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What drew in the millions beyond the seas?

April 30th, 2011

Do the royals enable Britain to still punch above its weight?

When Bruno Mars sang in ‘Billionaire’ that he wanted to “be on the cover of Forbes magazine / smiling next to Oprah and the Queen”, there could be little doubt that of all the world’s queens regnant or consort his definite article applied to Her Britannic Majesty.

Yesterday’s wedding provided proof once again of the enduring ability that British royalty has to engage not just the country but large sections of the entire world. But why? Why did so many people feel the pull to tune in to what for them was a foreign event involving people whose lifestyles are remote, at an awkward time of day or day of the week? There are many reasons, some of which overlap and not all of which will apply to everyone. Here are ten for starters:

1. Celebrity

Celebrity magazines make good money recording and displaying the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful, so that the average person who is none of those things has a glimpse into their world and maybe even gets to feel a part of it. It’s not uncommon for film- or music-stars to sell the media rights for big money because of this popular demand. Royalty is uber-celebrity.

2. Rarity

Celebrity weddings happen often enough to pad out magazines on a monthly basis. By contrast, this was just the eighth wedding since 1800 involving the British monarch or a direct heir to the throne, and that includes two for Charles.

3. Style

As public theatre goes, this was huge, inclusive to an extent and done with the style the royals carry off so well: carriages, processions, cheering crowds and the rest of it. Even some of those not bothered about the implications of the wedding just like the spectacle of it all. It doesn’t do any harm that the two at the centre of it all are young and good enough looking. Combined with their rarity, these events retain an ability to punch a big impression on the national and international memory.

4. Fantasy

For women especially, there’s the fairy-tale aspect to it: in the new Duchess of Cambridge’s case, she was a commoner (albeit one from a moderately wealthy family, though nothing like Diana‘s never mind the royals) for whom a prince really did come. There’ll have been more than a few women dreaming that but for whatever, it could have been them. Every woman wants to feel like a princess on her wedding day; she was.

5. History

This is a bit of a bogus one as unlike coronations and funerals, royal weddings as spectaculars are a relatively recent event, barely predating the TV age. Arguably, it was the TV age that was the making of them. Still, even if the ceremonial is of recent vintage, the institution that the marriage of a direct heir goes a long way to ensure the future of is much more ancient. It binds a people with its past but also many other people with their past and their peoples’ past. William’s grandmother, who still reigns, ruled over a substantial empire when she came to the throne. Her father was the last Emperor of India. His great-grandmother was Victoria. Her grandfather was George III. These are people whose names are tied into the history books across the world. Six American states are named after members of his family.

6. The future.

As things stand, William will in due course become king of 16 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Kate their queen. The likelihood is that not all will retain the British monarch as their head of state but despite that, they are significant figures on the world stage now and their importance will grow.

7. Authenticity

Unlike some mega-budget weddings of the rich and famous which consciously try to evoke the atmosphere of a royal wedding, this is the real deal (not least because in comparison with William and Kate, those imitations involve people who aren’t that rich and aren’t that famous). We’re only a little over a year in but it’ll take something for this not to have been the wedding of the decade.

8. Comprehensibility

Everything took place in English, the global Lingua Franca.

9. No better substitute

The combination of all the above factors is something no other institution can match, or at least, none that could, does. Japan’s monarchy is too remote; the Arab kingdoms and sultanates do not have the internal heritage or global historic links; the other European monarchies don’t have the spectacle (and operate in languages most people don’t understand, except perhaps the Spanish); the Vatican is too political and insufficiently celebrity (and by definition, does not do marriages!); political leaders cannot exist in the world-apart that royalty has to, nor do their careers have the endurance.

Despite the advent of democracy in so many aspects of public life, there is still an innate desire among many for the certainty and continuity that dynasty and heredity brings, even if not in their own country. Perhaps especially not in their own country. By default, the British royal family best fulfils the role and is close to having been adopted as the global royal family.

10. It’s a good news story

At a time when the news is full of wars, natural disasters and economic difficulties, a good-news story is a welcome relief. Everyone likes a wedding, which is by its nature an optimistic event, with happy people surrounding a young couple in love. What’s not to like?

As for curmudgeons begrudging the cost of yesterday’s events, could any other institution have matched the tremendous ‘soft power’ that the British monarchy so effectively demonstrated yesterday, and could a marketing budget of even £1bn have bought such widespread positive coverage for the country? Arguing for a scaled-down monarchy completely misses the point: it is the scale that gives it its value.

Which is why William and Kate’s first child will probably lead it into the next century.

David Herdson