Heavy is the head

How can the Royals remain relevant? Madeline Grant says they should start thinking local

April 23 2020


Within days of his recent disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight, Prince Andrew was recalled from royal duties, forbidden from joining relatives for the Sandringham church service, excluded from photo calls, and expelled from his private office in Buckingham Palace. The sheer speed of his defenestration shows that ‘The Firm’, though hardly in rude health, still works with cold-eyed efficiency when required. Witness the Queen’s swift move to prevent the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from using the word ‘Royal’ in their future projects.

Neutering tricky branches of the family tree may be part of the solution, but the Royal Family is still ignoring an increasingly iconoclastic public mood. These days, much of the public is tiring of celebrities preaching liberal left orthodoxies. That is why host Ricky Gervais’s speech at the Golden Globes in January, eviscerating Hollywood’s A-list for double standards, was a hit.

Yet the Royals have too often acted like celebrities themselves, projecting ‘virtue’ while exposing their own hypocrisies. Earlier this year, Prince Charles flew 125 miles by helicopter to make a speech about lowering aircraft emissions. The Sussexes’ decision to take a private jet last summer after campaigning on climate change has not endeared them to the public. Nor has their obvious desire to commercialise their royal status, despite claims of wanting a more private life.

After a dramatic 2019, the House of Windsor can reassess its future. First, it could abandon the focus on complex issues such as climate change and inequality. These cannot be solved with royal intervention, and making lofty pronouncements about them may further divide the nation. Instead, it should return to its traditional beat – highlighting deserving causes and spreading joy. The Royals must rediscover their traditional commitment to charity and social justice, rooted in the local – hospitals, hospices, veteran welfare, school sports, worthy and sometimes weird and wacky causes. The success of schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the Prince’s Trust, the Invictus Games, and the Duchess of Cambridge’s focus on early-years development, prove that the Royals succeed when they restrict their social justice to narrower, achievable goals. The Monarchy should never be a pulpit from which to lecture on changing the world.

The joylessness grates too. My favourite childhood memories were of the Royals. There were the glossy-magazine shots of Princess Diana, post-separation, all tanned legs, eyeliner, and perfectly coiffed hair. But another royal stands out: The Queen Mother, ever smiling, wearing a bright bucket hat, like a merry chrysanthemum. A relative who worked for her told us that she loved Marmite and Fawlty Towers. As a family of Marmite-loving Fawlty Towers watchers, it spoke to us. The Queen Mother was also a big spender, racking up vast debts before her death, and, say many who worked with her, often tipsy. But she had something jolly and carnivalesque about her.

Since then, our culture has changed. Princess Diana’s death prompted a flood of lachrymosity that revealed how much had changed since citizens lined Winston Churchill’s funeral procession with dry-eyed respect three decades earlier. Many would argue that the Royals’ current focus on mental health fits these changing times. But the Royals cannot quiet the nation’s anxious minds, nor meet the Net Zero carbon target by preaching. Their input is unlikely to make a difference. These are political questions, and problematic ones.

Today’s royals face challenges, as the Sussexes’ failed attempt to combine their role with being celebrity influencers shows. They cannot lead by example, like Victoria and Albert, who extolled the virtues of monogamy, family life, and bourgeois decency, because society is less deferential. Where once it guided morals, the Royal Family today is more likely to influence fashion at best; to reflect contemporary mores at worst. They should instead look to royals who fill their schedules with unglamorous causes. Take Princess Anne, whose unshowy work ethic has won great public respect. Even minor royals can contribute greatly to the gaiety of nations. The Duke of Gloucester is the patron of the Richard III Society (to which I belong) – an eccentric collection of amateur historians and conspiracy theorists, intent on revising the reputation of this much-maligned king. When the Duke attends the AGM it means the world to us.

Such royal involvement brings great joy. Rather than big ideas, perhaps the House of Windsor should sweat the small stuff.

Madeline Grant is a writer for The Telegraph