DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Why the Royal Family keep proving the sneering snobs wrong...
Whatever you think of our Royal Family, you cannot deny that they have a great sense of timing.
With the economic forecasts gloomy, the headlines dominated by the Brexit stalemate and even the weather taking an Arctic turn, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle picked precisely the right moment to give everyone a lift with the news of their engagement.
It is, of course, obligatory among the chattering classes to roll one’s eyes at the prospect of a royal wedding. But the great majority of ordinary British people love them. No wonder, then, that on a grey, dreary Monday morning, the news of Prince Harry’s engagement felt like such a tonic.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle officially announced their engagement at Kensington Palace in London, on Monday?
And who could argue with his choice? After all, the Royal Family’s new recruit could hardly be accused of lacking star quality. A former actress in the U.S. TV series Suits, Ms Markle brings the kind of media-friendly showbiz appeal that should ensure a gigantic worldwide TV audience.
And if that sounds a little cynical, we ought to remember that monarchy is nothing if not a spectacle. Its magic has always resided in a unique blend of domesticity and pageantry, the everyday and the extraordinary — which is why weddings capture it better than almost any other occasion.
Indeed, it is only a slight stretch to argue that you could write the history of modern Britain entirely through royal weddings. First there was the marriage of the current Queen — then Princess Elizabeth — to Prince Philip in November 1947, at a time when a victorious but exhausted nation was struggling with the rigours of post-war austerity.
In a sign of the times, the bride’s satin white dress had to be paid for with ration coupons. Yet even though the event took place on a freezing, foggy day in November, thousands camped out overnight to ensure ringside seats — a sign of the patriotic solidarity that had carried the nation to victory only two years earlier.
Of the three major royal weddings that followed, each coincided with a particularly grim period in Britain’s fortunes. When Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips in November 1973, the mood could hardly have been bleaker. Only days earlier, with the miners preparing to strike, the government had declared a state of emergency, including severe curbs on heating and light.
Similarly, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981, the wedding took place only weeks after the worst inner-city riots in modern British history, with unemployment soaring and the Thatcher government struggling to stay afloat.
When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981, the wedding took place only weeks after the worst inner-city riots in modern British history
Even the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, which lingers in the memory as a glorious patriotic party, took place against a troubled political and economic background, with Britain struggling out of recession and the coalition government pushing for deep spending cuts to tackle our yawning deficit.
In each case, the circumstances could hardly have been less propitious. In each case, more cynical commentators, especially on the Left, predicted public apathy and a wretched turnout.
And on each occasion, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people defied the forecasts by pouring into Central London. More than 25 million watched William and Kate’s union on television. So much, then, for the naysayers.
To outside observers, I suppose it must seem odd for a supposedly stoical, serious people to get so carried away about the prospect of a royal wedding. But a nation is, at heart, an extended family, and at the centre of any family is the union between husband and wife.
Prince Harry and Miss Markle's 16-month whirlwind romance blossomed when they met through mutual friends
Miss Markle showed off her sparkling engagement ring, which Harry designed himself, made from two diamonds which belonged to his late beloved mother Diana, Princess of Wales
Even at a time when the traditional family seems so embattled by social and cultural change, it would take extraordinary churlishness not to be moved by the spectacle of two young people committing themselves to a shared future.
And since the monarchy itself is the supreme symbol of our own shared past, present and future, Prince Harry’s wedding will be a chance for the United Kingdom’s four nations to remember the ties of history and culture that still bind us.
But there is, of course, a very distinctive element to the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
It is not just the fact that she is an actress, an American and a divorcee — all of which would effectively have disbarred her only a few decades ago.
As the child of a white father and black mother, Ms Markle has never been shy of proclaiming her pride in her mixed-race heritage.
Indeed, her background could hardly be more different from the blue-blooded princesses who were once hand-picked from the courts of Europe to marry British princes.
For Ms Markle traces her descent not from dukes or countesses, but from slaves. In fact, one of her ancestors was liberated from his Georgia plantation only in 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, when according to family lore he took the name Wisdom.
Prince Harry and Miss Markle share a tender moment after announcing their engagement?
As an investigation by the Mail found a few weeks ago, some of Ms Markle’s forebears worked as maids, janitors, tailors and factory workers, toiling in an atmosphere of poverty and segregation that would have been unimaginable to Prince Harry’s forebears.
Given her background, Ms Markle could hardly make a more obviously modern royal bride. And that, I think, makes it all the more striking that she has been accepted so smoothly into the bosom of the British royal establishment.
Satirists often like to present the British court as the quintessence of fusty, reactionary traditionalism.
Yet the fact that the Royal Family has made so little fuss about her background is, I think, immensely revealing.
We live in an age of ludicrous hysteria about racial matters, with even our great universities having been infected with absurd nonsense about ‘decolonising’ the curriculum to boot off white authors.
Indeed, if the royal household were run by the people in charge of our universities, or indeed by executives at the BBC, then Prince Harry’s wedding would probably be the occasion for all sorts of breast-beating about the supposed ‘crimes’ of the British Empire. Thank goodness it isn’t.
As so often, the Queen and her advisers are far more sensible than the high-minded intellectuals who love to sneer at them. Indeed, the monarchy as an institution has always been far more flexible and forward-thinking than its critics realise.
Miss Markle, pictured, with Prince Harry after announcing their engagement, is expected to become a duchess
In this respect, it’s the overexcited, doom-mongering metropolitan elite that is out of touch.
By contrast, the monarchy, with its quiet tolerance and gentle adaptability, allied to its respect for tradition, is much more in tune with the great majority of the British people.
Still, I expect there will be plenty of whingeing from the chattering classes as Prince Harry’s wedding approaches.
No doubt some Guardian columnist will demand that Prince Harry snap his sword in two in repentance for Britain’s role in Afghanistan.
Most sane, patriotic people, though, will simply get on with enjoying the party. For although historians are often atrociously bad at predicting the future, I think it’s a safe bet that the big day will see vast flag-waving crowds, massive worldwide coverage, torrents of merchandise and more than a few tears in the spectators’ eyes.
Nothing rouses the nation like a royal wedding, for we are, at heart, a sentimental, even romantic people.
And despite the hand-wringing of the Left, we remain what we have always been: a phlegmatic country keenly aware of tradition, yet tolerant of outsiders, at ease with the modern world — and brought together by the magic of monarchy.
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