The first royal tour I ever covered began in Canada in 2011. It was the first overseas visit for newly married Prince William and Kate, and I can still vividly recall the anticipation surrounding the trip, and the excitement as the world’s most talked about couple attended the Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. The crowds—estimated to be 300,000 strong—began gathering on Parliament Hill hours before the celebrations. And when the royal couple arrived, screams, cheers, shouts, cameras, and flags all rose up.
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I have since witnessed scenes like that one repeated many, many times around the world: from the throngs who lined the streets for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the UK in 2012, to the screaming University of Johannesburg students crowded onto a bridge overlooking their campus to catch a glimpse of the Duchess of Sussex in 2019. Now people aren’t always there solely because of the presence of royalty (Canada Day, for example, attracts huge crowds every year). But the royal family has been positioned at the center of the cheering masses on so many occasions that these moments form an integral part of our relationship with—and perception of—monarchy.
Where once they shook hands and made speeches to packed rooms, now they sit alone looking into laptops.
So it feels somewhat strange to be writing about the British royals at a time when we have no idea when we will next see them surrounded by a crowd. The royal calendar has been ripped up and family members are now most often seen on video calls. Where once they shook hands and made speeches to packed rooms, now they sit alone looking into laptops.
Of course, the British monarchy is just one of many organizations forced to dramatically change its working model since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. But it is somewhat unique in being a publicly-funded institution whose working members’ key duties involve meeting people. Whether it’s to draw attention to the work being done by charities or communities, or to enhance diplomatic relations at the request of the British Government, a huge part of their jobs have, for decades, meant getting out and about.
One of the Queen’s most famous quotes is “I have to be seen to be believed,” and it’s unlikely that she meant via Zoom.
Since the crisis began, the royal family has demonstrated a clear desire to use all means at their disposal to be visible and effective while, importantly, complying with government guidelines on social distancing. The Countess of Wessex—whose work T&C profiled last month—regularly volunteers to help those on the frontlines. There continues to be an abundance of videos, images, and messages released of the family supporting charities, NHS workers, and government initiatives. And there is barely a Nightingale hospital in the UK that hasn’t been virtually opened by a royal.
Family members have also been inventive in engaging with the challenges coronavirus has presented. The Duchess of Cornwall released her lockdown reading list, the Duchess of Cambridge launched the Hold Still photography project to capture a snapshot of Britain during the pandemic, and the Queen and several other royals supported the virtual Chelsea Flower Show, sharing images and descriptions of their favorite plants.
The material has been, for the most part, lapped up. Increased insight into royal life behind closed doors, including glimpses of normally private royal residences, have provided extra talking points. And you would have to be very cynical not to acknowledge the palpable sincerity of royal family members’ desire to do what they can to help.
However, it is also impossible to ignore what is missing when live events are replaced with digital ones, and difficult not to wonder how this may affect the way the royals are perceived if they are unable to meet and greet in person for a significant period of time.
There is the obvious loss in a sense of occasion that surrounds even the most low-key of royal visits, as well as the increased challenge of creating a personal connection and gaining understanding of a situation via video conference call. The variety and quality of images that go down so well with royal fans has also significantly decreased.
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The current set-up necessitates that most material be released by royal media teams, which means we don’t get any of the details usually captured by reporters, photographers, or even the public on their camera phones. Some of the most engaging parts of royal appearances are the spontaneous or unexpected interactions. Often these moments—such Charles and Camilla bursting into laughter while watching a performance, or the Queen telling William off for kneeling on the Buckingham Palace balcony—are things that you would never find in a royal press release. But these unscripted moments can do a lot to make relatable the characters in this ancient institution. Because, crucial to the popularity of the monarchy is the public’s relationship with its individuals.
Recent polling shows they have little to worry about in this regard—with a February YouGov survey finding that 62% of British people think the country should keep the monarchy. A poll by the same firm in January found that 80% of people have a positive opinion of the Queen, 58% of Charles, and 79% of William.
However, it’s worth noting that these findings precede the UK’s social distancing policy. With so many aspects of our lives changing so dramatically, we are suddenly reminded that any part of society can be reviewed when there is a will to do so. And at a time when coronavirus has highlighted inequalities and many are struggling, an institution based on hereditary privilege must tread extra carefully in how it presents itself.
At a time when coronavirus has highlighted social inequalities, an institution based on hereditary privilege must tread extra carefully.
Indeed, despite reports this week that palace exhibition closures will see royal revenues decrease, the money the Queen gets from the UK’s public purse—the Sovereign Grant—is protected by current legislation. The estimated £369 million refurbishment of Buckingham Palace, funded by the public, continues.
That said, at time when politicians are facing sharp criticism over their handling of the coronavirus crisis, many may cite the benefits of having a politically neutral head of state. The Queen’s historic address to the nation last month was watched by 24 million people and hailed by those across the political spectrum. At 94 and with 68 years on the throne, her experience, devotion to duty, and the respect she has gained because of it, are unrivaled.
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The Queen will remain at Windsor Castle for some time, but younger family members will likely appear publicly sooner—just as William and Kate made a visit to an NHS call center when rules allowed earlier in the outbreak. Of course, they will only do so once government-set guidelines allow, and will likely be mindful of avoiding backlash over whether or not any visits or work fall within restrictions that others are being asked to follow. It goes without saying that small scale visits, audiences, and meetings will come back before any gatherings or walkabouts—which right now seem a long way off.
No one is more aware of the monarchy’s need to stay popular and relevant in order to survive than the monarch herself. In a 1997 speech for her golden wedding anniversary, the Queen astutely observed that hereditary monarchy “exists only with the support and consent of the people.” Support for an elected government is expressed through the ballot box where “the message is a clear one for all to read,” she noted. “For us, a Royal Family, however, the message is often harder to read, obscured as it can be by deference, rhetoric or the conflicting currents of public opinion. But read it we must.”
It is a timeless message, and one that remains acutely relevant in these unprecedented times.
Town & Country Contributing Editor Victoria Murphy has reported on the British Royal Family for nine years.
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