Prince Harry has been much praised for his warm, informal approach in announcing the birth of his son, Archie: it’s said that he and Meghan are really modernising the British monarchy.
Archie being of mixed race is a bonus. Harry addressed media and public as “you guys”, and unlike his predecessors, he no longer requires interviewers to call him “Sir”. The monarchy is getting with the programme!
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Yes. But careful, now, Harry. This is a project that every institution has faced – political parties, churches, retail businesses, media and communications. How do you modernise and adapt to a changing world while nevertheless retaining your brand identity?
If the British monarchy were to ‘modernise’ fully it would do away with itself altogether. Monarchy is an archaic constitutional arrangement. It has no basis in rationality, let alone equality: why should one family inherit privilege through a dynastic form? The ultimate modernisation of royalty is abolition.
Thus monarchies have to proceed cautiously. Yes, adapt to changed values and new ways. But a monarchy is nothing without history and tradition, and continuity has to be maintained if the brand is to be plausible. Supposing that Harry and Meghan, instead of having that very pretty wedding ceremony just a year ago, with church ceremonial, music, hymns, prayers and scripture readings, had just popped down to the Windsor Register Office for a simple civil procedure? Or just shacked up together in agreed cohabitation?
Modern, yes. But if royals start doing everything like everyone else, they lose their reason for existing – which is to provide a mystique based on dynastic tradition, rich in symbolic meaning. Modern royalty only survives when it is popular. That doesn’t always entail being modern in every way. A little bit modern, yes. A little bit diverse, sure. But keep an eye on the continuity.
We know the pace of global change has been rapid since the millennium – the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt reckons that a quantum leap occurred around 2014, when social media really took off. It was predicted that books would disappear, with the rise of Kindle (2007) and the availability of texts on screen. The book trade did indeed take a hit, and bookshops struggled.
Why pay good money for something printed and bound in paper and cardboard which clutters your home when you can read every classic ever written by downloading it, cheaply or even free? But the book industry fought back: books were re-branded as objects worth having, with attractive jackets and quality presentation. Book stores sometimes added little coffee shops to their premises, reading spaces, and, above all, events, where people could meet and talk to authors. Book publishers smartened up on the art of hype. Result: last year, the Publishers’ Association announced that physical book sales (non-digital) were up by 5pc – demonstrating that you can “modernise” by using imaginative thinking rather than defeatist thinking.
The retail trade has been hit by similar upheavals. Personally, I’ll never get over the loss of Clerys on O’Connell Street (and small wonder that boulevard is now judged to be drab and slummy, with shuttered-up window fronts), but I suppose it was no longer adapted to the way that people shop today. The long-established English store, Debenham’s, has had a similar struggle and is set to close down 22 of its outlets in the UK. Quite how it can modernise and adapt has vexed better business brains than mine, but it’s noticeable that some retailers still survive by a canny blend of change and continuity.
Can political parties modernise and still maintain their brand? Sinn Féin will surely be a social study for future political PhDs. In recent years, it switched from being anti-EU to being European Union cheerleaders; and from being aligned with traditional Catholic social values, as it often was, to supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
There’s now a millennial generation who would favour these values, in general, and in reaching for their votes, Sinn Féin can be said to be modernising. How much it will retain of its original “brand” of trademark Irish patriotism is yet to be seen.
The Catholic church began a modernising process back in the 1960s. Nuns were still wearing 17th century habits, so modernisation was certainly needed. But the French religious scholar Olivier Roy claims that the church literally threw away the most engaging aspect of its old brand: beauty and tranquillity. Ugly churches and banal liturgy did nothing for spirituality.
We veteran journalists have seen huge shifts in the media world. When the digital revolution began, the word went out: “It’s the dissolution of the monasteries.” Quite so! But the monastic scribes adapted, too, and new and stimulating forms emerged. The printed word, whether on screen or on paper, is still a great way to communicate ideas from one mind to another. That’s the core value.
Watch how far Harry and Meghan go in modernising royalty – and how much, nevertheless, they retain of the old brand. It’s a lesson for us all.
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