The job of the royal family is to be a family: can celebrity elites William and Kate keep up the good work?

Written by Heather. Posted in Featured, News

William and KateYesterday David Cameron tweeted: “I’m delighted for the Duke and Duchess now their son has been born. The whole country will celebrate. They’ll make wonderful parents.” Like many celebrity elites and as a ‘super class’ of the very rich and privileged the security of the royal family as a national institution is partly dependent on a contradictory cult of ordinariness. This is best nurtured through the managed intimacy of living a family life in the public eye. In Michael Billig’s words, ‘the job of the royal family is to be a family’. In this guest post Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn reveal the class camouflage that helps keep the royal family popular.

Social psychologist Michael Billig once declared that ‘there is an ideological job of settlement to be done’ to ensure that any class-based resentment at royal privilege is contained. He argued that the public perception has to be that the royal family is pulling its weight. Despite being an elite class it also needs to be approachable and in touch with ordinary people. In his terms, both personal and class morality is at play in the public’s relationship with the royals. But if last week’s Ipsos Mori poll is anything to go by then the British Monarchy has little cause for concern. It found that an astounding 77% of Britons wanted the nation to remain a monarchy. While the poll showed that most Britons think William and Kate’s first-born should have a ‘normal job’ before taking on royal duties they also accepted that their offspring could not have a ‘normal upbringing’.

Like many celebrity elites and as a ‘super class’ of the very rich and privileged the security of the royal family as a national institution is partly dependent on a contradictory cult of ordinariness. This is best nurtured through the media-managed intimacy of living a family life in the public eye. In Billig’s words, ‘the job of the royal family is to be a family’. As Billig demonstrated in the early 1990s through interviews with members of the public, their tolerance of the privileges of an hereditary elite is dependent partly on it conducting its personal matters with dignity. And, we might add post-Diana, with a feel for ‘normal’ modern life and contemporary values. For many years this model of the ‘normal’ modern family was essentially an idealised upper middle-class one, and since the 1960s, the family has aimed to fit its public image to this approachable template.


But clearly by the 2000s, its younger members could not realistically hold on to the staid picture of upper middle class, town-and-country pursuits that had secured the loyalty of older British subjects. The younger royals are conspicuously rich and their lifestyles have been reported alongside other globally mobile elites. Headlines such as ‘Royal baby: politicians and celebrities from David Cameron to Kim Kardashian send congratulations to Will and Kate’ highlight the shifting terrain of celebrity culture that the younger royals have to negotiate. But perhaps they do not have too much to worry about. After all, since the Diana years, conspicuous wealth and celebrity lifestyles have become more acceptable and the profound inequalities between rich and poor do not seem to offend people. An ESRC survey in 2008, for example, showed that while many of us resent the poor, very few resent the rich and famous.

Nonetheless, as supporters and critics alike have noted, even though the royals inhabit a world apart this does not mean that they can entirely jettison the national emphasis on the solid family that is central to their continuing popular support. The presentation of the royal family as sort of middle class, kind of approachable and ‘just like us’ continues today, albeit heavily adapted to make sense in changing times. This class camouflage is a real challenge to sustain, especially during times of austerity and when consumerist lifestyles are under review for real middle-class families.

But there is no shortage of advice to help William and Kate make the best of a difficult situation. See, for example, historian and politician Tristram Hunt’s 2011 attempt to envisage a credible future for a working monarchy. He ends his own modest proposal with these words for the future King:

Building his own family, sustaining his marriage, will also be for William a deeply progressive act. For few events affect the life chances of children more than growing up in a safe and secure environment. As he seeks to do so, to make the personal political, he will provide a more honourable model of duty and service than did the baby-boomer generation of royals which preceded him.

What can this mean? Clearly this supports the notion that the royal family must also be an ideal-typical model family for the nation’s benefit. But, if we take ‘progressive’ to mean action in favour of change, reform, progress or improvement, how does sustaining a royal marriage become a progressive act and make the personal political?

Hunt advises the younger generation of royals to differentiate themselves from the recently much-maligned baby-boomers. In political debate these have been blamed for a post-recession blight in job prospects and housing, for hardships attributed in part to their selfish and over-indulgent lifestyles and the benefits they accrued from rising property values. These actions have been blamed for damaging the life chances of future generations. But how can the fall-out from a banking crisis, a world economic downturn and a self-indulgent older generation affect a family whose life chances are supported by immense wealth and long-held dynastic connections? History already shows that the extra-marital affairs and eventual divorce of William’s parents Diana and Charles, which could in some families precipitate a social fall, failed to impact on his and his descendants’ life chances. Here Hunt refreshes an ideologically convenient mythology of the royal family as essentially middle class (just like us) when they are not. As such this is unconvincing and simply dishonest. Perhaps the class camouflage is wearing thin after all.


About the authors

Anita Biressi is Reader in Media Cultures at the University of Roehampton.

Heather Nunn is Professor of Politics and Culture at the University of Roehampton.

Anita and Heather’s chapter on the aristocracy, adaptation and change appears in their new book titled Class and Contemporary British Culture (Palgrave, 2013). Anita and Heather are currently researching for a new book called Politics Interrupted about politics, media and non-elite voices.

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  • School of Sport and Education, Brunel University
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