Saturday, 20 November 2010

Prince Philip, Kate Middleton and the rise of a new class system

The Duke of Edinburgh is the thinking royal-watcher's crumpet. In a speech released on Fieldsports Britain this week, he said that the media is the second most important establishment of state. I assumed he would say the royal family is the most important. But he doesn't - and he goes on to say that he doesn't know whether politics is more important than media or not. That doesn't much matter. Whether it's (1) royals, (2) media and (3) politics or (1) politics, (2) media and royals are over and above this tawdry ranking, he makes an admission that redraws British social boundaries in just a couple of sentences.
What Prince Philip is talking about is who runs society in Britain and what society is. We all know what it was. In 1946, when he married Princess Elizabeth, society was class-based (As Ronnie Corbett said: "I am working class and I look up to him") and it was run by politicians with a solid 'establishment' background. Establishment in those days had a lot to do with the landed aristocracy.
The class system was Britain's shariah law - it helped keep order but it had drawbacks. Between the 1980s and today, it has been replaced.
Today, we have a system based on people either having privilege, comfort or discomfort. People are defined by the level of comfort in which they live. Andrew Neil came up with the first knockings of this replacement or class when he edited The Sunday Times in the 1980s: he is the one credited with driving an agenda that 'retail' is news.
Where does this leave the royals? There's a vicious darwinism attached to being a royal. They are always at the mercy of events. So the Romanovs ran out of luck in revolutionary Russia just as the Grimaldis in Monte Carlo lucked out by owning the casino.
Our modern royals emerged from being what may now be described as gang bosses in the 15th century, through being the leaders of military juntas, to being emperors and now having to find a new role. At worst, that will be as spokespeople for the privileged classes. But I think they are going to do better than that.
Our royals have always managed to keep a foot in the other classes. For the working classes, they have put on super events such as the plucky Queen Mum visiting the East End while German bombs rain down. The middle classes have been the toughest nut for the royals to crack. Now that Kate Middleton has joined up, they can claim the middle classes as stakeholders in a right royal future.
What's so joyful for the royals is that the Middletons represent more than a middleclass that doesn't exist any more. Their online toyshop, Party Pieces, puts them firmly at the heart of retail Britain, of the aspiring comfortable class. Mr and Mrs Middleton are members of a suburban class who may be descibed as 'upwardly rural'. This is Dodi marrying Diana brought up to date and managed effectively by the Palace for the benefit of the royal family.
If the royals can 'lead' this kind of society, then soldiers will continue to want to go into battle in the Queen's name, rather than saluting a flag.
The thing to worry about is how to carve up the hierarchy beneath the royals. The old staple of the belted earl no longer exists. From the 'robber barons' onwards, the dukes and lords have never sorted themselves out easily. As privilege replaces upper classes, we will probably see a system whereby everyone who owns a helicopter gets a peerage. It's almost at that stage already.
The honours system will remain but it will be as relevant to society as it is relevant that pillar boxes are red. I expect we will have to abolish the notion of 'service' and run everything on a reward-based system. A future Prince William of Wales may consider dropping the motto "ich dien" - "I serve".
The good news is that this new system provides a defined role for the Church of England. It will exist for anyone who opts out of the aspirational classes, who does not require a Sega Mega Wii Drive to achieve happiness. This will take anglicanism back to its roots in humility and meekness, will mean they can be a bit more autocratic about women and gays, but it means they will have to take hold of the media and start using it to their own ends. But with the rise of the internet as a media delivery mechanism, this is open to them.
I think what Prince Philip is talking about is a period of fantastic social mobility - and we are living through it right now. Like a train, it is heading in one direction. It could be derailed but the direction will remain the same.
To see Prince Philip make his comments, visit and watch Fieldsports Britain, episode 51

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