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20 years after Diana's death, we still do not want the royal family to be happy

We’ve kept all the duties, the dehumanisation, the gilded cages; but now the poor bastards don’t even get to invade France in return.

When I was a child, I had a bible: it lived in Worcester public library, and its name was Lives Of The Queens of England. It came in stiff, forbidding volumes, each opening with an illustration of a woman in the clothes of her time. The names started off exotic – Berengaria of Navarre, Philippa of Hainault, a flotilla of Matildas and Eleanors – and gradually became more familiar, arriving at women I already knew from the pages of my beloved Jean Plaidy novels.

That book has stayed with me, not least because every so often on a trip through Europe I will encounter a place, like Cleves or Modena, I have only ever known as the source of a queen. But mostly what has stayed with me is the sadness. Until the scandalous Elizabeth Woodville – the older woman, with two sons already, who seduced and secretly married Edward IV – these royal brides were imports. At the edge of puberty, they were torn away from their family, their home, their language, and sent to marry a man many years older than them, toughened by war or roughened by years of pleasure-seeking. (Elsewhere, some lost even their names: Caterina of Florence became Catherine in France; Maria Antonia of Austria, Marie Antoinette.)

The queens led to princesses, and soon I was reading about girls my own age whose families loved them, but took care not to get too attached, knowing they were only temporary residents in their homes. I developed a passionate sympathy for Mary, Princess of Orange, and was happy that she was able to shelter her brother Charles II during his exile; she must have presumed when she left for Holland in 1642, aged 11, that they would never meet again. At 14, Marie Antoinette found herself stripped of everything she had – clothes, attendants, even her pug, Mops – at the French border, in order to be remade as a dauphine of France.

All that explains why I never wanted to be a princess. Why would any modern girl? You’re just a tiara and a uterus, good for opening garden centres and ensuring the succession. As Hilary Mantel noted in the Guardian on 26 August, anyone who romanticises princesses and “fairytale weddings” needs to read more. “Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification,” she wrote. “They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns.”

Born in 1983, I came in on the Diana story towards the end, and wasn’t around for the beginning. I’m used to thinking of the Britain of the 1950s as antique and class-ridden; but what were the 1980s about? I find it extraordinary that two years before I was born, we were still anxious that the heir to the throne should marry a virgin. It now seems so… impolite, so outrageously invasive that Diana’s sexual experience should have been anyone’s business but her own.

Since then, I can’t help feeling that we’ve done to the monarchy what the Church of England has done to religion: made it palatable for modern tastes by scrubbing away many of its essential features. Just as Anglicans would find thundering about hellfire and sodomy exquisitely embarrassing, so Britons prefer to focus on the waving and the garden parties, and tidy away the hereditary principle and the bit where the sovereign is anointed by God. Hence those polls that crop up every so often suggesting lots of us would rather the monarchy skipped Charles and went straight to William. That’s not how it works, guys. Accept the arbitrary rules or don’t play the game at all.

Because of her beauty, and her early death, it is orthodoxy to regard Diana as a helpless victim of circumstances and Charles as a callous philanderer. That simple picture doesn’t do justice to the cruelty of the whole system of royalty in its modern incarnation. Charles seems to have been brutalised by his upbringing just as much as his bride was by hers. We’ve kept all the duties, the dehumanisation, the gilded cages; but now the poor bastards don’t even get to chop anyone’s head off or invade France in return.

Antonia Fraser points out that the apparent barbarity of Marie Antoinette’s stripping would not have felt so acute to an 18th century royal: they were used to a complete lack of privacy, from being dressed in the morning to having their bedsheets inspected after a wedding night. To us, that code seems abhorrent, and yet we are still happy to inflict it on our supposedly beloved monarchy. No sooner was Kate Middleton out of her lace McQueen than the world tried to see into her womb.

Big deal, you might say. They’re welcome to step down, turn Buckingham Palace into a Lidl and enjoy their millions in peace. But that’s not fair: we need the royal family, and they know it. The Queen is one of the few uniting symbols of Britain, someone who belongs as much to a newly minted citizen as a blue-blooded aristocrat.

The BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days showed the public to be excruciating in its neediness in the days after the death of Tony Blair’s “People’s Princess”. Even now, her sons struggle to articulate the effect of trying to mourn for their mother while performing dignified grief for the crowds outside the palaces. Harry admitted with grim satisfaction that he had never cried in public; he was pleased to have kept some part of his relationship with his mother private.

What do we want from the monarchy? We want the impossible. We want them not to be human: to be symbols, to be myths, to be icons. And we want them to do this in an age of smartphones and long lenses. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we hate our royal family as much as we love them; certainly we don’t seem to care if they are happy.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.