In conversation: historian Andrew Roberts

Why Kate’s middle-class roots matter, how she’s like the Queen Mum, and ranking William

Why Kate’s middle-class roots matter, how she’s like the Queen Mum, and ranking William

Photographs by Steve Simon

Andrew Roberts is a British historian who has written a dozen books, the most recent of which is The Royal House of Windsor (available exclusively on Amazon Kindle). He is a staunch monarchist and expert in British military history.

Q: In your new book you make an impassioned argument for why royal wedding fever is both culturally important and historically warranted—how so?

A: This wedding isn’t just about a pretty dress. It’s important to keep in mind that Kate Middleton is going to be in her new job for far longer than any democratic leader is going to be in power. The monarchy isn’t just there to attract tourists. It’s also a profoundly important constitutional factor in the way Britain is run. Of course they haven’t brought an act of Parliament since the 18th century, but nonetheless, the monarchy gets to the heart of what the country is all about.

Q: Are you invited?

A: [Laughs] Sadly no, but I’ll be doing the commentary for NBC. They’re flying me over, as well as Matt Lauer, Brian Williams, and a hundred other people to cover this. NBC alone is expecting something like 50 million Americans to watch the royal wedding, and throughout the United States they expect it’s going to be as big as the Super Bowl.

Q: So do you reckon there are more royal wedding naysayers in Britain today than in Canada or the United States?

A: Not at all. I was just reading about the organization Republic, an anti-monarchist group in Britain, which had a demonstration against the monarchy outside Buckingham Palace the other day to which—get this—20 people showed up! Republicanism in Britain makes up a minority percentage that is on the same level as the Flat Earth Society. And it’s not just that Her Majesty the Queen is tremendously popular—it’s that we like the idea that politicians are put in their places.

Q: But what about democracy?

A: What about it? In recent years in Britain, politicians of all parties have managed to make their trade even less popular than real estate agents and journalists. Trust and positive feelings for politicians in Britain is down now to 16 per cent—the lowest number ever. This, of course, is because of the expenses scandal last year. The worst offenders were jailed, but the awful thing was that a huge majority of MPs broke not the letter of the law but the spirit of it. And we the people understandably despise them for it. They’re not the kind of people that we want to have as the role models of society. We much prefer a good-looking young chap in his late twenties who saves lives flying a [search and rescue] helicopter in Wales and his beautiful and charming bride.

Q: There was a rumour around London that you had been hired to give Kate Middleton history lessons prior to her wedding—is this true?

A: It’s not true. I get all sorts of weird and wonderful rumours floating about. I think the minute you leave London—in my case, come and live in New York for a year—it’s fair game for the press to say absolutely anything they want about you.

Q: The columnist Rod Liddle joked that you could just tell her, “Mainly German, not very bright.” How do you feel about that?

A: Well, it’s just not all true, certainly not in the case of German. The royal family was German only up until Queen Victoria’s parents. In fact, when King George V was accused by H.G. Wells of “running an uninspiring and alien court,” he famously said, “Uninspired I may be, but damned if I’m alien!”

Q: You’ve written many books, mostly about military history and figures like Churchill and Hitler—aren’t the modern royals a bit tame by comparison?

A: Well, thankfully yes, because we live in democratic times. But when the Second World War broke out we had a very fine king in George VI, one of the best kings in my opinion. Of course, the Queen Mother was an inspiring example during the Blitz. She had this fabulous sense of public relations. It was said that she had “dimples of iron.” She was a very compelling but tough personality who was able to see the royal family through those dark times. So, although our current Queen cannot be described as an exciting personality, that’s not her job. Her job is to cement, personify and solidify the nation, and she does it a lot better than Churchill did.

Q: In the context of American celebrity culture, where do the royals rank?

A: The great thing now is that the House of Windsor has learned its lesson about celebrity culture. The tragedy of August 1997 [Diana’s death] has meant that the royal family no longer whore after the false gods of international celebrity status. In Prince William’s psychological makeup, there is very obviously a very deep and abiding loathing of the paparazzi and the gutter press. It would be astonishing if there weren’t.

Q: How is Kate Middleton doing? People keep comparing her to Diana—is that fair?

A: They must stop comparing her to Diana. Diana was a meteor and this girl is in it for the long haul. Diana was upper class and, as we later discovered, somewhat unstable, and she was blazing a path that the royals shouldn’t have blazed. Kate Middleton by utter contrast is grounded, she’s middle class, she’s not trying to blaze a new path because she represents something entirely new just in and of herself. The royal family has not married into the middle class for 350 years, since James II. It’s an amazing and revolutionary step. And so she doesn’t actually need to do anything new, she just is, and that is enough. And now look, the House of Windsor aren’t stupid, they haven’t survived 1,000 years because they’re dimmy dumbos. They’ve learned from the mistakes of the 1980s and ’90s, which were the mistakes of Prince Charles, as well as Diana’s. “Dare to be dull” is their new motto, as it should be. People want to see them as nobles, they don’t want to see them tripping the light fantastic with John Travolta in the White House.

Q: But shouldn’t a princess have some fun?

A: The point is royal life is not for everyone. It wasn’t for Edward VIII, it wasn’t for Lady Diana Spencer, but I do suspect that it is for Kate Middleton. You really do need staying power. Can you imagine trying to prop your eyes open when some tribal dance is about to go into its second hour? And this terrible thing of having to remember everyone’s name, of having to shake 3,000 hands at a garden party when you’re tired and you’ve got a headache and you don’t want to be there? But you just do because it’s part of your job, and you have to do it until you’re 85 years old and, in some cases, older. It sounds glamorous but, in fact, it’s a grindingly tough schedule. The Queen goes to 500 official engagements a year and she’s in her 80s. It’s a dog’s life being a royal.

Q: How do you think William will compare as a monarch, presuming he becomes one?

A: Well, he’s been trained up perfectly so far. He’s got very few of the hang-ups or psychological disorders he might have had considering his mother died when he was at such an impressionable age. His speaking ability looks as though it’s very good. He got a perfectly reasonable degree at a decent university, so intellectually he seems to be up to the task. He certainly looks the part. He’s chosen to serve in all three of the armed services and distinguished himself in all of them. And he’s also shown the perspicacity to choose an attractive and good-natured bride, so I think so far he’s got an A-plus.

Q: Who, of his predecessors, is William like?

A: I see something of [his great-great-grandfather] George V about him. There’s a solid good sense about Prince William. He obviously cares very deeply about the African charities. The choice to not have wedding presents and instead asking people to give money to a list of charities shows a keen appreciation for the public mood during the recession, rather like George V when he abstained from alcohol for the duration of the First World War.

Q: Who, of her predecessors, is Kate Middleton most like as a royal consort?

A: Most certainly the Queen Mother. Although it’s very difficult to tell the inner personalities of these people because, of course, they don’t give interviews. The Queen Mother gave one interview when she was just engaged and although everything she said was completely anodyne, King George VI got angry and told her that she wasn’t to give another, and so for the next 80 years of her life she didn’t give an interview. Just as the duchess of Cornwall has never given an interview and the Queen has never given an interview. But because of this, people are able to retain their mystique. It’s when you do submit to interviews as Diana and Charles disastrously did that the mystique is stripped away and the daylight comes in. That was a very bad moment for the monarchy. I suspect that Kate Middleton will never give another interview for as long as she lives.

Q: Stephen Harper can’t make the wedding because of the election. Do you think the celebration will be dampened by his absence?

A: I think it’s a shame because Canada is the first of all the Commonwealth countries. Canada is much loved in Britain. We’ve got very long memories so we remember Vimy Ridge and we remember the sacrifices of all the Canadians during the Second World War.

Q: Do you have any royal wedding memorabilia?

A: I have got a William and Kate mug. I bought it for £9.99 and I’m very pleased with it. I do indulge in bit of appalling kitsch.

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