are deeply unhappy – but if they won’t feed the machine, the machine will feed on them. That so many of the rest of us are enjoying this so much nonetheless might make the strongest, if most unlikely, argument against the modern monarchy: it is, for all its luxury, cruel. It’s lovely down here in the rabbit hole. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dark.  

[See also: The King of suffering]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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