Prince William tries to project normality with his ever-smiling wife – a walking embodiment of the old joke about women who laugh at salad – but monarchy is the pin he dances on, and last week in the Caribbean he fell off. He did not fall off because the optics were bad, though they were. He fell off because they were truthful. And the reckoning – there were protests everywhere he trod – was inevitable.
Monarchy – like the British Commonwealth, born out of bloodshed in the British colonies – is a relic. It is not only pre-modern but pre-Christian. Royal survival depends day-to-day on its contortions in what are supposed to be modern liberal democracies. The British monarch is head of state in 14 countries beyond Europe, of which 11 are non-white majorities. In the UK, support for it is an inch deep and a mile wide, and outside of Britain it is ebbing faster. Andrew Holness, the Jamaican prime minister, told William his country was “moving on” – to the prince’s face. Deference is thin, and getting thinner.
Still, the contortions can be effective. Elizabeth II’s success depended on Britain’s wartime triumphs (in old photographs, she and Winston Churchill seem to melt into one another like ghosts), the projection of gratitude (she stood for hours in the rain at the 2012 diamond jubilee flotilla on the Thames, a sodden minor god), and, more importantly, reluctance. She has always seemed a reluctant queen, doughty and self-aware. It is useful that the only job she has ever had beyond princess and queen is a mechanic.
Sometimes I imagine in the edge of an expression or in the ghost of an eyeroll that she thinks her role is as silly as I do. But monarchs are designed to be projected on to, and the good ones welcome it. By far the best photograph of the Queen shows her in white with closed eyes. She looks exhausted, which fits her myth: you can get away with anything if people think you are doing it for their sakes.
Each would-be monarch has their own character and their own self-made myth. Charles’s myth is fuzzy at the edges – Hanoverian grandeur, English eccentricity and a rather grating, other-worldly self-absorption. His sacrifice (and monarchists demand sacrifice for their attention) is too reluctant to be convincing. His desire to make the Duchess of Cornwall – the woman with whom he betrayed his dead wife – his queen is self-serving and long schemed-for.
William’s job is harder because the world has changed and he cannot disguise what he is, in the Caribbean or anywhere else: a white, privileged millennial with a clutch of palaces and more money than most of his future subjects, who believe as much in fairness as in the powers of his witch-goddess grandmother, can imagine. He may say “call me William” and impersonate a normal man, but there is nothing ordinary about him beyond his moderate personal gifts. His mother’s death should have been a cautionary tragedy about what happens when human beings are deified – few can morally or practically survive it. But instead it offered him a bitter kind of temporary protection, for if there had been no public hunger for photographs of Princess Diana, she would not have been chased into that Parisian tunnel. His popularity, at least partially, is the result of guilt.
William projects personal decency, and his causes are close to modern hearts: the importance of mental health, environmentalism and, obliquely through his work with Centrepoint, poverty (though he cannot, of course, identify the true cause of this poverty – if he did, the house of cards would collapse on his own head). But any rich white man advocating for a fair and rational society from a palace is a contradiction.
In the UK, we are slow to realise that monarchy is not a kind of magical protective spell. It is, at heart, class advocacy. And in the former colonies in the Caribbean, it is racist advocacy. It’s a nonsense to argue that the royal family is not political. It is conservative; the font from which flow the arguments for inherited wealth and inherited power. No monarchy can be a fair society.
In the Caribbean, where Jamaicans have a British queen but cannot visit the UK without a visa, and where David Cameron in 2015 offered to build a prison as reparation – and not as a joke – people are perfectly aware of how the British monarchy benefited from slavery. Enslaved Africans sold by the Royal African Company were branded with the initials of the Duke of York. King William IV argued against the abolition of slavery. The potential future King William V expressed “profound sorrow” for the transatlantic slave trade on his Caribbean tour, but he could not go further without advocating for his own abolition as would-be monarch.
The case for slavery and the case for a white king in Jamaica cannot be separated. They are the same case. The tour photographs exposed that horribly: a car with a raised platform from which white people smiled at black people below; the clutching of black hands through a fence that looked strangely like a cage.
Like his grandmother, who has lost 17 realms in her time, William collapsed relatively gracefully. “I know,” he said, “that this tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future. In Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, that future is for the people to decide upon.” What else could he say? That non-European countries need European rulers to thrive?
Pro-monarchy commentators will say the tour was rushed and badly planned. Perhaps it was, but that is not the reason it failed – it was only the moment it failed. Monarchy is irrational, and so inherently unstable. Let daylight in upon the tinny magic, and it turns to dust.
This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain