Britain’s royal family isn’t particularly powerful and is increasingly beset by scandal. Yet our fascination with them remains strong. Why?
The flow of stories is now as relentless as the tide that once faced King Canute. Every day brings wave upon wave of news items about Britain’s royal family. This week, it’s Prince Andrew’s long legal battle against Virginia Giuffre finally reaching court. Last week, it was the headline-grabbing comment from author Hilary Mantel that the monarchy would survive only two more generations. And that’s leaving aside the almost daily drip of stories about Harry and Meghan and their latest pet projects.
Like surfboarders on a Cornish beach after Covid, the public simply can’t get enough, lapping up every new wave of material. For many mid-market newspapers like the Daily Express, such royal coverage is now their lifeblood. And the broadcast and streaming media live off it, too, with the, well, crowning glory being Netflix’s The Crown, which has now been seen in 73 million households. Channel 5 regularly turn their entire evening’s schedule over to royal documentaries, while various online broadcasters have now gone one better and host a complete channel, True Royalty TV, devoted to programmes about the Windsors. Our enduring interest in the royals is now nothing short of a social phenomenon.
But why are viewers and readers so obsessed? Why is the public still fixated and not sated? After the explosion of royal crises, such as Harry’s sudden exit or Andrew’s association with a convicted sex offender, shouldn’t we expect a turn-off effect and, over time, a waning of public interest?
As someone soon to hang up his spade after a decade’s digging in the royal archives, I have been as bamboozled as anyone by their enduring appeal. I have worked for 40-plus years as a political journalist (mainly in current affairs television) without anyone taking the slightest notice of my coverage of serious topical events, but as soon as I write a couple of niche books about the royal family’s finances I suddenly find myself flooded with media requests for my views on the latest royal story.
While this may tickle one’s ego, the real reason why self-styled royal experts like me are in such demand is not for the originality of their insights – but because royal reporters are desperate for a quote from anyone. They operate in a world not only where demand for stories far outstrips supply, but also where the principals – whether senior royals or their private secretaries – only very rarely give interviews. Combined with public prurience about the royals, this palace omerta has produced the secondary phenomenon of pundit overload.
Yet the reality is that the royals are not important – certainly not when it comes to direct power. Yes, their historical continuity creates some political stability, and the sovereign’s weekly audience with the prime minister grants them a front row seat on the politics of the day. Yes, they have immense wealth and own a vast portfolio of property, which confers its own type of influence. But, at the end of the day, they exercise no coercive power – and if they did, they would be thrown off their thrones as fast as you could say, “James II’s a Catholic.”
The crowning of the Queen in 1953 prompted much talk of the dawning of a new Elizabethan age, but, during her 69-year reign, the public seem happier to pay lip service to her widely vaunted values of duty, diligence and a sense of service than to practise them in their daily lives. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to see how the Queen has in any way championed or advanced the major social and economic changes of the last seven decades, from equality of opportunity in the 1960s and feminism in the 70s to the free market in the 80s and gay rights in the 90s. The Sovereign has stayed schtum as though she had a duty to be dull – which, in a way, she does.
Of course, as a constitutional monarch, the Queen can exercise some influence through the royal prerogative. This ability to act alone, without recourse to parliamentary assent, was famously formulated by Walter Bagehot in his book on the English constitution, and encompasses the right to be consulted, as well as to encourage and warn the prime minister.
But, apart from a couple of interventions over Scottish independence (her 1977 speech to parliament on Scottish devolution “reminding ourselves of the benefits which union had conferred,” and her 2014 referendum comment to “think very carefully about the future”), she has been loath to stick her head above the political parapet. There were two historic opportunities when she could have influenced the choice of Conservative prime minister – first in 1957, when the Tory “Magic Circle” chose Harold Macmillan rather than Rab Butler as a replacement for Sir Anthony Eden, and then in 1963, when something similar happened with Macmillan being succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home instead of Butler – but on both occasions she did not use her royal prerogative to be consulted. More recently, in August 2019, she felt unable to block the proroguing of parliament by Boris Johnson’s new government, prompting some to wonder at the point of having constitutional monarchs if they were never prepared to use their royal prerogative to check the power of the executive.
Today, the Queen is the most famous woman in the world, yet few have a clue as to what she really thinks since she has never given an interview nor an unvetted speech. She is nothing more than a cipher, a blank screen on which the public project their own personal image of her. Whoever you are – whether a West Indian nurse or an American midwest housewife – you will see a totally different image from the blots on your royal Rorschach test. “Her inscrutability is the secret of her success,” noted Stephen Bates, author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand. “If we really knew anything about her thoughts the monarchy would rock.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) its secrecy, the monarchy commands considerable soft power. It is arguably the most valuable non-commercial brand in Britain and maybe the world. In 2017, the marketing agency Brand Finance calculated its worth at £67 billion and estimated that it brought in £550 million in tourism. Although some of these figures seemed plucked from the air, no one would deny that the monarchy is a major tourist draw. In 2018-19, the 2.8 million visitors to the Tower of London generated more than £30 million in revenue, while the half million visitors to Windsor Castle yielded £32 million in ticket and merchandise sales (and that does not include the £15 return rail fare from Paddington to Windsor, nor all the hotel bookings).
Polling also backs up the view that the royal family has huge pulling power. According to a March 2021 Ipsos MORI poll, almost 60 per cent of people thought that the royal family made the UK appear a more traditional and powerful country, and more Britons said the abolition of the monarchy would make Britain’s future worse (43 per cent) than better (17 per cent). In other polls, support for the monarchy has remained constant at around 65 per cent.
But it was not ever thus. In the late 1960s, the monarchy was seen as out of touch. I well remember my parents then voicing a common sentiment by describing the Queen as “boringly middle class” and out of kilter with the swinging times. When the palace eventually accepted that it had an image problem, its solution was to open its doors to a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew to record a year in the life of the Queen. Royal Family proved a huge success in that it was watched by 38 million people (68 per cent of the population) and the royals came across as a relatively normal, likable brood (with Prince Philip famously struggling to cook sausages on the family barbecue), but to some crustier courtiers this attempt to buy popularity had let in too much daylight to the secret world of the monarchy. Henceforth, the royal brand would be updated little by little, like a Marmite jar whose packaging is imperceptibly changed, and the palace would use private polling to finetune its public image. The genie was now out of the bottle and the royals were regarded by the media as fair game, like any other celebrities who had sacrificed their privacy for publicity.
But is the enduring appeal of the royals simply down to them becoming another branch of celebrity? Clearly, their collective profile has been boosted enormously by the public’s obsession with the lives of the famous, with their designer clothes and glitzy lifestyles. But they are not celebrities in the classic sense: they cannot resign (with the exception of Prince Harry’s in-part-forced retirement) and, more importantly, they have a thousand-year history back to the first Windsor Castle behind them. Unlike the showbiz crowd, they are here for keeps – in every sense.
They have also benefited from the global wave of populism that has seen new leaders ride roughshod over democratic norms. With their Ruritanian image, the royals fit in with some populist ideals. But, as an actual functioning institution in Britain’s constitutional setup since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they also represent stability and tradition – and their presence provides a degree of reassurance.
Clearly, the explanation for their lasting popularity lies not with a single factor but with a combination of forces, each feeding off one another. In my experience of working closely with royal reporters, there is a tripartite compact between the palace, press and public. The palace needs the press because, as the Queen memorably put it, “we have to be seen to be believed”. The press needs the palace because royal stories sell papers. And the public needs the palace to satisfy its appetite for bread and circuses. As the legendary reporter Ed Murrow once pointed out, as justification for fronting a downmarket TV programme that pried into the private lives of famous people such as the Duke of Windsor, the most universal human urge is “rampant curiosity… ordinary people’s fascination with the private lives of famous people”. We’re nosy about the noblesse.
What this social contract is producing is a soap opera between consenting adults. Prince Charles once admitted to Jeremy Paxman that “we are in a soap opera,” while the Queen Mother acknowledged “what a lot of our lives we spend in acting”. The political commentator Philip Collins has said that, when it comes to royal reporting, “they are not stories; they are fairy tales”. The phenomenal popularity of Netflix’s The Crown – with its cocktail of one third factual truth, one third plausible whispers, and one third pure fantasy – points to what the public really wants. Not too much reality. If it had been entirely or even two thirds accurate, then one suspects it would never have been a hit.
But when it comes to our current royal soap opera, is there a danger that ratings will fall off a cliff when the Queen falls off her perch and is replaced by Prince Charles? No doubt the popularity of the monarchy will plummet when the less revered Charles – currently going through a cash-for-favours scandal, of course – is on the throne.
Yet, conversely, a change of monarch might increase interest in the royal family simply by providing a new plotline and a new lead actor. To keep the public hooked, after all, every long-running show requires a refreshing reboot.
David McClure is a television producer, writer and journalist and author of The Queen’s True Worth: Unravelling the public & private finances of Queen Elizabeth II.
He recently attended a ThinkIn on the furore around Prince Charles’ financial dealings with one of his charities’ donors. Tap below to watch it.