Once upon a time, Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party and the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or ukip, could reliably command the attention of the people of Britain by having the loudest, most obnoxiously Brexity voice in the public arena. Times have changed. Despite reports that one in five Britons is Brexit-prepping, and amid predictions that the pound may plunge to parity with the dollar in the case of a no-deal exit, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson—who has felt moved to assurethe British people that the planes will fly, there will be clean drinking water, there will be whey for the Mars bars—is apparently having a contest with his own mirror reflection to see whose no-deal Brexit is the hardest. In the light of such high-profile posturing, Farage has had to gain attention by other means: this week, by denigrating members of the Royal Family to a gathering of Sydney’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or cpac.
Reportedly, Farage described the late Queen Mother as “a slightly overweight, chain-smoking gin drinker,” a characterization that, though it may not be strictly false—the Queen Mother’s fondness for a tipple was regarded as part of her appeal—was an unseemly way to speak of the departed. (Farage himself has been criticized in the lower strata of the British press for pretending to like beer, the people’s drink, when, in reality, he prefers a namby-pamby, Europhilic glass of wine.) Farage also referred to Prince Charles, the future monarch, as “Charlie Boy”—not very deferential, that. Most contentiously, he criticized Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, for henpecking her husband, Prince Harry, into dreary political correctness. Harry, Farage favorably noted, was once a “young, brave, boisterous, all-male, getting into trouble, turning up at stag parties inappropriately dressed, drinking too much and causing all kinds of mayhem” sort of prince. (The inappropriate party costume of which Farage approved was a shabby interpretation of a Nazi uniform, complete with a swastika armband, that Harry wore to a posh friend’s birthday party, in 2005.) After meeting Markle, Harry’s laddish appeal has “fallen off a cliff,” Farage complained. Some reports have Farage calling Harry the “Prince of Wokeness,” a coinage sure to delight tabloid-headline writers.
The goings on of the Royal Family can almost always be relied upon to provide a piquant counterpoint to current events in Britain. That’s partly what the royals are there for. Underwritten by the taxpayer—to the tune of sixty-seven million pounds for the Queen’s expenses alone last year, including a costly refurbishment of Buckingham Palace—the royals are, up to a point, public property. The Queen may be unimpeachable: even Farage could summon no snark for her, calling her an “amazing, awe-inspiring woman.” But the rest of them, whether married in or born to it, are regarded as fair game for commentary or criticism. Even their public appeals for privacy—for instance, the Sussexes’ insistence on withholding the names of their son’s godparents—are up for debate, as when Patrick Jephson, a former private secretary to Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, told Vanity Fair that such withholding “looks either naïve or manipulative,” given that in the Church of England (of which Harry’s grandma is the head) godparents are a matter of public record.
At times of political or economic upheaval, the royal-news narrative has often provided a diversion from, and sometimes a commentary upon, the wider concerns of the nation. In 1992, a year marked by recession and by the collapse, on what became known as Black Wednesday, of the pound, the royals also experienced what the Queen memorably called an “annus horribilis.” Royal depredations included a scandal over Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, being photographed having her toes sucked by John Bryan, her Texan financial adviser, and the leak of the so-called Squidgygate tapes, the surreptitiously recorded and embarrassingly intimate telephone calls between Princess Diana and her childhood friend James Gilbey—the heir to a gin fortune, as it happens. That led, in the early days of 1993, to the promise of an annus yet more horribilis, with the release of the Camillagate tapes, telephone recordings in which Charles spoke to his then mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, of his yearning to be her tampon. (The inventively perverse imagination required of Charles to come up with such a formulation—more kinky than kingly—was not widely credited at the time, nor since.) The parallel collapse, in the early nineties, of the British financial system and of the then-young royals’ marriages—the Duke and Duchess of York separated in March of 1992, while Charles and Diana hung on until December—offers a salutary example of the way in which royal stories, apparently serving as a diversion, can actually illuminate the main events of the day, with hitherto reliable components of British life, the monarchy and the currency, suddenly giving way under untoward pressures.
So what to make of the latest non-Farage barrage of royal news? For months, the British newspapers have been full of elliptical, libel-skirting accounts of a friendship rupture between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, and their neighbors in Norfolk, the Marquess of Cholmondeley and his wife, Rose Hanbury. This has mostly given British chroniclers of class the opportunity to examine the culture of the so-called Turnip Toffs, those aristocratic residents of the flat, agricultural, wealthy terrain in the east of England, where the Cambridges were granted, as a wedding gift from the Queen, a house on the royal Sandringham estate, which lies close to Houghton Hall, a Palladian mansion that is the seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley. In one such account, by Sophia Money-Coutts, the impeccably named correspondent for the London Times, a well-born local gave the recipe for a Turnip Toff: “Allow the eccentric to become convinced that the earth is flat and consists entirely of Norfolk. Mix in a soupcon of gentleness—as long as you aren’t a bird or a fish, there is not a truly nasty bone in the creature.” The insular temperament of the Toffs is shared, apparently, by the larger population of the area, whom we might refer to as the Turnip Plebs. Nearly sixty per cent of voters in Norfolk favored leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum; one Norfolk M.P., Sir Henry Bellingham, spoke for the bring-it-on brigade when he said, a few months ago, that, though there might be short-term disruption in the case of a no-deal Brexit, “Britain has had to cope with far worse in the past and made a success of it.” More recently, Bellingham has applauded the “optimism and aspiration” of Johnson, even if reports of inevitable food shortages raise the alarming prospect of Norfolk residents being reduced to subsisting on the root vegetables for which their aristocratic overlords are named.
What other news from the royals? Twenty-seven years after the toe-sucking humiliation of his estranged wife, Prince Andrew is making headlines again—not in a good way. The Duke of York has slid during his lifetime from second in line to the throne to the eighth; he has seen his cultural stock similarly decline in the same period. He and the Duchess of York have lately been regarded as exemplars of conscious uncoupling—Princess Eugenie, their younger daughter, has called her parents “the best divorced couple I know.” In the wake of the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted pedophile who last week died, by apparent suicide, in jail, and with whom the extent of Prince Andrew’s acquaintance has yet to be fully explained or accounted for, the Duke of York appears to be just another sleazy, rich white guy of the sort doing so well in our current moment, from the President of the United States on down.
Then there’s Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who in the eyes of some scolding observers can do no right. She has just guest-edited the September issue of British Vogue, using its pages to highlight fifteen admirable women across the world, including Michelle Obama, Jacinda Ardern, and Greta Thunberg. Much has been made of the fact that Markle declined to be photographed for the cover, saying that it would be “boastful” to do so under the circumstances. Given that the Duchess of Cambridge posed for the magazine’s centenary cover, in 2016, some commentators have taken this to be fuel for an alleged and possibly imaginary feud between the two women.
More generously, the choice might be interpreted as an effort on the part of Markle, who has the privilege and perspective of being an outsider to the country and the institution of the monarchy, to use her platform to offer an alternative approach to their long-established if sometimes dubious conventions. The issue’s cover is divided into a four-by-four grid featuring black-and-white portraits of the featured women; the final small rectangle is mirrored, offering, the Duchess wrote, in her guest editor’s letter, “a space for you, the reader, to see yourself.” This notion works better conceptually than it does practically: any would-be reader lucky enough to find a copy of the September issue of Vogue on the nation’s depleted newsstands will discover that her reflection is murky and distorted. Murky and distorted might also describe, more or less, the prevailing mood in the country, as, seemingly inexorably, Britain prepares to take a step seen by all sensible analysts as an act of national self-harm on an epic scale. Although Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party and its one Member of Parliament, has called for an emergency “Cabinet of Women” to think the country’s way out of the Brexit snarl, it hardly seems likely to prevail against the Cabinet of Eton that seems to be the nation’s default.
And what of the Queen in all this—she who nominally reigns over the United Kingdom as it faces its greatest danger of disunity in centuries? According to the Times, the monarch has privately expressed her dismay at Parliament’s inability to govern; meanwhile, the Queen’s private secretary, Edward Young, has been striving to insure that Parliament, rather than the Queen, will have to take responsibility for determining who will lead the country if Johnson cannot command a majority. “Edward is very keen on precedent,” the paper quoted a royal source as saying. “The challenge here is that he might not find a similar previous scenario.” I’ll say. All this will, one day, make excellent material for the twentieth season of “The Crown,” the third season of which was recently teased with a snippet of Olivia Colman, who plays the monarch in middle age, looking regal in a white satin dress, tiara, and dour expression. She has no idea what’s coming, and already she looks far from amused.