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Pomp and levity: why the royals aren’t going away

Poking fun: singer Joss Stone at the last week’s royal wedding. AAP

You don’t have to be a monarchist to see that the Royal wedding has been a triumph of cultural diplomacy for the United Kingdom, and a powerful statement to the world about the importance of tradition and heritage in national identity.

I’m certainly no monarchist, hitherto viewing the House of Windsor as at best an asset for the British tourist industry, at worst an anachronistic throwback to feudalism.

But this time, for this wedding of Diana’s first born and his Essex girl Kate, I found myself admiring the balance of accessability and occasion which the event achieved, and the sense of unfinished business being attended to.

Diana’s tragic and untimely death at the hands of the Parisian paparazzi; the sordid history of her marriage to a man who viewed her as little more than a breeding machine; the offensive attitude of the Queen and her courtiers after the news of Diana’s passing broke – corrected rather too publicly by a young Tony Blair, for which he was duly left off the guest list to make room for the North Korean ambassador, or some other representative of the axis of evil – a lot of that unresolved unpleasantness was healed by the sight of William and Kate stepping up to the plate.

One could see a future for the British royal family, rooted in the happy couple’s apparent likeness to real people.

Of course it was a show and a spectacle, and maybe behind the palace doors the customary snobbishness of those born into privilege prevails.

But just as Queen Elizabeth on her coronation captured the zeitgeist of the austere 1950s, William and Kate reflected in this year of our lord 2011 something about being British which was hard even for a Scottish ex-communist and atheist like me not to buy into.

The stiff upper lip in a time of crisis (financial, if not military); the respect for the rituals and customs of a nation which ruled the world for longer than its size and geographical marginalisation could ever have suggested possible, and continues to punch above its weight in global politics; the civilizing impact of British constitutional monarchy in a world too often torn apart by genocide and ethnic or religious slaughter.

One was, dare one say it, proud to be British.

In Britain the wedding, like previous royal occasions, triggered extensive debate on the meaning of class in the twenty first century; on the sexism of patriarchal rules about primogeniture; on the bigotry implied in the rule which prevents a monarch from marrying a Catholic.

Apart from the breathless commentary on hats and dresses, there was a serious national debate about the state of Britain itself, and the role played in British democracy by the monarchy.

All good, and undertaken in a spirit of free and fair discussion. Republicans and inverted snobs had their say.

The result was a mature discussion, with some surprising outcomes – chief among them, that the British people, having taken against the Windsors after Diana’s exhaustively reported torments, are actually quite relaxed about the part played by constitutional monarchy in their governance, and in their culture.

Royalty is undisputably these days a branch of celebrity culture, as indeed is party politics itself, implying an irreverence and vulnerability which makes living with their immense wealth and privilege easier for we plebs. Because William and Kate are celebrities, and will be until the day they die, they are in a sense public property, to be mocked as well as idolized.

They entertain us, as much as they reign over us. Both responses were in evidence in Britain last week.

In Australia too, the same combination of delight and disdain was evident.

Here too, coverage of the occasion combined BBC-style deference with the desire to poke fun at the perceived excesses of monarchy.

Here too, the faultless spectacle of this royal wedding jostled up against the desire in some parts to declare Australia’s republican essence.

If anything, and again the parallel with the UK is striking, William and Kate’s authentic display of young love has put the republican cause in Australia back a way.

Media coverage of the event was wildly popular here, peaking at 5.8 million TV viewers as the vows and rings were being exchanged.

Not much less, as a proportion of the population (and given that regional data is not included in that figure), than the 24 million who watched the ceremony in Britain itself.

As The Australian reported - and here Australia is different from the UK - the public service ABC was the third most popular source of royal wedding coverage after Seven and Nine.

This despite, or perhaps because of, Nine being described in that paper as “the drunken guest at the reception” for mistaking the King of Tonga for Mohammed Al Fayed.

Maybe that’s what the Australian audience prefers – to have its interest in and underlying affection for the monarchy which heads their post-colonial state framed by a less deferential, more celebrity-focused presentation than was evident on, say, ABC.

ABC used BBC coverage, and thus replicated the latter’s tendency to adopt a tone of hushed reverence in its relaying of every piece of trivial wedding detail, from who designed the flower girls’ dresses to the colour of paint on the royal Rolls – maroon, in case you missed it.

Maybe ABC would have done better with some satire in its schedule, thus tapping into the Aussie desire to watch and swoon along with the rest of the world, but not to be seen to care too much for the symbols of colonial power.

More’s the pity for ABC, then, that their Chasers special was chased off by royal TV rights holders.

The royal family’s determination to protect the dignity of the occasion in Australia by not colluding in a right royal piss-take may be seen as mean-minded in some quarters.

But really, the ABC’s managers ought to have known better, or at least to have scrutinised the fine print of their agreement to share material with the BBC before they invested heavily in an evening of alternative royal coverage intended to mock everything about the event.

Would the Chasers take on the wedding have boosted ABC’s ratings? We’ll never know. What is clear from the coverage is that in Australia, as in Britain, this royal wedding was the best thing to happen to the monarchy since Elizabeth herself became queen.

A lot can happen between now and the accession of Charles, and then William, to put republicanism back on the Australian political agenda.

As of this moment, the institution has the look of permanence, in Australia as in Britain.

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