About ten years ago I had the task of following the royal family around Scotland. This sounds far more glamorous than it really was, since I wasn’t a royal correspondent in any real sense. I never saw the inside of a palace (not the hallowed areas marked off by red ropes, anyway) or got to sip tea with a tailcoated lackey; nor did I pick up any of those snippets of respectful gossip that real royal-watchers trade and inhale like cocaine. It just meant that whenever the Duke of Edinburgh, or Prince Edward, or if I was really lucky Prince Charles, visited a small town in Scotland to chat to elderly ladies in deferential hats, I had to shadow them at a respectful distance, taking notes. A media minder would tell us in advance what route the royal personage was taking and what orbit we, the press pack, should follow in order to keep out of sight. And then, once the apportioned time was up, the distinguished visitor would step into a car and be spirited away in a conflagration of police sirens.
The royal family’s endurance is not an easy phenomenon to explain. In a democratic age, what place is there for such a brazenly medieval institution? Why is the head of state still chosen on the hereditary principle, with boys taking preference over their older sisters? Why, above all, when government departments are scrapping like rabid seagulls for a share of a dwindling funding pot, are we prepared to invest so many of our taxes to keep their palaces warm and fund their lavish wedding ceremonies?
I puzzled over these contradictions a lot as I traipsed around the country during the Queen’s golden jubilee year of 2002. One image in particular stuck with me from the final engagement of that tour. In the Borders town of Melrose – one of the few places in Scotland where her subjects can still be depended on to turn out in decent numbers – the Queen clambered on to a trailer and was towed by a tractor around a rugby field, waving and smiling to a crowd on the touchlines. She gave the royal wave and settled her face into that familiar regal smile. And suddenly I understood the paradox of modern royalty. Every detail of that day in Melrose had been meticulously planned, probably weeks beforehand, by other people: the route she would take, how long it would last, the dress she would wear, the people she would meet. The parameters of her existence were as clearly and rigidly marked out as that rugby pitch, and it was utterly unthinkable that she would break out from its demarcations. Not only do the royals have no power nowadays: in many ways they have no freedom. An accident of birth means that their lives are minutely prescribed, from cradle to grave, by a complex set of social rules and ceremonial duties that they cannot opt out of.
It is hard to grieve for exceptionally wealthy people who have done nothing to earn their money. Nor should we. But the situation of the royal family holds is more symbolic of our democracy than we perhaps realise. They represent the constraint of monarchical power: the rejection of absolute rule and its gradual devolution to representative institutions. That they have kept the ceremonial trinkets is the product of a clever bargain with society, as well as with politicians, who have an interest in keeping the celebration of power separate from the dirty business of exercising it. The royals know from history that this life of privilege is not automatic or absolute: it is conditional on the continued approval of their subjects. Similarly, the idea that they stand either for tradition and stability in a changing world, or unbending resistance to change, is a deft illusion – what they really embody is nostalgia, and the way our impression of the past shifts as we move away from it. Like the broom wagon that sweeps up the back markers in the Tour de France, they are the last defensive line of social conservatism. Once they adopt a prevailing social attitude, any lingering opposition to it must disintegrate. It does not do to appear more reactionary than the Queen. A generation ago it was still unthinkable for many unmarried couples to live together, but when William and Kate did it nary an eyebrow was raised, and in so doing they tacitly confirmed that we really have left those Victorian taboos in the gloom of the past.
Nor can I be too exercised by the complaint that the royal family are a colossal waste of public money that could be better spent elsewhere. At a time when the business of government is suffocating in a fog of audits and efficiency drives, when the sole measure of worth is how vigorously a person or a public office can make the pennies spin, there is something defiant about squandering millions of pounds of our money on such extravagances as horse-drawn carriages and footman’s uniforms. Efficiency yields blandness. It is the reason houses are getting smaller and more expensive simultaneously, why city centre high streets are barely distinguishable. Imagine a world in which the painting of the Sistine Chapel, or the design of Grand Central Station in New York, or the building of monuments on Easter Island, or the composition of a symphony, were governed solely by considerations of efficiency. There must be circuses to go with the bread.
I will not overlook the fact that our obsession with royalty, and our willingness to define our history through it, is driven largely by delusion. A recurring theme of the royal wedding commentary was the assertion that the eyes of the world were on Britain: we were not a declining third-tier power after all, but a nation that mattered. It was all rather reminiscent of taking a senile old grandfather out of the nursing home on his birthday, putting a smart suit on him and letting him play paterfamilias for the day. (The brutal truth of who really matters was brought home a few days later when we learned that Osama bin Laden had been dispatched in the kind of clandestine operation beloved of those old-world absolute rulers.) Even so, events like royal weddings function as snapshots of the state of the nation. In 1981 Charles and Diana married in what seemed to be a fairy-tale wedding: the beautiful, aristocratic bride in the grotesquely ornate dress next to the ungainly, unlikely Prince Charming. We now know that this was a nightmare scenario of a man being forced to set aside the woman he really loved in favour of a younger consort who had been chosen by his family to make him more attractive to a doubting public. Both the wedding and the dismal, destructive marriage it precipitated were a perfect allegory for Thatcher’s Britain, whose glittering facade also wore away to reveal the dehumanising forces at its heart. Today Charles has the bride he wanted and his son has been spared similar public and private agony in his own pursuit of happiness. The nostalgia the royals represent nowadays is a longing less for wealth, glamour and influence than for courtesy, self-reliance and mutual respect. The current generation of Thatcher devotees may want to bear this in mind as they attempt to shovel us into a new utilitarian age.