Don't Skimp on the Wedding

The royals are under pressure to have an austere wedding in the teeth of a recession. Andrew Roberts on why the House of Windsor should live it up.

Britain's Prince William and his fiancée Kate Middleton pose for photographers during a photocall to mark their engagement, in the State Rooms of St James's Palace, central London on November 16, 2010. (Ben Stansall, AFP / Getty Images)

The royals are under pressure to have an austere wedding in the teeth of a recession. Andrew Roberts on why the House of Windsor should live it up. Plus, view our full coverage of William & Katephotos, videos, and more.

“The age of chivalry is gone,” wrote the British philosopher Edmund Burke at the time of the French Revolution. “That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” So we must feel today when the very first question that the media are asking of Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton is: “How much will it cost?”

The engagement ring has hardly been slipped on Kate's winsome finger before economists and calculators have started estimating the cost of security and police overtime, and worked out that the street-cleaning alone will come to $60,000. The argument about how much the Treasury should pay vis-à-vis the royal family has already begun, with republicans predictably whingeing that the taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pick up any of the estimated total amount of $15 million.

"The couple are both very mindful of the economic situation the country is in," says a palace spokesman, which is about as unromantic a way to enter into married life as can be imagined. "If they want a cut-price deal with a central London venue with a view of London landmarks,” says Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, “the ideal place would be City Hall. I'm not saying the wedding should be cut-price or bargain, but a cost-effective wedding in keeping with our cost-effective times." (Which is another way of saying the wedding should indeed be a “bargain.”) The Taxpayers' Alliance is whining that the couple “should avoid a lavish ceremony at a time when there is a huge pressure on the public finances. Ordinary taxpayers should not be left with a bill fit for a king.”

Meanwhile, Graham Smith, campaign manager for the anti-monarchist group Republic, says that even the policing costs should be met by the couple themselves: “If anyone else organizes a major public event, they have to pay the price for any security costs. As far as we're concerned it's a private event and the public purse shouldn't meet even one penny of the costs.”

Gallery: View Photos of Kate Middleton and Prince William

Everyone is pointing to Sweden, where the $2.4 million cost of the June wedding between Crown Princess Victoria and her fiancé, half of which was met by the taxpayer, provoked a wave of republican sentiment in the country. Yet if the people of a nation don't think their monarchy is worth $1.2 million, then the time really has come to pack up and chuck it in. For the whole point about the British royal family is that they are not like “anyone else” and certainly not like the Scandinavians' monarchies, which get along on bicycles and hire their tiaras for big occasions.

We have a grand, glamorous, high-profile monarchy that during the 1981 recession—a year in which rioters were burning cars in the streets of Brixton, Manchester and Liverpool—laid on a $45 million wedding for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer that involved 27 wedding cakes, 10,000 pearls hand-sewn onto Diana's gown, and 6,000 police and military officers manning the route to St Paul's Cathedral.

Similarly, the queen's wedding to Prince Philip in November 1947 came in the depths of postwar austerity Britain. Nonetheless 10,000 crystals and pearls were also sown into her dress, and no effort was spared by the Attlee government to ensure the spectacle at Westminster Abbey was admired by the world. The moment when the lovely young Princess Elizabeth stopped to lay her wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey still brings a lump to the throat. And one would never have caught the ever-chivalrous Sir Winston Churchill, the leader of the opposition, complaining about the cost of the wedding in the niggardly manner that opposition papers are today. (The left-wing Guardian newspaper has sneered at how Kate Middleton's parents' company website——“is offering gold heart and star sparklers, perfect to top off a wedding cake, at the very reasonable price of $9 for 10. The couple might even get a few of the gold foil star balloons, $3 each to humble subjects, thrown in for free.”)

Regardless of their lack of romance and ignorance of history, in sheer financial terms the naysayers are also completely wrong. According to Verdict Research, a retail analysis unit of Datamonitor PLC, the royal wedding will add as much as $995 million to the U.K. economy as consumers spend more on food and drink and tourism revenue increases. Britain's biggest royal event in 30 years is already generating more interest than the 2012 Olympic Games. After the 1953 coronation, the queen's silver-jubilee celebration in 1977 and the royal wedding in 1981, the economy expanded more quickly. The U.K.'s monarchy already generates more than $750 million a year in tourism spending, according to research by the tourism board, VisitBritain. “The monarchy is a major element of the reason why overseas tourists come to this country,” says VisitBritain spokesman Paul Eastham. “In a royal-wedding year, that figure is going to be massively exceeded.”

Yet that is not why Britain should stage a truly spectacular celebration next year, utterly regardless of the cost. The nation should do it for the straightforward reason that the young couple are going to dedicate themselves to our service, and we should thank them in a style consonant with their exalted places in our history, our lives, and our hearts.

Otherwise, to conclude Burke's quotation, “Never, never more, shall we behold a generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.”

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The nation should do it for the straightforward reason that the young couple are going to dedicate themselves to our service, and we should thank them.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.