As Kate Middleton and Prince William become parents, I wonder if my own two young girls will share the range of feelings about the royal family that I’ve traveled as a Briton. Mine is hardly an unusual emotional evolution in our society – from the fairy tale romance of the knight in shining armor, to the rejection of tradition as one tries to assert one’s independence, to a growing fondness for the national unity these individuals spark in us.
One of my earliest memories of the royals came in the summer of 1980, when I was 6 years old. I remember the competition clearly: design a birthday card to celebrate the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. I was a runner up and won a “Lion” chocolate bar which for any child was reward enough. In all honesty, the birthday of the Queen Mother hadn’t meant much to me, I was just excited to make a card and enter a competition.
As our school was in Ascot, we would walk in procession out to the route the royal family took each year to Royal Ascot. Not only was it great fun missing lessons and cheering as the members of the royal household passed by, but we got to see them close up! It was something I looked forward to each year.
When Lady Diana Spencer got engaged to the Prince of Wales there was a throng of activity from the press. It fed our imaginations and we looked forward to all the pomp and circumstance the ”big” day would bring. Crowds lined the streets of London – many had camped out for days to ensure they got the best spot. The nation couldn't get enough of the magical moment. I remember mugs, tea towels, commemorative coins. In fact, I am sure that anything that had a surface area large enough to put a transfer on had something that captured the moment.
On the day of the wedding, my family sat around the TV all wearing our Union Jack bowler hats. Flags and bunting decorated our home. The excitement was tangible. We waited with bated breath to see “The Dress.” We had been told by the press that the silk worms couldn’t make enough material in time – just the kind of detail to fuel our excitement before the big day.
And then, there she was, the princess-to-be in a gown that every little girl dreams of wearing. She reinforced our pride in the royal family. Girls and women tried to emulate her look and longed for the fairy tale life we thought she led. In time, we’d follow how she raised her two boys. I was older than the princes so it was more with interest that I watched their lives unfold than wanting to follow in their footsteps.
As I think of these things I watch my daughter’s reaction to the status quo. She asks me if Catherine is a princess, which leads me to explain how the peerage system works. It introduces her to what it means to be British, while nurturing my own patriotism. Morgan thinks the Duchess is ”cool” to have visited the scouts. She is equally concerned that she hasn’t visited the Brownies, more particularly her pack, I shouldn’t wonder! She asks at the breakfast table if Kate has had the baby yet. This in turn sparks the same flurry of questions from my 3-year-old. Who is having a baby? Who is Kate? Is the baby a boy or a girl? I’m curious to know what Morgan’s memories will be of these moments when she is older.
My own views changed in my teenage years when I was swayed by popular criticism of the royal household, as an obsolete tradition taking more than was due from the state. I recall my parents’ frustration with me, the debates with them about the topic. The climax of this was a Christmas gathering at which I refused to stand for “God Save the Queen.” I was the only one. I could not see why I should when I wholeheartedly rejected the institution.
But I now cringe at that memory, in part, because the royal family has considerably reduced its support from taxpayers, but also because I understand more of its key role in our nation and how much of their work goes unsung.
The British monarchy, without question, is a global ambassador for our nation. Others view them with affection and curiosity, and this makes them a major tourist attraction bringing sizable revenue to our country. But they are more than that. They unite us, giving us a sense of nation. And to me, the royal family is part of our identity; providing continuity through the ages. But it is also true to say that the issue of monarchy still divides opinion.
The paparazzi hounded Prince Charles and Princess Diana – through their unhappy marriage, their separation, and divorce and into life and death beyond that – because we, the people, wanted the detail. We didn’t seem to consider that it was a complete invasion of their privacy. We were happy to support the obsession, making every publication that had Diana’s face on it a sell out.
Then, one early morning in September 1997, my father came in to my room to break the news: Diana was dead. He had been listening to the story unfold through the night. I had to travel through London on the day of her funeral. There are no words to truly describe what I saw. I would think it was rather like after the Blitz. People crying, walking around looking lost. Complete strangers were consoling each other. We were a nation united by our loss. As sad as the moment was, I saw it as one good example of the way the royals bring us together.
The post Diana era was rocky for the royal family – the nation had fallen out of love with them. Like a child scorned, the monarchy went away to lick its wounds while the nation struggled to find a way forward.
But the engagement of Catherine Middleton to Prince William was a rebirth – the love was back. Coupled with the Olympic games, the royal wedding meant our nation had pride in its heritage once more. These two events brought everything that is quintessentially British into the present. It allowed the nation to celebrate being us, something I feel we have not always felt right and proper in recent times.
The story for me has now come full circle: I have a daughter who is near the age I was at the time of Charles and Diana’s wedding. That royal couple’s son and his wife are now giving us a new generation of the royal family. And I watch my child with my mother’s eyes.