In Britain, significant royal events – births, deaths, marriages, jubilees – feel like an extra Christmas. They represent the imposition of a bonus period during which gaudy decorations are hung and rubbish souvenirs purchased. Media outlets connive in a ceaseless chorus of instructions to be joyful and the potential responses seem cruelly reduced to a choice between mindless obeisance or ill-tempered meanness.
The build-up to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has not lacked for attendant inanity. Reams of simpering verbiage have been written, hours of drivelling conjecture broadcast and tonnes of red, white and blue tat sold. Those ostentatiously indisposed to celebrate have been no less predictable – and therefore no less annoying. But the flag-waving serfs and the hairshirt-wearing roundheads are united in missing the point.
The wedding is of some constitutional importance: one participant will eventually become head of state and church, and commander-in-chief of Britain’s Armed Forces. And so will one of the couple’s children (although a recent Reuters poll found 47 per cent of Britons asserting little or no interest in the wedding).
However, what has been of most interest is the way Britain has reacted to the forthcoming nuptials. The issue is class – that complex curse which baffles outsiders to Britain and ties infinite painful knots inside the locals.
It sometimes feels that the chief agents of national cohesion in this country are resentment and envy. It has been amplified in this instance by a coalescence of peculiar circumstances, specifically William’s rejection of centuries of royal tradition by marrying a woman whose family work for a living and the recent election of the first authentically posh British prime minister since Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
We have seen that most middle class of newspapers, the Daily Mail, sneering with characteristic spite at the middle classness of the bride’s family (they call their lavatory a “toilet”, apparently, and have been spotted chewing gum in public).
We have also witnessed the current prime minister torn between wearing the traditional morning suit, in which he’d look like the moneyed Old Etonian he is, or a less formal lounge suit, in which he’d look like a moneyed Old Etonian trying not to look like a moneyed Old Etonian. In this context, the Windsors’ fabulously ill-mannered refusal to invite Britain’s two living former Labour prime ministers is at least lent the appearance of refreshing honesty.
George Orwell described Britain’s class stratification as “not so much like a stone wall as the plate-glass pane of an aquarium; it is so easy to pretend that it isn’t there, and so impossible to get through it”. In this respect the wedding will be undeniably a reflection of the country hosting it: full of people awkwardly pretending that they can stand each other.