Citizen or subject?
The future King has just married his divorced former mistress, and the Government is floating the idea of introducing citizenship ceremonies for all 18 year-olds, in which they would be required to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
What better time to take a snapshot of young peoples attitudes to the Royal Family? What is the meaning of Royalty to Britains 18-24 year-olds? How does Royalty relate to their sense of themselves as British? Do they distinguish between the status of subject and citizen and is this important to them? How do they see their contemporaries, Princes William and Harry?
To answer these questions, I conducted some group discussions with young people to gain an in-depth understanding of how they really think and why.
In talking about Royalty we quickly come across the issue of whether were refering to it as an institution, or them as individual Royals. This duality is critical to any understanding of perceptions of Royalty. And if we are seeking a monarchy that is relevant to the 21st Century we need to understand fully the differences between the institution and the individuals and why one is valued while the other is not.
The institution resides in a material presence that symbolises the great history and traditions of Britain. It is in the palaces and the pageantry of state occasions; the coaches, the tunics; the fanfares. The protocol is formidable, the military music is evocative, the tiaras glisten.
Most of the people we have interviewed have never attended State events and, really, have no great desire to do so. State events are more for tourists. However, they are conscious that such state-events form part of the culture of Britain and have seen them on TV. They readily express the received wisdom that this is something of which the country can be proud. It is a spectacle admired by foreigners and consequently has alpha-ambassadorial significance. More rationally, the common assumption is that this is one way of balancing the cost to the taxpayer of the Royal Family because it both draws in the tourist dollar and promotes trade.
At a deeper and perhaps more significant level, the apparent out-datedness of such ceremony is something our young respondents relish. A more logical people would have abolished it as embarrassingly anachronistic but the British are both sentimentally attached and bloodymindedly determined to be different.
Paradoxically, the survival of monarchy is seen as an example of national values of tolerance, individual freedom, broad mindedness and defiance of outside interference. It demonstrates a national confidence in our political stability.
Monarchy is contextualised as a refusal to conform. It is a metaphor that only a subject knows intimately enough to properly decode. At a personal level, attachment to the institution of monarchy takes on an ironic representation. It allows us to feel superior to other nations. It is a show for foreigners, especially simpleminded Americans who are in awe of our traditions. Simultaneously, it cocks a snook at foreigners, especially Europeans, who are perceived to be mentally less flexible and misread British irony. It is about both our separate identity and also a cloak to conceal any closer knowledge of our discreet British selves.
Our interviewees even went as far as to say that our Royal family is, in fact, a barrier to both federalism and globalism.
In the normal course of their lives they rarely give citizen or subject status a second thought. On the whole, they have grown up in a multicultural society where respect for individual differences in culture, lifestyle or opinion is second nature. It is clear that their sense of themselves is as citizens not as subjects.
They were unaware that immigrants applying for British citizenship are compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen and most were outraged at the idea that they themselves could be required to do so, irrespective of their attitude to monarchy. Making a formal declaration contradicts the principles of free speech and independent thought that are at the core of their British identity.
Most of our respondents assume the continued existence of Royalty throughout their lifetime but this does not encompass any personal sense of deference, precisely because of the issues surrounding Royals as individuals.
In a society geared to personal achievement, the Royals are uniquely disadvantaged because, by birthright, they have the best of everything and therefore there is scant personal acclaim in any achievement. For the inner circle of Royalty, the long practised solution is to earn their right to privilege and riches by quietly and conscientiously doing their duty. The main arena for this is in bringing attention to worthwhile charities and good causes. In doing this, symbolically, they represent Britain as a generous, fair-minded and a concerned nation, qualities that our sample strongly uphold.
This strategy has served the Royal family well but two contemporary developments make a re-think of this strategy essential for the Royals.
Firstly, it is increasingly difficult, in the communications age, to bring attention to charities in a quiet way. Charity fund-raising, in a context of media fragmentation, remains a big draw in mass entertainment and has become a magnet for celebrities. The Royals are uncomfortable with their status as media celebrities but they need to resolve this dilemma if they are to continue to use charities to express their legitimacy, let alone their personalities.
Secondly, the Royals are being redefined in the age of celebrity as another reality show, with the media glorifying in scrutinising all aspects of their lives. Reality TV shows deconstruct participants characters and show us the layers of anxiety and insecurity underneath the public bravado. The Royals desire to shun attention in order to avoid a celebrity cult leaves a vacuum. They simultaneously appear to be remote and detached from ordinary people and fail to influence positively the images that are created of them.
What has happened is that young people readily ascribe caricatures to the Royals more commonly associated with classic story-telling. The Duke of Edinburgh is a buffoon who never thinks before he speaks. Prince Charles is a wimp, foiled by the domineering and status-obsessed Queen. Diana was the classic saviour goddess, which gives the unfortunate Camilla the role of the wicked witch. There is currently a stronger sense of real personality in the younger princes but, archetypally, Harry is the teenage rebel and William the golden boy.
Despite the riches and privileges, few young people — certainly in our qualitative enquiry — have any desire to swap places with Royalty. The irony is that the Royals are now our subjects. They are imprisoned in an unreal bubble from which they need our consent to escape.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, May 2005
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005