John Humphrys - Royal Tours: Best Stay at Home?

March 25, 2022, 3:46 PM GMT+0

At a first casual glance, the Caribbean trip of William and Kate was a success. Kate was her usual cheerful self, charming everyone she met with her warm smile and eagerness to join in whatever activities her hosts had planned. As a future king William also did what was expected of him and delivered some serious thoughts on the important issues of the day. Job done. Just another royal tour. Just the sort of thing William’s grandmother and her husband Phillip might have carried out fifty or sixty years ago – though possibly without the scuba diving. At a second glance, a very different picture emerges. The trip was a disaster. You might expect that judgement from died-in-the-wool republicans. But the Daily Mail? It’s as staunchly monarchist as they come yet ‘disaster’ was the word Jan Moir, their star columnist, used to describe it and she was not alone. It was also used by the BBC’s correspondent. But does it matter if the days of royal tours to once welcoming Commonwealth countries are numbered? And if it does, what does it tell us about the future of the monarchy?

It's not as if William would have been unaware of the tensions underlying his Caribbean tour. He would have been briefed well in advance that he could expect a pretty cool reception – especially in Jamaica. The Windrush scandal has left its scars on relations with the UK but the darkest shadow was cast centuries ago by Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. Prince William addressed it head on in his first speech. It was slavery, he said, about which he wanted to “express my profound sorrow”. It was “abhorrent” and it should never have happened. “While the pain runs deep”, he said, “Jamaica continues to forge its future with determination, courage and fortitude. The strength and shared sense of purpose of the Jamaican people, represented in your flag and motto, celebrate an invincible spirit."

The problem for William was that the prime minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, had already used his speeches and interviews to emphasise the distance between his country and ours. The phrase he chose that would have caused alarm bells to ring 4,000 miles away in Buckingham Palace was “moving on”. He made it plain to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that their visit had given Jamaica the opportunity to address "unresolved" issues. Lest there was any doubt what those issues were he spelt it out in simple language. Jamaica intended to “fulfil its destiny as an independent country”. In other words, it intends to abandon the monarchy.

Jamaica is in good company. Of the 54 commonwealth countries, the Queen is head of state in only fifteen. Canada is allegedly the Queen’s favourite - she’s made more state visits there than to any other country – but last year a poll found that fewer than a a third of Canadians want to keep a British monarch as head of state for future generations. Last month former Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his country should hold another referendum on replacing the UK monarch with an Australian head of state.

So the bare statistics tell a pretty dismal story from a royalist’s perspective. But there’s something else that might cause brows to furrow in Buckingham Palace and that’s the tone of the coverage of this latest royal tour. It’s worth remembering that William and Kate are, with the obvious exception of the Queen herself, the most popular royals on the block. They have, in good old tabloid language, won the nation’s heart because of their down-to-earth approach, their seeming dedication to duty and, of course, the contrast with Harry and Meghan. Which takes us back to the Daily Mail and Jan Moir’s column. Here’s how she began it:

“Let’s face it, William and Kate's Jamaican tour is a disaster. If this is the shape of things to come, one can only fear for the future of the monarchy itself. You can see the chronicle of its death foretold in every moment from the Trench Town bongo- bashing to emeralds and apologies at the governor's dinner in Kingston: the speeches are squirming, the dutiful set pieces are a cringe, the optics are bad. White ultra-privileged royalty gamely watching the locals caper about and entertain them; later shaking the hands of Jamaicans corralled behind wire fencing? It's all so last century. It's all so over. From 4,000 miles away, I am dying of embarrassment. For myself, for our country, for the Cambridges. Since the Queen and Prince Philip made the same trip in 1953 and even since their last visit in 2002 everything has changed. The world is a different place while history itself is going through a boil wash of revisionism ... one that finds the royals on the wrong side of the divide down there at the bottom of the basket among the dirty laundry of colonialism and the stains of the past.”

And here’s how it ended: “The very idea that the Royal Family should sally forth, in all their finery and jewels, to faraway lands to meet people they expect to bow and curtsey to them, or pay homage at the very least, is an increasing absurdity. The royals on the road? It is like a band going on a farewell tour to play their greatest hits, only to discover that no one is listening any more, that the fans are moving to a different drumbeat. It is not over yet, not quite. However, this week we glimpsed the royal future post-Queen and it is not looking bright. Today, William is as ridiculous and obsolete as a royal dodo.”

This is very strong stuff from the most widely read newspaper in the land, a newspaper which has been second to none in its support for the monarchy and prides itself on speaking for the ordinary man and woman in the street. You expect this sort of coverage from The Guardian maybe, but not from the Mail. And it was hardly alone. Janice Turner, a leading columnist on The Times, took a similar view:

“Kate wears some smashing frocks with her there's-nowhere-I'd-rather-be smile. William is friendly, earnest, smart-casual. The trouble is this model of soft power British diplomacy is bust. White royals dancing with old Jamaican ladies, playing drums and maracas with locals then gliding off for champagne at the governor's mansion is as passé as pith helmets.

“Kate and Wills are troopers. The fault lies with the palace, as always impervious to social change. After Black Lives Matter, slavery and imperial plunder are no longer too beastly to be mentioned. Deploying the royal A-team won't stop Jamaica, or 14 other former British colonies, from becoming republics. Indeed, gurning princes only remind people they're still subjects of a distant Queen.

“Anyway, isn't that legacy now embarrassing for Britain, too? In a modern Commonwealth, we should meet these democratic nations eye-to-eye, without colonial cosplay. Kate and Wills must be self-aware enough to see their visit is not just angering Caribbean republicans, it's making the rest of us cringe.”

The BBC’s royal correspondent Jonny Dymond, was more charitable. During event after event, he reported, the couple “did that royal thing of sprinkling a little magic and a little joy into people's lives. They thanked those who so often go un-thanked and unrewarded for their efforts, drawing attention to stubbornly unfashionable causes and issues.”

But even Dymond was shocked by what, he said, “looked to many as some sort of white-saviour parody, with Kate and William fleetingly making contact with the outstretched fingers of Jamaican children, pushing through a wire fence.” He called it “a bad misstep for a couple who are surprisingly media-savvy. And it was not the only one on this curiously disorganised trip.” And he concluded: “Times have changed. The Royal Family have in the past been pretty good at changing with them. But not on this tour. And second chances are these days few and far between.”

So what do you make of it? Did the tour make you “cringe” like Jan Moir? Do you believe the days of royal tours are over or even that independent countries should no longer bow to a head of state from a foreign land? And what effect, if any, do you think all this will have on an institution that will no longer have Queen Elizabeth as its head?

Let us know.