Prince William and Kate Middleton. Prince William and Kate Middleton. Source: Pixby / shared under the license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Kevin Crane considers the  impact of the world’s worst Photoshop fail and argues it shows a crisis of monarchy and of the whole system which supports it

Even by the standards of their recent very bad years, 2024 has gotten off to a disastrous start for the royal family of the United Kingdom. A series of strange communications and curious public no-shows culminated at the beginning of March with the humiliation of having an official family portrait declared fake by every major news agency worldwide. Not since Prince Andrew ‘I don’t sweat’ interview have the house of Battenberg… sorry, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha… sorry, Windsor has been this exposed in the media.  And as with so many crises these days, you know it’s a big deal because the BBC has been forced to discuss it despite very clearly not wishing to do so.

The incident has been a thoroughly modern Web 2.0 commentary storm, with all the speculation and wild rumour-mongering you’ve grown to expect. Gossip about public figures is nothing new, and all social media has done is massively broaden people’s scope to have their tuppence worth on whatever current thing happens to be. What makes #KateGate edgy, however, is that it may have real-world consequences, or at least expose a real-world institutional failure, with implications well beyond the personal lives of the people directly involved.

A script too complicated to make up

To summarise what is truthfully known about the events running up to all this, the first inkling most people had that anything was amiss was when we were told that the royal family had the extraordinary bad luck of two hospitalisations in the New Year. King Charles had been seen by the doctors for an ‘enlarged prostate’ and his daughter-in-law Princess Kate was staying in the same hospital to recover from ‘planned abdominal surgery’. It was all delivered in the usual tone of nothing to worry about, and few of us would have noticed the detail that the heir to the throne, Prince William, was not with his wife because he was in Athens attending the funeral of his godfather. This man was Constantine, the last king of Greece and a man whose main passionate cause in life had been insisting he didn’t have a surname. He did have a surname, and it was Battenberg because of course, it was.

Still, once Wills had returned to Britain, he visited Kate in hospital and was apparently taking some time off official duties to support her. From the point of view of the British state, this was unfortunate timing, coinciding as it did with the King being indisposed because of his medical situation. Charles’ duties, ceremonial as they are, would normally fall to his first in line, so not having Wills about meant having to search for substitutes. The King’s other son, Prince Harry, stopped performing royal duties following a series of much-publicised bust-ups back in 2019 – he reports that William physically assaulted him during that time – and the King’s eldest brother is the rightfully shunned pervert, Prince Andrew. This left Charles’s wife, Queen Camilla, to officiate, which is not ideal given her public image which is mediocre at best.

Prince William was supposedly returning to ‘work’ at the start of February, which then made it very surprising when he suddenly failed to turn up to a memorial service for King Constantine a couple of weeks later for unspecified ‘personal reasons’. Constantine did have another British godchild, William’s cousin Lady Gabriella, who had accompanied him to Athens the previous month, but she also couldn’t be there. Put a pin in that, as they say.

The month of March comes, and on the 4th, Kate is apparently home from hospital, having not been seen by the public since Christmas and 48 days after the declared date of the operation. Observers express genuine concern about her well-being at this point, as that is a remarkably long recovery time for a woman of 41 years old. It is also observed that palace publicity becomes markedly odd: we still don’t know what’s happening with the King, who has also not been seen. The British Army announces that Kate will be attending a major parade, then they un-announce it. A press photographer gets an unclear picture, claimed to be of Kate, in her mother’s car in Windsor (the town, not the fake family name).

Finally, on 9 March, the King’s youngest brother, Prince Edward, breaks cover to reveal that the King has, in reality, got cancer and not merely a prostate problem, but he’s quick to say everything was fine with Kate and people should stop speculating. The next day happens to be Mothering Sunday, so Kate’s official social media releases a picture of her beaming with the kids just to put everyone’s minds to rest … and then all hell broke loose.

Rabbit Holes Everywhere

It took the palace basically a day to respond to the exposure of the photograph, and the first stab at doing so was scarcely less clumsy than the photo’s editing. A Tweet signed in Kate’s name apologised for the upset and said that she’d merely retouched the photo herself ‘like many amateur photographers’. This was a laughable response: the idea that the Princess of the realm doesn’t have a full-time personal assistant to handle her social media is ludicrous.

By the end of Monday, ‘Where’s Kate?’ had essentially become the biggest talking point on the Anglophone internet, with observations ranging from reasonable, if somewhat overly technical, deconstructions of the specific provenance of the elements of the fake picture, to some positively baroque narratives. Many of these relate to Cousin Gabriella, or rather they relate to the death of her husband.

Lady Gabriella failed to attend the Constantine memorial, on the same day William had, because her husband of the previous five years had suddenly died two days prior. A classic locked-room scenario, the press coyly stated that Thomas Kingston had died of ‘an acute head trauma’ with ‘a gun next to him’. Kingston was a financier and erstwhile British diplomat. Oh, and former boyfriend of Princess Kate’s sister Pippa Middleton. Even if you think that this really is probably just an exceptionally tragic coincidence (which it most probably is) you really can forgive some people for finding it just a bit too uncanny, particularly against a backdrop of genuinely bizarre public communications from the senior establishment.

In any case, even prosaic interpretations of events cannot make the observable facts conducive to any version of ‘business as usual’ for the royals. No clear photo of Kate has been produced, William’s resumed public appearances have him looking visibly off-kilter, and it has been confirmed that the King is seriously ill.

Things Falling Apart

For anyone not personally affected by the ill-health, or death, of royal family members, the most important thing that has actually happened here is that the media and image control of the royals has broken in ways that we are simply not used to seeing. Even two years ago, when Queen Elizabeth knew perfectly well that she was dying, the control that the palace had over the media narrative was such that then nation was persuaded to press ahead with Diamond Jubilee celebrations in which she was in no fit state to participate. Ironically, this was what actually revealed to many people that she was very near to death.

Many of us who oppose monarchy predicted that the loss of Elizabeth as a specific personality was going to be a problem for the institution, and it has come to pass. Last years’ coronation of the King was visibly much less of a popular national event than his mother’s funeral had been. Monarchists have much to fear from the looming death of Charles, because there will be further diminishing returns on more obscure pseudo-medieval pageantry. There is, however, an additional thing that they fear.

Much of the speculation about royal private lives you can see online is fanciful, but some is not. Significantly, more and more people in the English-speaking world are becoming aware of reports that are common in the international press that history has repeated itself regarding the heir to the throne. Like his father in the 1980s and 1990s, William is widely reported to be having an affair with an aristocratic woman for many years, and it is this, rather than the supposed ‘controversial’ personality of Meghan Markle, that led to the conflict that drove his little brother away from the palace.

The bizarre behaviour at the palace is likely to in fact be panic: Charles is 75 years old and battling cancer, those aren’t good odds even with the best healthcare in the world. If he were to die while his son’s marriage is in freefall due to infidelity (something he can hardly preach about, as Queen Camilla was his aristocratic mistress) this would place William V in the position of being the first reigning King to have divorced his Queen since Henry VIII. That is very much not the modern image anyone in Buckingham Palace wants. It seems at least likely that Katherine does not relish the prospect of re-enacting the later life of her renaissance-era namesake, and this is the most likely reason why the Princess is not out and about. All of this ends up impacting politics: it will just make it harder to further supress the burning question of why any of this dynastic drama needs to be so thoroughly integrated into public life in this country.

William the Last?

The British public remain majority monarchist, for now, but even enthusiasts for the crown are openly admitting that this is a shifting situation. Pollsters had shown solid support for the royals for many decades, indeed it was trending upwards in the early 2010s, not least because the marriage of William and Kate and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee had been largely successful public events. Things have been going markedly wrong since 2019, when Prince Andrew self-destructed on TV in the wake of his association with the infamous sex traffickers Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Even the normally astute Elizabeth somewhat damaged her image by being seen to defend him after the majority of the public expressed righteous disgust at Andrew’s personal behaviour.

Since then, we’ve had the utterly overcooked dispute between Harry/Meghan and Wills/Kate, which I think has even started getting boring to hardcore royal fans. Prince Philip’s death in 2021 was a much lower priority for the public than the political-media establishment wanted it to be, although in that instance they did do a bang-up job of keeping that prince’s marital infidelities under wraps in the British and American press (not a qualm held by the French press, in case you are curious). As mentioned, the ceremonies that marked the end of Elizabeth’s life were only partial successes.

The timing of this decline should scream something else to us though: it coincides with the deep social crisis that Britain has entered since the end of the previous decade. The polling in favour of retaining the monarchy is remarkably similar to that of the Conservative Party: strong only amongst retired people, and increasingly apathetic or hostile as you look at younger and younger generations. The monarchy is, in a slightly Shakespearian way, failing in sympathetic synchronicity with the state it is meant to personify. In their own way, monarchists do recognise this, often citing the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ (as one is supposed to politely call the collapse of neoliberalism), as a key reason why more and more people are turning away from the royals.

The British royals, like all the modern monarchies, are ultimately the result of a state-building compromise that was made when capitalism was firmly established. This happened in Britain before almost anywhere else, but we are still only talking about the seventeenth century. The deal was that a version of the leaders of the pre-modern order (or some readily available German substitutes) were privileged to remain as notional heads of the new state. They could maintain around them a structure of patronage and unearned wealth, in exchange for which they had to confer an air of ancientness, continuity and mystique onto the really quite banal and oftentimes unpleasant functions of the new bourgeois state. This has worked very well as an ideological device. It does, however, need the monarch to be projecting their intangible qualities onto a state that is functioning well for the capitalist class, and that can reciprocate by making sure that material factors don’t impinge too much on the fantastical image of the royals. In Britain today, both sides of this setup are now failing in parallel, which is perhaps something we should have always expected them to do. While we on the revolutionary left have always opposed monarchy – ‘What sort of socialist is not a republican?’ as James Connolly once put it – we have generally not placed abolishing it high on lists of issues to organise around. The general level of support for the institution seemed too high, it was not an issue worth splitting other coalitions over, it never really felt urgent. The present set of debacles afflicting the Family Battenberg may have changed that calculation for good.

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