In the 1860s, as the glories of empire started to fade, Walter Bagehot noted that Britain would soon need something else with which to define its greatness. What would hold the nation together in the belief it was still special? What could be large and grand enough to absorb its attention? “People yield a deference to what we may call theatrical show of society,” he concluded. “The climax of the play is the Queen.”
Britain really has two theatrical shows. We’re still watching the royals — a show which perhaps now resembles something more like a soap opera - which still provides ample entertainment and distraction from, say, Britain’s larger place in the world and where that might be headed right now. But there is also Westminster. (Both scripts, coincidentally, seem have hit on the same ancient theme: the female outsider.)
Today’s climax, on the royal channel, is the briefing battle. Ahead of Meghan and Harry’s much-anticipated “tell all” interview on Oprah, leaks have emerged alleging that the Duchess of Sussex faced a bullying complaint made by one of her closest advisors during her time at Kensington Palace.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Hyde Park, Westminster is aflutter with briefings and gossip about the Prime Minister’s fiancée Carrie Symonds — namely, that Boris Johnson has considered setting up a charity funded by Tory donors to help pay for the refurbishment of his flat in Downing Street — a costly makeover masterminded by Symonds.
What is interesting is that both machines seem to write their scripts in the same way: through evolutionary ancient accident or design, they are incorrigibly leaky. Try as they might to seize control of the narrative from the top, tips and whispers from ex and current staffers and courtiers make it through the net.
Compare this to, say, the slick PR machinations of any of Britain’s large companies or other institutions, which seem to maintain far greater control over their people and their message.
Given the resources of the country’s two richest and most powerful institutions, it’s worth questioning why they can’t. But perhaps we shouldn’t press this too hard —a bored, gossip-starved nation is certainly not complaining.