What Kate Middleton’s wedding to Prince William could do for Britain

Many see the April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the elegant commoner, as an opportunity for a royal rapprochement with Britain’s middle class.

Sang Tan/AP
Postcards of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton are seen on display outside a souvenir shop in London, on Thursday, April 14. The two are to marry at Westminster Abbey in London on April 29.

The most anticipated wedding since that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer takes place exactly two weeks from today at 11 a.m., when the eldest son from that marriage, Prince William, ties the knot.

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared April 29 a bank holiday, and the nation seems awash in both wedding euphoria and skepticism.

After years of scandal and tragedy around Buckingham Palace, the Kate and William royal wedding is, especially for a global media audience, trending towards a modern fairy tale in an era when dreams and charm are often in short supply. Yet it’s also a wedding in an era of austerity and looming massive budget cuts in Britain. And it comes at a time of diminishing awe over royal trappings, nobles, lords, family crests, polo horses, limousines, and so on, especially among the young.

Still, the betrothed claim an inspiring story line: A handsome prince and military officer will give his hand and title of princess to a lovely commoner with an art history degree. His mother was a celebrity mourned by the world; her mother was an airline stewardess. After eight years William proposed on his knee next to a lake on Mount Kenya last fall with the diamond-and-sapphire ring Diana once wore.

So the opportunity for a royal rapprochement with Britain’s middle class is perfect: The bride’s name is even Middleton.

After years of fuddy-duddy misbehavior, airing of dirty royal laundry, the tragic Charles and Di sagas, and scandals among aristocrats – the royal monarchy has a chance to rebrand its devalued image when the the Archbishop of Canterbury weds the couple at Westminster Abbey on April 29.

The requisite glamor, poise

To brighten the story, there seems to be genuine public sympathy for both Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

He’s the boy-now-man that Brits watched grow up as son of the beloved Princess Diana; he doesn’t appear in sordid scandals and acquits himself with dignity. Brits see him and his brother Prince Harry as having inherited their mother’s desire to be one of the people, genuine, not a stuffy royal. In a break with tradition, William named his brother Harry "best man" rather than just a "supporter."

“We like the boys, and we like Diana,” says Timothy Strap, a livery driver from East London. “She protected those boys from royal ways. It used to be royals were raised by nannies, but Di was a close, kind, and loving mother even if she was a bit mixed-up, poor girl.”

Kate Middleton, for her part, has got the requisite stately glamor, remains calm, is punctual, polite, poised, and properly deferential. These are all elements, in British eyes, that are commendably opposite from those of Sarah Ferguson. “Fergie,” whose commoner status was highly unusual, proved to be rough around the edges and a never-ending source of tabloid catnip, before divorcing Prince Andrew.

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If William ascends to the throne, Middleton will be known as Queen Catherine – the fifth in British history, but the only queen by any name with a college degree, which she obtained at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Brits skeptical of the fairy tale, while Americans love it

Is the wedding hyped, commercialized, sold in the street? Are there Kate and William saucers, stamps, jellies, coins and cakes? Yes, and much more. There is even a limited edition of commemorative red, white, and blue seed potatoes for patriotic British gardeners to mark the marriage.

Hasn’t the couple been together eight years already? Does taking seriously an ornamental future king and a Cinderella bride require some willing suspension of disbelief? Yes.

In fact, the fairy tale aspect of the wedding -- two relatively drama-free young people who appear to love each other, with castles in the background – is seen skeptically among many Brits. Nor are early predictions of a lucrative commercial bonanza off the wedding still being claimed.

“There’s a large amount of talk and activity in the media and companies that stands to profit. But only a small number of people in Britain are really interested,” says Jasmine Birtles, a London commentator who runs a personal finance website. “In America the wedding is a huge deal, much more so than here. I only know two people who are going to sit at the telly with cake and watch this. It’s the older middle-aged British outside London who will watch and wave the flag.”

In polls at the end of 2010 a majority of Brits said they either “didn’t care” about the wedding (31 percent) or were indifferent (28 percent).

A recent spate of articles and studies indicate that the wedding is likely to be a net loss for Britain due to the holiday and cost of services – rather than a gain.

Philip Shaw, an economist at Investec services in London said this week that for the “inflow of tourism and, arguably, a 'feel good’ factor as well, the Royal wedding will be good for the economy. But in terms of the effect on the headline GDP, it’s very likely to be negative.”

“I don’t want the day off – I have to earn a living don’t I?” says a taxi driver in London who did not give his name.

7 percent of Brits 'embarrassed' to buy souvenirs

Nor are wedding souvenirs or memorabilia being snatched up at anything like the rate in 1982 at the Charles and Diana wedding.

The Lancashire Evening Post this week quoted studies showing that 70 percent of Brits are “embarrassed to admit” that they either may or intend to buy a wedding souvenir since it is seen as “tacky” or a “waste of money.”

Ms. Birtles says that most younger Brits are not only are embarrassed to admit they may watch the wedding, but in fact a great number of Londoners are going to deliberately leave to take advantage of Friday-Monday holiday weekends in consecutive weeks of Easter, wedding, and bank holidays.

At Fortnum and Mason, a well-known specialty shop on Piccadilly Street, most of the royal wedding shortbread has sold out, says a sales manager who declined to be quoted because he was not authorized to speak with the media. He added that he would like to have had more time to prepare a special wedding line of goods but the engagement was only made public in November.

Along with “sweet William” soaps and royal wedding chocolates and porcelain there is a royal wedding rose petal jelly. A large section of royal wedding foods has been reduced to one aisle. The store today was mainly full of tourists from outside Britain.

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