Here’s a topic that’s bound to delight everyone.
The best way I can think of to understand the social place of the British monarchy is as a very modern influencer content-marketing and celebrity management operation, the influencer house of Windsor. Starting in the late 1960s, there was a deliberate project to reinvent the institution in this way, and perhaps understanding this might tell us a lot more both about the monarchy itself and about similar business models elsewhere.
The key to this project is the media rota – since the 60s, the courtiers who manage these things have an understanding with a self-selected group of journalists, the royal correspondents, that a different royal will be providing news on each successive day. This is actually what Harry and Meghan quit. As I tweeted at the time, it’s hugely important to understand that this weird institution exists quite separately of the formal, constitutional one.
Of course this stuff is not news – how could it be? Rather, it is content, in the generic sense of “content-delivery network” or “content management system”, the stuff that the media distributes. More precisely, it is celebrity content, in the generic sense of “celebrity” that Jezebel used to use on its masthead, or the way the Financial Times rolls fashion, jewellery, hotels, and much else into a generic luxury industry.
We can understand this set-up, getting on for 50 years old, as a very modern arrangement where intermediaries – the professional courtiers – have promised sponsors – the royal correspondents – a daily ration of content from their stable of celebrity influencers. It’s the intermediaries who get to choose what’s offered to the sponsors. The sponsors, in this case, sell this content to a wider market of consumers or, to use a now old-school Internet term, eyeballs.
The courtiers get a celebrity audience and do quite all right for themselves. Everyone laughed at the royal lobby getting hoaxed, but you have to admire the chutzpah of turning the job of alternatively sucking up to and betraying aristocrats into a hereditary office, like the royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter and his daughter Victoria. Beyond that they had at least the illusion of control over their assets’ image. It’s an illusion, because the only people with real control over our rotten media, and especially, its interconnected and independent management elite, are the litigious billionaires who own it. Everyone else who treats with them rides the tiger.
The sponsors get to feed a real market. The market is worth discussing. Polling suggests about 20% of the public hates the monarchy for various reasons. In my experience a disturbingly large chunk of this group thinks it’s terribly dangerous and edgy, but tells you how much they hate the Queen right after they tell you which Oxford college they went to, although that may say more about me than anything else.
More practically, this group is 20% of the public and a bit weird in that they care a lot about the monarchy, and they’re usually quite convinced, so there’s not much point marketing content to them. There’s a much smaller group of true believers who really believe in monarchy as such, as a form of government, but they’re incredibly rare and really incredibly weird, to the point where they quite often believe strongly in monarchy but would like to replace the current royal family with a different royal family. The last time I met one of these people, I was at a corporate event at the Tower of London and he kept asking the guides, with an inclination of the head he had clearly copied from the late Princess of Wales, if that good and martyred saint, Charles, might have been incarcerated there before his execution. (He wasn’t.) Even if we count in the substantial number of people who are associated with some institution or other that has royal patronage, though, we’ll be lucky to get to 5% of the population. This is, as we have seen, a weird 5% and it’s also a 5% full of people who are too committed to back out now, whether it’s because their commitment rests on something real or because once you’re arguing for the restoration of the Stuarts and the divine right you’re never going to live that down.
That leaves the great bubbling churning mass of the nation, the 75%. I break this into two groups – the indifferent, and the consumers of monarchy. The indifferent are easy – they literally don’t care. The institution doesn’t change their lives in any way and wisely enough they don’t waste their time thinking about it. The consumers are the ones who follow them on Instagram, read the mags, buy the merch, and really love royal weddings. The distinction is, I think, just one between fans of celebrity in general, and everyone else – I suspect the correlation between consuming royal content and celebrity more broadly is probably close to perfect. It’s important to note here that the consumers might look like true believers because they participate in the cult, but they should not be confused with them. For one, I suspect our man at the Tower would consider the whole thing terribly gauche, kitschy, and déclassé. Similarly, you get people who take every opportunity to tell you how much they don’t care, giving a strong impression they care rather a lot – one way or another, whether they actually hate the institution or whether they are secretly fascinated, they’re not genuinely indifferent.
We can sum up by saying that the challenge is to satisfy the consumers while remaining inoffensive to the indifferent. There is an obvious tension between these two aims. Satisfying the consumers’ craving for content means that the content must get spicy to drive engagement. It also means that it has to observe the story-arc conventions of the format, conventions that are built into the practices of the media outlets and internalized as tropes by an increasingly knowing, cynical, and self-referential audience. Manufacturing conflict and setting up the tension from first-act wedding bells, to second-act backlash and eventually third-act comeback – essentially, what just happened – is both necessary to the project and very likely to collide with the desire of the indifferent to stay that way.
You’ll observe I haven’t mentioned racism even once. This is quite deliberate. I have chosen instead to focus on the role of our disgusting media establishment, the real defining institution of the polity, which is after all both the single biggest obstacle to doing anything about racism and the biggest promoter and exploiter of racism in the country. And, after all, this is what Meghan Markle literally said, and we should take that seriously:
But if you’re saying the title is going to affect their protection, we haven’t created this monster machine around us in terms of click bait and tabloid fodder. You’ve allowed that to happen, which means our son needs to be safe
The problem is not the theoretical constitution and its supposedly premodern survivals. It is the effective constitution – how the system works. That, I think, is as modern as anything, defined by the early 20th century press barons, renewed by the latest content marketing practices, and rotten to the root.