Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 March 2021

The Royal Family is today’s England


Don’t worry, this isn’t really about that interview. But what struck me most about the whole situation is that the Royal Family had turned down a huge opportunity to revitalise its image, and the main reason it has done this was because of the right wing press, and possibly fear of change, and possibly race. Now I know many reading this don’t spend much time worrying about the Royal Family’s image (neither do I) but please bear with me.

Looking at how public opinion about the affair splits by age should be very worrying for a monarchy that wants to survive. If the Palace had embraced the couple, which would have meant publicly defending Meghan against press misinformation and supporting her as much as they could in dealing with that misinformation, it would have shown a monarchy that had no problem welcoming a mixed race divorced American celebrity to their midst and a monarchy that was strong enough to take on the press in defence of one of their own. There was also the bonus that the couple were very good at doing their job.

Anyone who has seen the film The Queen will know how bad the Palace can be at adapting to public opinion. But the lesson they seemed to have learnt from that episode is to follow the tabloid press. Harry in the interview talked about the ‘invisible contract’ between the monarchy and the tabloid press. In this case that contract involved not trying to stop the press trashing a member of the royal family. A sacrifice to keep the beast on side perhaps. While the Queen is untouchable, I think Prince Charles is very worried that he is not untouchable. To again use a phrase from Harry in that interview, the monarchy are trapped in a relationship with the press. A press, as Anthony Barnett points out, where the owner of a large part of the press is a republican.

That, remarkably, is the most favourable view to the Palace of what happened. The alternative is that elements within ‘the firm’ connived with the press in making the couple feel unwelcome. Whichever it was, my overriding impression is of a monarchy that has allowed itself or has chosen to live in the past rather than embracing the future.

Thinking about how parts of Britain (England for sure, and perhaps Wales) have moved over the last decade you could not avoid concluding that it had made much the same mistake the royal family made over Harry and Meghan. The decade began with a Conservative party campaigning against high immigration on the back of a concerted attempt by the right wing tabloids to publish as many negative stories about immigration it could. This was coupled with a Labour government that had given up arguing the positive case for immigration because they feared the power of the right wing press. It also saw a period of unnecessary austerity that typically encourages nationalism and attacks on minorities..

London is a remarkable cultural mix that seems to work pretty well, but just like the royal family might have effectively scorned a mixed race American, most English towns and rural England decided they preferred the monoculture they knew or remembered, in large part because of fear stoked by the right wing press or simple racism. Brexit was really a continuation of the same, but here the return to an imagined past was much clearer. The idea that the UK could divorce itself from the Europe that surrounds it can only be imagined if you are steeped in a mythical past where the UK stood alone. Global Britain (far less global as a result of Brexit) appealed to ideas of Empire. But the idea of taking back control proved irresistible, even though what they were trying to take back had not been taken away by the EU.

Just as the right wing press had been pivotal in generating fear of immigrants, so it was critical in persuading a tiny majority of the UK to start a divorce with most of Europe. If there are any in the 'firm' that wanted the split with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, they were equivalent to those Conservative politicians who wanted to go back to that mythical past and so pushed Brexit. With the phrase “the will of the people” (in reality just over half the people allowed to vote on the day of the referendum) the Brexit press entrenched the idea that Brexit was unstoppable, and anyone who tried to stop it by democratic means became in their eyes a traitor. Only a country that is living in its past could think that attacking a statue is worse than attacking and seriously injuring a human being. 

A large section of the British public also has an implicit contract with their press. They read it for celebrity gossip or sport, and in exchange readers allow their attitudes to be influenced in whatever direction the owners of the press (mainly old white men) choose, frequently laced by nationalism. Attitudes to royalty are part of this. Readers do not have any first hand experience of Meghan Markle, so their opinions are bound to be heavily influenced by what they read in the press. Younger people who are far less influenced by this press think differently. Part of the age difference also reflects the fact that younger people have a better understanding about what racism is, and a greater interest in living in the modern world.

The invisible contract between the royal family and the tabloid press is dangerous to the royal family because it reduces support for the monarchy among the young. This invisible contract between parts of the English public and the press is much more dangerous, because it threatens meaningful democracy in the UK. There were two kinds of politician that backed Brexit. The first were more like the public who were nostalgic for an imaginary past. The second, and far more dangerous, were those who saw this nostalgia as a means to permanent power. These are the politicians who lead this government today.

Permanent power is achieved in four ways. The first, taking its cue from the US Republican party, is to make any election battleground about this socially conservative/liberal divide that was at the core of Brexit. The right wing press and this government’s ‘war on woke’ is designed to achieve exactly that. The second means to permanent power, again borrowed from the US right, is to make it more difficult to vote, and to saturate elections with social media ads paid with uncontrolled amounts of money. The third, and most dangerous, is to control enough of the media to ensure they will always win. (Controlling the media is the most important part of a general attack on a pluralist democracy as outlined by Mark Thomas here, and which in turn is the hallmark of populist leaders like Trump or Orban.) The fourth, which follows from the third, is to lie constantly in order to construct an alternative reality it’s supporters can believe in: an alternative reality where the important issues of the day involve preserving a mythical past rather than the health of the economy [1], and where fighting a mythical cosmopolitan elite is more important than preserving civil liberties and minority rights.

Control of the media requires first control of (or working in tandem with) a majority of the press, and that has been assured at least since Brexit. The right wing press has become a propaganda machine working very closely with the government. With a compliant tabloid press and reactive broadcast media, the government can get away with corruption, bullying and other scandals. However most people who read this press also watch or listen to the BBC, and in the past this has been a check on the ability to construct an alternative reality. Because of popular trust in the BBC, it prevents the use of the Trumpian tactic of talking about fake news.

So key to controlling the media has been to tame the BBC, and this has also been largely achieved. Of course all governments attempt to influence what the BBC does, but when these attempts are coupled with enough senior appointments and threats to the BBC’s existence it will have a much larger effect. The aim is not to control every BBC programme, but just the main news bulletins that most people watch. Fact checking or Newsnight is not threatening on its own, because the government’s target voters don’t read or watch them. Nor is the aim to change this into a state run media, but just to ensure coverage in these news bulletins does not threaten the government’s alternative reality. For example the government needs to ensure that these bulletins never call out Johnson’s lies and never acknowledge government corruption. [2]

People often point to Biden’s victory to suggest that this kind of strategy can easily fail. But in the US most newspapers and media networks are not so intimately bound to the right wing project as they are in the UK (hence Trump's frequent use of fake news), and the opposition to the Republicans is not fragmented as it is in the UK. A better model to what is happening in the UK is the recent past in Hungary, which still appears to be a democracy but in reality a democracy in name only, with total government control of the media. Hungary bans protests during the pandemic just as the UK does, but even Hungary is not attempting to ban demonstrations because they might be noisy.

An increasing number of people in the UK are beginning to think about this country in the same way that Harry and Meghan think about the monarchy, but most do not have the fame, resources or even desire to leave. The only way to safeguard UK democracy is to recognise the unique severity of the threat and the difficulty of stopping it. We need to put factionalism to one side in trying to persuade England to leave the past behind, make peace with our neighbours and return to the modern world.

[1] This can be achieved if your core vote is protected from economic stagnation. Pensions protected from earnings stagnation, and using subsidies to keep house prices high, may be enough to ensure this.

[2] For this reason cancelling a satirical comedy programme, I suspect largely watched by those who will never vote Tory, seems to be off message. But authoritarian leaders hate one thing more than they hate someone telling the truth: they hate the idea of being made fun of. And for many in the government/press, the ultimate goal may remain destruction of the BBC by removing popular support for it.


  1. Has the way the EU has handled the vaccination program not given you pause on Brexit? The vilification of the OxAz vaccine is plainly political and due to the failings of the EU. It seems to me governance is worse in the EU than in the UK. I used be in the Remain side, but after recent events, I have decided that leaving EU was better after all.

  2. Isn't these put too few blame on public ? Who are press consumer ? People choose what tabloid they read, what channel they see, if people stop watch and read right-wing press, their power would evaporate. Public and Consumer in Democratic Society had agency, power, and responsibility in controlling press and government with their consumption and votes.

  3. It may have been confluence but hard to consider that is true.

    It's interesting how more rumours and headlines came after one of the Royals came across if not as an abuser but as a total creep and that appeared more forgiveable than being mixed race to tabloids and firm.


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