Johann Hari is suffering through the run-up to the royal wedding:
We live with a weird cognitive dissonance in Britain. We are always saying we should be a meritocracy, but we shriek in horror at the idea that we should pick our head of state on the basis of merit. Earlier this month, David Cameron in an interview lamented that too many people in Britain get ahead simply because of who their parents are, and said it was a scandal. A few minutes later, without missing a beat, he praised the monarchy as the best of Britain. Nobody laughed.
I confess that this queen is not so into that Queen. But the incoherence of the monarchy is perhaps one reason it endures. It just is. And to have a family represent a nation is a brilliant formula, and avoids the Brits getting the knickers on a twist over, say, flags. Johnnie Freedland explores the whole dichotomy in a lovely essay in the current NYRB. This gets to the nub of the obsession, some kind of fusion of patriotism, celebrity and tradition:
For many, the royals remain the ultimate soap opera, a family saga that, like the best of the genre, seems to have gone on forever. Ian Jack recently recalled in the Guardian the conversation he and his wife had on returning from seeing The King’s Speech:
“So how many brothers did George VI actually have?”
“Well, there’s Edward the Abdicator and there’s the other one mentioned in the film—John, the one we never used to hear about, who had epilepsy and died young. And then there’s a couple of dukes, Kent, the one who died in the air crash, and the other one—Norfolk?”
“You mean Gloucester,” my wife said, and so I did. Norfolk is the Catholic duke who lives in Arundel; he has nothing to do with it. “But George VI had a sister, too. A total of five brothers and a sister is what I remember.”
“No, I think Marina married Kent.” She looked towards the ceiling like a spiritualist. “I’m getting the name the Hon Angus Ogilvy here. Whoever he was or is, he’s mixed up in this somewhere.”
Its like Trivial Pursuit for an entire country. And we just cannot rid ourselves of it.