Peter goes to the palace

by Peter Watt

I think I am going all Blue Labour.  All that longing for the lost icons of a simpler more communitarian age; it warms the fraternal cockles of my nostalgic heart.  Or am I mixing my popular political philosophies?  Anyway, it doesn’t matter because on the whole they’re all gobbledygook!  But what I do mean is that whilst I am all for modernisation, I also happen to think that there are some more traditional aspects of life that are also worth preserving.  They provide us with a feeling of stability and security whilst all around is changing.  One of those traditional aspects, that many on the left struggle with, is the royal family.

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace.  It was a fantastic experience.  There were several thousand people attending from all walks of life.  Charities, the military, business, politics all gathered as a recognition for their, or their organisations’ work.  The focal point was Her Majesty and Prince Phillip who made themselves available to meet and greet their guests.  Their energy levels at their age were really incredible.  And the guests had of course all dressed up, with a handy protocol card sent in advance ensuring that the ladies wore hats and gentlemen morning or lounge suits.  The national anthem was played and people mingled.  My only complaint was that we missed out on the cakes and sandwiches because by the time we got to the tea tent there was none left.  I couldn’t help but notice that there were plenty of other guests with very full plates.  I tried not to be bitter about their gluttony.

There was lots of the choreography and so on that I didn’t really understand.  The Yeoman of the Guard; the men in top hats who seemed to be in charge of the walkabout; all of the titles of the various palace officials and the heraldry.  It did all feel a bit ‘olde worlde’ and yes there were an awful lot of very posh voices.  But do you know what?  It didn’t matter because it was an honour to be there and it felt special.  This was the royal machine delivering an event in the same way that it probably has for 100 years.  I bet that  the Royal and diplomatic tea tents are in exactly the same place, tea served at exactly the same time and the running order is pretty much the same as it was in 1911.  And that to me is quite simply fantastic and something to be proud of.

I accept that intellectually the hereditary principle is a little at odds with notions of equality.  But I don’t care.  The alternative to a royal head of state is an elected one.  Quite frankly, I can think of little worse than an elected head of state.  Another powerful, elected, party political politician.  Another point of political friction taking on those in the Parliaments.  Try selling that one to the public; good luck.

Why change something that is working?  The Royal family is respected worldwide.  We were in South Africa when the recent royal wedding was on and it dominated the news there for days.  Just look at the welcome given to the duke and duchess of Cambridge in Canada.  Whilst other heads of state come and go the British royal family goes on and on.  And we should be pleased that it does.

The royals are trusted because on the whole they are an institution that doesn’t change.  When so much else is changing nationally and internationally symbols of national identity are important.  They provide a sense of stability and continuity and form an important part of our shared sense of what and who we are as a Country.  This is not to be scoffed at.

Yes there is a lot of nonsense that accompanies them.  They can be soap opera like and romanticised.  Maybe the Queen mother was very right wing.  Royal correspondents can be infuriating and yes they are in many ways a throwback to times when people were more subservient.  But they are also a part of our national consciousness.  If they weren’t there we would have to invent them, just look at the way that the Americans try to create something similar with their Presidents.  Did you know that there are exhibitions of the outfits of Presidents and First Ladies in the Smithsonian?  Because these national symbols are important.  In fact they are probably significantly more important for most people than electoral reform, an elected second chamber or regional assemblies.  In other words, this is a classic case where the priorities and world view of those of us on the left can be very different from that of much of the electorate.  We value fairness and this leads us to dislike the inherent unfairness of the inherited principle.  The public values fairness and many think that having a neutral and historic head of state prevents the unfairness of a biased, self-serving elected politician in their place.

I understand that for many on the left the royal family will always be anathema.  But I hope that those who feel that way also reflect that most of the electorate likes the royals.  They don’t on the whole like politicians.

And I hope that if I am ever lucky enough to be invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party again that they increase the catering order.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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7 Responses to “Peter goes to the palace”

  1. There’s nothing ‘Blue Labour’ about that, Peter. Blue, yes. Labour, no. The Conservative Party will be pleased to accept your application for membership…

  2. Ned says:


    Says it all really. I do care. Maybe I’m in the wrong party?

  3. Ned says:

    I accept that intellectually the hereditary principle is a little at odds with notions of equality. But I don’t care.

    Says it all really. I do care. Maybe I’m in the wrong party?

  4. RuralLabour says:

    I agree with you Peter. There is nothing inconsistent with being patriotic, loving the Royal Family and our great traditions and being Labour.
    We would be doing a lot better in my part of the world (Southern England) if this was projected more often.
    To often to be of the left is seen to be sneering of our tradtions and history (including HM the Queen).

  5. oliver says:

    The point about the royals -and presumably aristocracy in general – not liking politicians is an interesting one and I’m not sure it entirely helps your argument.

    Firstly, if you’re trying to suggest that in any way, shape or form, they’re somehow more like ‘us’ because they tend not to like politicians, then that’s a pretty ridiculous and disingenuous stance to take. That ‘communitarian age’ that you’re harking back to would have likely had you staring-in from locked gates and lingering for the opportunity to doff your cap rather than archly commenting on the lack of catering.

    Secondly, historically royalty have always been at odds with politicians for fairly obvious reasons. It’s basically a scrap between who gets to ‘rule’ the country and the people in it. Even those royals who probably don’t wish to ‘rule’ per se, will see them as being separate (or above) the rest of us; detached and indifferent.

    Personally, I’d always been ambivalent of the monarchy. Despite my political leanings, I’ve understood that they are tourist magnets (if only for the South East/London). However, after the last few years of witnessing an economic divide growing even wider and the gap between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ becoming increasing unbridgeable within the current economic and political culture, my increasing distaste for the over-privileged and those that the system ‘cushions’ from crisis finds me now grouping royals and aristocracy together with most politicians, bankers and CEO of corporations.

    France has no shortage of tourists gawping at Louis XIV’s architectural legacies &c. Rome gets plenty of tourist euro through people going to see the remains of an Empire that ended over 1500 years ago. Egypt will forever dine out on the spectacle of dynasties that ended thousands of years ago.

    If we got rid of the royals tomorrow, would it mean that Japanese tourists would stop coming to take pictures of Buckingham Palace? Would Americans stop coming to remind us how ‘they kicked King George’s asses and how this and that building wouldn’t be standing if they’d not saved us from the Germans’? No, it wouldn’t.

    Lastly, to be honest, I find it a little bizarre that someone’s politics can be altered by a garden party.

  6. AnneJGP says:

    Interesting article, Peter, on an unusual topic.

    The trouble with “equality” and “fairness” is that, whatever measure you use, there’s an inherent inequality and unfairness that comes along with it.

    Meritocracy? How is it fair that you have more brains & character than I have? You inherited those attributes just as much as HM The Queen inherited her position.

    Equal outcomes? How is it fair that you should be held back from achieving your potential just so I can say you’re the same as me?

    Life isn’t fair; and sooner or later, somewhere along the line, the facts of life have a habit of making themselves felt.

  7. Peter says:

    Oliver – I mean that the public don’t like politicians not that the Royals don’t like politicians.

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