“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do”. Most of us recognise the truth of Philip Larkin’s lines. But for Prince George of Cambridge, the infant formerly known as the Royal Baby, things are a little more complicated. He’s got his parents but he’s also got the rest of his family, the British establishment and the public to contend with. He’s not even two years old, but he has his own Wikipedia page and is already playing an important role for Brand Britain, a product that is preserved in Duchy Originals aspic, traditional and unchanging.
Over the weekend, that brand got a new boost when Kensington Palace released photos of George and his month-old sister Charlotte. Each one, as Us Weekly put it, was “more awww-inducing than the last”. They were also perfectly, precisely on-message for the royal family. George, wearing knee-length, light-blue socks, smart shoes and a white and blue shirt with a naval feel to it, looked like a Victorian king-in-waiting.
The underlying theme was one of continuity: “One day, loyal subjects, I too will rule you”. The photos resembled those taken of Prince Charles and Princess Anne 65 years ago, which in turn resembled photos taken of their parents, and so on back to the arrival of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in the United Kingdom in 1840.
“I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel or unusual about these pictures: the royals have been releasing photos of themselves for more than 100 years”, Stephen Bates, author of the forthcoming book Royalty Inc, told me. The trouble is, the royals have been releasing more or less the same photo for those 100+ years. As the fashion commentator Daryoush Haj-Najafi put it to me: “Is it not obvious that the royals do not know how to be modern? If they did, they would wear modern clothes”.
The world outside their palaces may change but the projection of tradition and continuity from the family remains the same. Infants across the land may be wearing tracksuits but young George looks ready to inspect the poop deck of HMS Victory. Continuity is key: the photos tell us that the royal family has, and always will, be with us. That, of course, is what the fans want. It’s reassuring. It’s nostalgic. The newspapers and magazines love it. It reminds their readers of a time and place they like to imagine existed. Of village greens, tea and the labourer doffing his cap to the local lord. If Prince George were kitted out like North West, there’d be an outcry.
Last year, the People’s Daily, an official Chinese newspaper, wrote that Britain was an “old, declining empire” that resorted to “eccentric acts” to hide its embarrassment over its declining power. But these eccentric acts have become a huge part of Britain’s projection abroad. Britain is now an old place for new money, a place of pomp, circumstance and entrenched class structures. Brands such as Burberry trade heavily on this sense of Britain as a theme park from the past, a place in which children dressed for the 1850s are paraded before the cameras to reassure the public that nothing ever changes.
“I’m not very good at being a performing monkey”, Prince Charles once said. Sadly for him, this is what he has had to spend much of his life doing. As a royal, you are crucial to Britain’s soft power. You sell products and project the image of a country that is lost to the past but very much open for business. Prince George, not yet two, is already part of that process. With his side parting and puffy cheeks, he even looks a bit like David Cameron, a fellow member of the ruling class.
To adapt the words of The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob, it would seem that while our guilty conscience might move us to vote Labour, deep down we long for a cold-hearted Conservative to lower taxes, slash benefits and rule us like a king. Maybe the government can produce a series of posters of Prince George, with a fitting message that can look down on us for the rest of time: “Keep calm and let us carry on”.