In his Confessions St Augustine describes how, when studying in Rome, he was persuaded by friends to go to the Colloseum to watch the gladiators do battle. Despite being an ardent pacifist he found himself “drinking in the frenzy, unawares, and was delighted with that guilty fight, and intoxicated with the bloody pastime.” A similar guilty pleasure was experienced by tens of thousands around the world as they watched the Royal wedding last Friday. People who, in principle, are implacably opposed to monarchy and have no interest in the Royals found themselves surprisingly moved by the occasion.
As a correspondent for Al Jazeera English reporting on wedding from outside Buckingham Palace, I managed to steer clear of fluffy discussion about fashion or frippery and explore more complex questions surrounding our relationship to the monarchy and what it says about attitudes to privilege and class in modern Britain. However, as the day wore on I found myself increasingly taken by the beauty and simplicity of watching a young couple sincerely declaring their intention of spending their lives together. Rather than talking just about the uglier aspects of our class system, I found myself discussing positive aspects of the Royal Family.
The monarchy may be a symbol of our antiquated class system and the reactionary conservatism that underpins the British establishment but at the same they play an important ceremonial function. Over the years various Royals may have exposed disturbing glimpses of snobbery, bigotry and anti-intellectual prejudice but at the same time it is hard not to feel sympathy for the fact that they have been raised in captivity, bound by duty under the unremitting scrutiny of the world’s media.
There is enormous respect in Britain for the Queen who, like her father and grandfather before her, has been a model constitutional monarch. She has reigned for almost six decades and, unlike Prince Charles, has never attempted to involve herself in political matters. But the fact remains, both Elizabeth II and George VI only made it to the throne because of the abdication of Edward VIII. He was forced to abdicate, not because of his Nazi sympathies, but because he wanted to marry a divorcee.
After 60 years under the restrained reign of the present Queen it is easy to forget the random, undemocratic nature of the hereditary principle and the enormous power and influence that the Royal family still wield. Whilst the Royal Family have taken some steps to modernise, the addition of a ‘Commoner’ to the world’s most famous family also serves to highlight the fact that the British class system remains deeply entrenched.
Like the World Cup where even non-football fans find themselves swept-up in the occasion, so the Royal Wedding captivated Royalists and Republicans alike. Beneath the hype, hysteria and hyperbole a young couple got married and the British people celebrated. Behind the scenes the British establishment bristled with satisfaction.