The Democratisation of Hierarchy: Monarchy and Modern Britain, 1947-2017

Session Abstract : Although class inequality has had a fundamental impact on Britain since 1945, remarkably little scholarly attention has focused on how social elites have survived and prospered in this period. Taking the monarchy as a case study, this panel draws together new historical and sociological research to explore how elites have successfully adapted to the shifting social, economic, and political terrains of post-war Britain. More specifically, through three case studies on Princess Elizabeth, the Honours System, and the Cambridges, we examine how royalty has utilized cultures of duty, service, work, family, and celebrity in order to instigate a democratization of hierarchy. We argue that this process has obscured and legitimized traditional ideas of hierarchy and privilege, strengthening the monarchy’s elite position in a democratic post-war environment.

Session Chair: Max Jones

Paper 1 Abstract : Public burdens, private desires: monarchy, duty, and family life in modern Britain

Ed Owens, University of Lincoln

On 21 April 1947, Princess Elizabeth broadcasted a special twenty-first birthday message to the Commonwealth and empire. Written for her by The Times journalist and royal biographer, Dermott Morrah, the message emphasized the theme of duty: the future queen dedicated her life to the service of her peoples and entreated them to support her in her task. Morrah had his finger on the pulse of British public opinion. The broadcast proved highly successful, earning the princess the admiration of many of her subjects. More significant still was the way the broadcast fostered support for Elizabeth’s choice of husband. In the weeks and months beforehand, the public had been split on the question of whether the princess should be allowed to marry Prince Philip of Greece. The birthday broadcast helped swing opinion behind the love match, with members of the public notably commenting how the princess deserved a happy family life because of her burdensome public role.

Beginning with the 1947 case study, this paper explores the tension between the royal discourses on the burdens of public service and the desire for fulfilment in private life. I argue that courtiers and royal aids crafted a public language of royal suffering in the 1930s which emphasized that royal duty obstructed personal happiness. I suggest that this idea gained further traction through the reigns of Edward VIII and George VI, but that it reached its apotheosis as part of a post-war national culture which prioritized fulfilment in the domestic sphere. I use personal testimonies written by the public to examine how they expressed loyalty to the monarchy which was rooted in a sympathy for the way royal duty seemed to eclipse personal happiness within the family setting. In this vein, I argue that the monarchy has successfully elevated a public image which has engendered popular support for the House of Windsor, and has helped neutralize public criticism of royal privilege.

Paper 2 Abstract : Economies of duty: honours, monarchy and society, 1993 to the present

Toby Harper, Providence College

In 1993 John Major reformed the British honours system with the stated goal of making it serve his vision of a “classless” society. His reforms were the most significant to the system since the 1917 creation of the British Empire: they officially decoupled class from honorific rank at all levels; they began a process of making the nomination and selection process less opaque; and they prioritized voluntary over state service. By increasing the share of honours to volunteers as opposed to state employees Major both realigned the official moral economy of honour and also brought two of the monarchy’s most important functions more into line with one another: the “fount of honour” and the leader of the voluntary sector. Because of this, these reforms were more successful than attempts by Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and other post-war leaders to make honours (and, indeed, the royal family) serve political goals.

These reforms sought a seemingly paradoxical compromise between the classless and the hierarchical. Since 1993 politicians and civil servants have tried to make the hierarchical and monarchical honours system appear to recognize merit without expressing class. Often these attempts simply recapitulated old hierarchies with new language, but in some cases they created new ones that can help us understand how class and the monarchy’s relationship to class hierarchies have changed in contemporary Britain. To this end, this paper traces the changing importance of the donation of time, money and status in the British honours system since Major’s reforms.

Paper 3 Abstract : “Part-time royals”: the Cambridges and royal work

Laura Clancy, Lancaster University

Since their marriage in 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton have avoided London life and primarily resided at Amner Hall in Norfolk. Despite its decadence, the mansion is popularized in media reports as the “perfect family home”, where William and Kate can “avoid the spotlight” and raise their two children. This narrative speaks directly to representations of the Cambridges as embodying an idealized middle-class domesticity. From Kate the “commoner Princess” to apparently informal official photographs, the family appear to eschew monarchical tradition, and instead symbolize “ordinary” family life, thus acting as figures of emulation for ways of living and being in contemporary Britain. However, despite their popularity, William and Kate have been routinely criticized for hiding in Norfolk and avoiding royal duties, with press reports dubbing them “part-time royals” and “workshy” because of a lack of official engagements.

This presentation will mobilize this dichotomy to consider the ideological role of royal work. The contemporary preoccupation with the monarchy as the apotheosis of philanthropy and patronage (Prochaska, 1995) is not accidental, but rather a direct consequence of the shift to constitutional monarchy, and discourses of royal work seek to legitimate the endurance of the royal family through the prism of labour, duty, and contribution to British life. Furthermore, the ideology of royal work is just as vital to royal public relations as are representations of the Cambridges’ ordinariness and relatability. Their bourgeoisation has been carefully crafted, detaching them (and thus the monarchy as a whole) from class privilege and accusations of aristocratic profligacy. Although royal work is typically narrowly defined in terms of official engagements, this presentation will argue that royal work actually incorporates everything which aims to legitimate and reify the position of the monarchy in contemporary Britain.