The Royal We

This was not simply a wedding but the clearest indication yet of how the House of Windsor is positioning itself for the post-Elizabethan age

  • Andrew Cowie / UPPA / ZUMAPRESS

    Kate and William on the Carrage down to Buckingham Palace Friday April 29 2011.

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    Nor has Kate been spared the snobbery that Britons — or at any rate, broad strains in British journalism — reflexively direct against anyone perceived to have ambitions to move up the social scale. Just two years after she first caught their attention, the tabloids dubbed Prince William's girlfriend "Waity Katie." Her sole ambition, they implied, was to snare the future King. A columnist for the middle-England Daily Mail imagined the wedding thus: "Look at her go, the sheer velocity of that aisle-sprint making the bridal veil plume straight behind her, like the slipstream on a jet. Onwards, towards her Prince, her glittering prize." "In the U.K. we are all deeply obsessed with the issue of class. When the royal wedding was announced, newspaper inches were devoted to Kate's background," says Lee Elliot Major, research director at the Sutton Trust, an organization dedicated to fostering social mobility. "In England, particularly, you walk into a room and a lot of people will be assessing, whether it's consciously or subconsciously, where you are in the social-class rankings. Whether it's your accent, the way you look or the way you behave, there are always little clues."

    A Touch of Classlessness
    You might be forgiven for supposing that Britain has changed just as imperceptibly as its monarchical superstructure — that the country is still divided in three, with flat-capped laborers looking up to the white collar middle classes, which in turn defer to a louche upper crust of landed gentry, headed by the Windsors. And by some measures, you would be right.

    Income mobility — the opportunity to overcome an impoverished start in life — is notably restricted in Britain, as it is in the U.S. A child born into an affluent home in either country may expect to enjoy better opportunities throughout life than his counterpart from a hardscrabble neighborhood. In the U.K., by the age of 3, a poorer child tends to lag his wealthier equivalent in terms of personal development by 12 months. At 18, the rich kid, who, like a mere 7% of Britons, has enjoyed the benefits of a private education, is six times as likely to go to university and 55 times as likely to get into Oxford or Cambridge. Research by the Sutton Trust reveals that although the proportion of privately educated people at the top of British professional life has declined slightly in the past 20 years, more than half the leaders in most professions attended fee-paying schools.

    Nor can one overlook the varying degrees of privilege within this picture: certain private schools, among them Eton (which William attended) and Westminster, give their pupils a turbocharged chance of success, as a glance at Britain's posh government indicates. Led by Eton- and Oxford-educated David Cameron and Westminster- and Cambridge-educated Nick Clegg, more than 60% of the 29 Ministers around the Cabinet table were privately educated, and as many as 7 in 10 Ministers are alumni of Oxford or Cambridge. Alert to the charge that, as a beneficiary of the status quo, he has no real desire to change it, Cameron is usually at pains to present himself as a modern and demotic sort of bloke. A photograph from his student days showing him attired in the distinctive tailcoat worn by members of the Bullingdon, the irremediably toffish Oxford dining club, has been suppressed in a piece of news management that spotlights just how sensitive an issue class can be. Downing Street duly briefed the press that the Prime Minister would attend the royal wedding in a business suit. After traditionally minded Brits protested, he donned a morning suit after all.

    Britannia, like Cameron, is adept at presenting a modern face to the world. But she can still behave like a sclerotic old dame. Might the very fact that Britannia's head of state attains the role by birth, not merit, prove a bar to meritocracy? "There is no evidence, no science around this, but irrespective of the fact that the royal family does not have real power in the sense it did have in previous times, it's a powerful symbol of the hierarchy that still persists in the U.K.," muses Elliot Major. Brought up to spot invisible roadblocks to social mobility, Brits fear ridicule if they seek betterment — and Carole Middleton's mistreatment by the British press suggests those fears are justified. In the U.K., money is seen to buy lifestyle, not class.

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