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Are the Royals Trapped in a Gilded Cage – Or Is Britain?

Is the Royal Family trapped by Britain’s past or is the problem our inability to conceive of a social order without monarchy?

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, on a royal tour of Jamaica in March 2022. Photo: Chris Jackson/PA Images/Alamy

Are the Royals Trapped in a Gilded Cage – Or Is Britain?

Is the Royal Family trapped by Britain’s past or is the problem our inability to conceive of a social order without monarchy?

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I watched and read the coverage last week of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal tour of the Caribbean with growing dismay.

The misjudged events to showcase the couple interacting with their ‘subjects’; the staged ‘encounters’ with ordinary folk – at one point, even separated by a chain link fence; the dated costumes; the speech expressing “sorrow” for slavery, which fell short of the need for a true apology; and other equally excruciating moments.

The entire ghastliness of the tour was summed up by the indelible image of William, in full military regalia, and Kate, as beautifully as ever in a tailored dress and hat, being driven around a parade ground in Jamaica in the same open top Land Rover used to drive the Queen and Prince Philip on similar tours in the 1960s.

The deliberate effort to hark back to a ‘golden era’ was a public relations disaster from start to finish.

Yet, I do not blame William and Kate for this train wreck – and indeed feel sympathetic to the couple, who, as far as I can tell, did nothing more than try to conform, dutifully, to what they thought was still expected of members of the Royal Family, and who did, in fact, receive a warm welcome by many despite the numerous gaffes. 

It is to their credit that they managed to keep smiling and ploughing manfully through the tour, even as negative coverage was mounting. Less dutiful, more thin-skinned royals might have lashed out at their critics, skulked in their hotel rooms, or even simply cut and run.

Up until the royal tour, William and Kate were widely acclaimed as the very epitome of the modern royal couple: the prince with his relatively self-effacing, jokey style, trying to convey an accessible ‘man of the people’ status while remaining regal; his wife with her game willingness to ‘muck in’ at official events – showcasing her sportiness; squatting down to chat to children, the elderly or disabled people in wheelchairs; sharing informal photos of her family, while fulfilling the clothes horse role expected of princesses and elegantly gracing official events. 

A favourable contrast has generally been drawn between William and Kate, praised for stoically going about their royal duties without complaint, and Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who are blamed for having turned their back on the Royal Family and publicly airing their grievances. It is the ultimate irony that the former are now being castigated by many for being out of touch, while several commentators have suggested that Harry and Meghan might have completed a more successful tour. 

My overriding sentiment was one of shame – for the humiliation and hurtful comments the couple themselves had to endure, for the countries who had to host this colonial misadventure, and for Britain thinking that a visit of this kind was still a good idea in the 21st Century.

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The fundamental problem was not William and Kate, but the continuing British belief that royal tours are universally welcomed overseas, even by countries which have long since left our colonial embrace, and our Government’s misguided sense of what such tours ought to involve.    

As someone who has been involved in many royal visits during my time as a diplomat, I know that it is ultimately not the Royal Family themselves who decide on such visits, but a Royal Visits Committee (RVC), according to priorities determined by the Government.

The RVC is chaired by the Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and includes private secretaries of different members of the Royal Family, the National Security Advisor, and officials representing the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office, and various departments across Whitehall.

British Embassies around the world are allowed to put in bids for visits to take place to the country where they are based, and the RVC decides on which to approve. 

They are the result of years of planning and discussions between governments, are highly scripted and staged, and guided extensively by precedent and protocol. Speeches are approved in advance by government officials. 

Yes, this process means that palace officials, including presumably those representing William and Kate, must have approved the plans. And yes, in hindsight, William and Kate and their advisors should have been able to spot the traps. However, the style and content of their tour was not dissimilar to dozens undertaken by Royal Family members in previous years, with little or no negative reaction. William and Kate were doing what their Government asked them to do. It was the responsibility of government officials to anticipate the bear traps and to design a successful programme. This includes diplomatic staff on the ground, who are supposed to understand the countries where they are based and be aware of local sensibilities.  

So, how did they get it so wrong?

No Rhyme Nor Reason

In my view, a large part of the problem was that there appeared to be no point to William and Kate’s visit, other than showing up and being ‘royal’, in furtherance of the vague aim of ‘strengthening ties’. Other than seeking to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee year, there appeared to be no overarching theme or event around which to organise their appearances. Their star quality alone was deemed to be enough. 

In my experience, more successful visits have taken place where the royal in question has had a specific purpose in mind. Good examples include Prince Philip’s tours on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund, or Princess Anne on behalf of Save the Children – where they have a real knowledge and passion for their subject.

This means that embassies can organise substantive events, and the royal guests can engage meaningfully with those they meet. Such visits help to raise the profile of the cause the royal represents, sow goodwill with the host country, and also allow the visitors themselves to come away with more knowledge and understanding of the issues. 

While I was Ambassador in Georgia, Prince Harry’s interactions at the Invictus Games with Georgian soldiers who had served in Afghanistan were a big success. They reflected his genuine concern for veterans, while providing a good way to underscore the UK’s appreciation for Georgia’s role in Afghanistan. Prince Harry’s own military service and personal style also allowed him to bond genuinely with the people that he met. The Embassy bid several times for Prince Harry to follow-up with a visit to Georgia, though unfortunately without success.  

The most popular Royal Family members have a reputation for hard work and a dislike of excessive flummery. By contrast, in most posts where I served, we dreaded the suggestion of a visit by Prince Andrew in his capacity as the UK’s Trade Envoy.

Prince Andrew had a reputation for being high-handed and demanding, for not doing his homework properly, and for not engaging sufficiently courteously or substantively with those he met, in a way which would genuinely advance our trade goals. 

Royal Freedom

William and Kate’s visit has fuelled the debate about the role of monarchy in the UK and whether we still need such an outdated institution in the 21st Century.

It is tied to growing concern about some other aspects of our unorthodox democracy, such as the lack of a written constitution; the existence of the unelected House of Lords as our Upper Chamber and indeed the very system of peerages, both inherited and conferred; the lack of sufficient checks and balances on our over-powerful executive; the skewed nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system; and the lack of any truly independent mechanism for holding ministers to account. 

These problems have long existed, but have only been truly exposed by our current Government, which has lied with impunity and gone way beyond its predecessors in violating norms, pushing boundaries, and abusing powers to its own advantage.   

I bear no personal animosity towards the Royal Family and have huge respect and admiration for its hardest working members, above all the Queen, who has given a lifetime of service to our country. I am guilty myself of enjoying news articles and media coverage of royal events.

However, I believe that we cannot truly begin to address some of the flaws in our democracy, unless we are willing to tackle our system from the top.

The very existence of a monarchy feeds a culture of hierarchy and deference in our system which is simply outmoded. It enables a system of titles, privilege and class which infuse our collective unconscious and corrupt our society. It feeds the never-ending British obsession with ‘toffs versus commoners’; upper class versus working class accents; ‘U versus non-U’; Old Etonian versus grammar school; and so on.

Our country remains riddled with class consciousness, which in turn seeps into every aspect of our political life.

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Many worry about what could replace the monarchy, especially when considering the alternatives – including some of the less impressive recent examples of elected heads of state, such as Donald Trump.

Some also worry that the UK would lose much of its sparkle without the glamour and glitz which our Royal Family provides. The UK is second-to-none when it comes to pomp and circumstance – the pageantry, crowns, costumes and castles of the Royal Family are indeed the jewels of our tourism industry. 

But I believe that this is a failure of imagination. Just as we as a country have rested far too long on our laurels as the heroes of the Second World War, and the Government continues to roll out tired tropes about Churchill or the Blitz to shore up support for its agenda, so we have depended far too much on our Royal Family to define our self-image of what it is to be ‘British’.

It is not a failure of the Royal Family but a failure of our country to come to terms with the fact that the institution is outdated or to be able to envisage alternatives. 

Who would want to live the life of a royal? We demand an impossible standard from them – to be simultaneously regal yet accessible; modern and informal; dignified and traditional. They are expected to look and behave perfectly on every occasion. Their every action, statement, or gesture is parsed and criticised. Their private lives are dissected, their marital choices approved or disproved. 

Last year, Prince Harry compared his existence in the Royal Family to being in The Truman Show or living in a zoo. He was criticised at the time, but the comparison is a good one. And, just as it has rightly become unfashionable to gawk at caged animals in zoos, or expect them to perform for us in circuses, is it not time to offer the same grace to members of the Royal Family?

With all the talent at our disposal in the arts, the creative industries and the sciences; the brainpower of our universities; the energy and drive of our economy; our rich history, traditions and literature, is it really beyond us to come up with a new system of governance, which combines the best of the old and the new, fit for the 21st Century, but free of title or rank? 

Is it not time to set the Royal Family free from their gilded cages and in the process free ourselves from the hierarchical mentality which accompanies royalty? William and Kate have shown a willingness to learn and adapt. Isn’t it time for us to do so as well? 

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