'Couldn't Care Less', get a grip, booming Scottish brogue
Brits 'Couldn't Care Less' About the Royal WeddingJean Stewart, a 62-year-old retired restaurateur in Arbroath, a town of 20,000 on Scotland's rugged northeast coast, recently dispatched invitations for a ladies' tea party to watch the television coverage of the wedding of Prince William of Wales to Catherine Middleton on April 29. Cakes will be served, a prize for best "fancy hat" awarded and "gossiping will be mandatory." Alex Smith, 56, a gruff, lifelong fisherman and acquaintance of Stewart's, has no such activities in mind. "There's na a thing in the world I'd like to do less than watch that rubbish," he says in a booming Scottish brogue. "This country needs to get a grip."
Jean Stewart, a 62-year-old retired restaurateur in Arbroath, a town of 20,000 on Scotland's rugged northeast coast, recently dispatched invitations for a ladies' tea party to watch the television coverage of the wedding of Prince William of Wales to Catherine Middleton on April 29. Cakes will be served, a prize for best "fancy hat" awarded and "gossiping will be mandatory." Alex Smith, 56, a gruff, lifelong fisherman and acquaintance of Stewart's, has no such activities in mind. "There's na a thing in the world I'd like to do less than watch that rubbish," he says in a booming Scottish brogue. "This country needs to get a grip."
Stewart and Smith may have widely divergent views of the entertainment value of the royal wedding, but they share the same attitude toward the monarchy itself. Stewart planned her outfit for the tea party weeks in advance and follows the romance of Wills and Kate in the tabloid press, but she isn't a royalist and has no strong feelings on the importance of the monarchy. Smith may think the ceremony to be ridiculous, but he harbors no desire to oust the royal household from power and is untroubled by the continuation of Queen Elizabeth II as the country's de jure head of state. (See 10 ways Kate and William break the wedding mold.)
Smith and Stewart's views are typical in the U.K., where the royal wedding seems to be widely viewed as entertainment, or a nuisance, but rarely as a serious political event. In a recent poll of 2,000 British adults, 35% said they planned to watch the wedding on television; the same proportion intends to ignore proceedings, and the rest had no specific plans. A separate poll found that 79% of Brits — including those who will watch the event — were either "largely indifferent" or "couldn't care less" about the royal wedding. And although women were twice as likely as men to have made arrangements to watch the wedding, Stewart says many see it as nothing more than an excuse to throw a party.
"It's just a bit of frivolity and fun," Stewart explains. "I don't think anyone takes it seriously."
Well, some do. Republic, a 12,000-strong lobby group that advocates replacing the Queen with an elected head of state, has been pushing its agenda hard in the run-up to the wedding. The group wishes to see the Queen stripped of her remaining "prerogative powers," such as the need for parliamentary bills to have her formal assent before they become law, and her ability to disband the British Parliament and the legislatures of several Commonwealth countries, which her acting Governor General in Australia did in 1975. (See the best royal-wedding souvenirs.)
"It's the best time for us because the wedding draws attention to the monarchy, and the truth is that people in Britain aren't in love with the monarchy. A majority don't hold strong feelings either way, and they can be convinced," says Graham Smith, the campaign manager for Republic.
Maybe, but Brits have a habit of hiding their passion behind a facade of indifference; in the buildup to the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebration in 2002, which marked 50 years of her reign, commentators speculated that the monarchy had lost touch with Brits following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, but then 1 million people showed up for the celebration. And whatever the polls say, London officials anticipate that hundreds of thousands will line the royal-wedding route in the capital; thousands of street parties have also been planned around the country.
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So far, the only audible grumbling about the royal wedding outside the republican community has come not from constitutional scholars and politicians but from British businesses. Annual public support for the royal household — which amounts to $66 million each year in subsidies, and as much as $300 million if unpaid taxes and security costs are taken into account — is a long-running source of controversy in the U.K. Royalists say the palace recoups this money by drawing tourists to the country. Republicans counter that no firm data supports that assertion. Indeed, of the top 20 tourist attractions in the U.K., only one royal residence makes the list: Windsor Castle at No. 17, which is beaten comfortably by the nearby Legoland Windsor, which is ranked seventh.
The wedding will not be a cheap affair. The service will be paid for privately by the families of the groom and bride, but the cost of policing the event — which has been estimated between $8 million and $33 million — will come from public coffers. That's a relatively small figure — equivalent to the salary of some top soccer players — but it's nonetheless come under criticism in some of the British media. More significantly, the wedding day itself has been designated a national holiday. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has complained that shutting down the British economy for the day will result in around $10 billion in lost productivity. As the wedding falls close to Easter, consultancy firm RSM Tenon places the entire cost of the country's April holidays at $50 billion, or roughly one-third of the budget for the nation's National Health Service, a significant figure at a time when the country is struggling to recover from financial and economic crises. "This is a fragile time for the economy and we are concerned about the effect this lost productivity will have on our recovery," CBI spokeswoman Sarah Lee says. (See an album of royal weddings past.)
This isn't the first royal wedding in Britain to take place during a period of recovery, however, and some commentators say the ceremony will provide a much needed boost to social capital and national solidarity. When Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten two years after the end of World War II, Winston Churchill called the wedding a "flash of color on the hard road we have to travel." That sentiment has been reflected in Britain's mass-market tabloids, whose daily coverage has fawned over every detail of William and Kate's prenuptial movements and plans. Few stories ever sold more papers in Britain than the life and death of William's mother, Princess Diana, and Britain's press is loath to miss a similar bonanza around William. The BBC plans to assign 200 to 300 journalists to the story, U.S. networks will run prime-time specials, and a variety of foreign broadcast-news channels will carry the event live. "Huge news stories come in many forms," says Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news. "You have earthquakes, financial crashes and the like, but you also have moments when a nation comes together, and this is one of those moments."
Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster, isn't so sure. He says the British media are giving the wedding greater attention than it deserves. "It is quite an inexpensive story to cover: it's picture-heavy and can be reported from the office without travel. So it's been an easy story to play big, especially for the papers," he says. But that's not to say that the relentless coverage in the lead-up to the event won't manufacture interest among Brits, and manage to bind the nation to a common — and appealing — narrative. Weddings are ceremonies at once common and momentous in everyday life, and so are occasions when royalty and laity might naturally converge. That Britain's royal family has a history of messy divorces only makes the fairy tale of the handsome prince and his doting bride more compelling to the public, Boaden says. "A lot of weddings start as a fairy tale and end badly. It's a moment in anyone's life when hopes are highest. Almost everyone can relate to that, even if they know it doesn't always work out," she says.