“This wedding is going to change the world” The BBC reporter in Los Angeles was telling us of the joy and amazement everyone there was feeling after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding ceremony. I was watching “The Royal Wedding” in a pub in Brighton, with half-ironic union jack bunting over the bar, and I’d been there since 10am. Unlike other families, the weddings of the Windsor Family – the state-official sovereign Royal Family of the UK – get state-funding, televised live on the BBC, and celebrated by street and pub parties across the globe. I had come along with a notebook, preemptively thinking it would be a good thing to write a blog about. At best, I thought, this this was an attempt to legitimise the wealth of a small subset of society at a time of austerity for everyone else. At worst, this was an attempt to “unite the nation”, using a seemingly benign form of nationalism to distract from growing inequalities in the UK.
“I’m not a royalist I just thought it would be hilarious” people said as they came in to the pub. There were union-jack-sequined handbags, inflatable crown hats, and masks of Harry, Meghan, and the rest of the royal family. All ironic of course. The landlady came out with a three-tiered cake stand covered with treats and flags and everyone was fitting “oh daaarrrrlllling” into their sentences whenever they could. The pub was starting to fill out and there was a party atmosphere, with people drinking bubbles and gin and tonics. Being me, I just had to join in. As a result, this is a blog of redemption – a way of apologising for my participation in an event which, as I will show, reinforces the norms of extreme inequalities of wealth and power in the UK.
As the wedding went on, and the BBC commentary came flowing, people started getting a little more impressed, forgetting their irony for moments at a time. “Look she’s walking down most of the aisle on her own! You know she actually calls herself a feminist?” She also refused to say that she would “obey” Prince Harry in her vows, and ensured the priest said “husband and wife” rather than “man and wife”, to repel the idea of marriage as women being the property of men. Not only that but she’s divorced, and she is a black American whose mother is a healthcare assistant – hardly the British princess you’d expect. “They are different though – Harry and Meghan – they’re much more modern” was another phrase I heard a lot throughout the day.
One of the most impressive things about Harry and Meghan, according to the tv and some of the chat in the pub, is their commitment to changing the world. They spoke about this commitment in depth when they announced their engagement, and how one of their first trips to Botswana was such a perfect setting for talking about how they wanted to make the world a better place – this is one of the places they’re going to help. They want to use their status and position in society to actually help others, like Harry’s mum Princess Diana was famous for doing. Harry’s new job working for the Commonwealth will be a great way for them to get started, and of course they asked people to donate to one of seven chosen charities for their wedding present.
Yes, they are a modern couple. But despite the laughs and ironic-party-atmosphere, I couldn’t help feeling that that was the problem. Where feudalism might have been all about unashamed, and even celebrated, inequality, modernity is about creating and maintaining inequality but being slightly modest-British embarrassed about it. So instead of just celebrating riches, people with them try to give a little back, but certainly not so much to stop them being rich – this is the art of philanthropy. When Harry and Meghan made their vows “for richer for poorer”, we all knew in the back of our heads that one of those things is probably never going to happen.
For all the ways in which the wedding was “modern” and “rebellious”, it also recreated a lot of inequalities. Meghan was celebrated for her simple and modest dress, but it still cost a bomb and promoted that pearly white innocent bride narrative. You also may (not) have noticed that the procession only went through the rich streets of Windsor, with high-end estate agents such as Hamptons sporting their banner along the procession route. Poorer areas were excluded and the council of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead ensured they moved homeless people out of the area before the big day. And finally, despite Harry’s efforts to get an “ethically sourced” diamond for Meghan’s ring, she also sported the crown jewels which were not only sponsored by blood-diamond hunting De Beers when I went to see them a year ago, but are also a large part of the reason we colonised a bunch of countries for a few hundred years.
No matter how much the wedding raised for charity (an estimated 1.7 million), a lot of money was also spent on the wedding (an estimated 30m). A lot of that may have been security rather than the dresses, cakes, and marquees, but it could also have been spent on helping others feel secure, and have clothes, food, and shelter for longer than a single day. Rather than ask the public to raise money for charities, they could have just redistributed some of their own money themselves. Inequality doesn’t only exist because some people are poor, it is because some people have a ridiculously high proportion of the wealth. If Harry and Meghan really want to change the world they need to give up some of their wealth and power, rather than use it.
After the wedding I walked up to another pub on the corner of my street which I knew was having a street party – maybe I’ll find some royalists here, I thought in my researcher-mindset, a little disappointed I hadn’t met any yet. I could hear the music blaring as I approached, and soon enough I saw the union jack bunting covering the pub and the street outside. A couple of houses along the road had also joined in with the union jacks. I could see the Harry and Meghan masks bobbing up and down to the blues band, and could smell the barbeque on the go. Wow. I grabbed a pint, buzzing with anticipation to get talking to some true royalists.
But the thing is, these true royalists were hard to find. Before I knew it, I was dancing with neighbours I vaguely recognised and ones I just got to know. We danced under union jacks whilst talking about how awful current policy changes were for creating more inequality in the UK. I even met an awesome artist who went viral for crocheting Jeremy Corbyn Christmas tree decorations and voodoo pin-cushions of Donald Trump and the current tory government. This was not a party full of royalists. After much searching I found someone who thought the royal family were important for tourism, and a few others who suggested they were good for keeping governments from making dangerous policy decisions (seems to be working then?). But no one I met thought god had put “Her Highness” there or that we’d be blaspheming if we didn’t pledge allegiance to the Queen – maybe they had all gone to Windsor.
Nevertheless, the religion that has been said to be the opium of the masses kinda worked. The union jack got a grand appearance, the royal family were the centre of attention, and everyone was drunk and merry. The country united through street parties, and whilst this everyday nationalism may seem benign, no one was questioning the obscene wealth of this one family or the inequalities such a distribution of wealth creates. I can’t quite believe I’m putting this on a public forum, but even I, who started the day as a critical researcher, got caught up in the excitement and started celebrating the royal wedding (see me in the Harry mask below). Maybe the day was a real devotion to Queen and Country for some, but for me and many others I met it was basically just a good excuse for a party.
But in doing so, the status quo of inequality reigned for the day. The status quo that the we support a special wealthy family through the state whilst leaving others destitute. The status quo of the aristocracy and property ownership that hangs off of it. And the status quo of the unequal distribution of wealth – whether in a way that is feudal, or a way that is modern.
Dare I say it, but until we start resisting the urge to turn on the tele or ironically decorate our streets and pubs with bunting for the sake of a party when a Windsor-family member gets married, then we continue to legitimise the royal family. In effect, we sign that implicit contract with the state, for a society that is inherently unequal – where there will always be some people that remain rich and some people that remain poor. In future, let’s just have street parties because we want to get to know our neighbours and have a bit of fun.