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Royals go forward as UK slips back into past

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tie the knot at Windsor Castle on Saturday, May 19. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The royal wedding is supposed to be a moment of modernity and progress for the Uk. But that is not the current mood of the nation, says Jane Merrick.

Whatever you think about the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this weekend, there is no denying what the royal family want it to be: a sign that one of Britain’s most ancient institutions is embracing modernity.

It is not just the bride, described by Vogue editor Edward Enninful this month as ‘a woman of today’ for her championing of diversity and equality, who represents that modernity, but the nature of the wedding at St George’s Chapel in Windsor.

Royal protocol has been loosened to allow the couple to personalise the proceedings along the lines of other more ‘ordinary’ 21st century nuptials, from the lack of a maid of honour to the standing-up wedding reception. These modernising tweaks were all in place before the doubts emerged over Markle’s father turning up to walk her down the aisle. If the bride is instead accompanied by her mother or anyone else, it will only add to the sense that the royal family is inching towards progress. As Kirsty Young, who is one of the BBC’s presenters for the wedding, told the Radio Times: ‘They are both in their 30s and have lived a life, which makes them much more typical of most couples these days.’

Of course, there are many who regard the very existence of the monarchy as anything but modern, and believe that real progress would only be achieved in its abolition. Yet the way these occasions temporarily consume the headlines, television coverage, and the attentions of the majority of the British public offers a chance for national reflection on where we are as a society. We can look back at the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana, a doomed fairytale that seemed to represent the most feudal aspects of the royal family, and applaud the fact that his younger son is marrying a divorcee for love – something the Prince of Wales did not get to do first time around.

In an era of #MeToo, we can cheer a bride whose commitment to gender equality dates from her childhood protest at a sexist soap advert, who criticised Donald Trump’s ‘misogynistic’ presidential campaign, and whose evident forthrightness will mean she will carry her principles into her life as a duchess. We can celebrate what Markle’s proud identity as a biracial American means for the royal family, whose members include figures with very unreconstructed views.

In short, whether people are setting up a street party, sitting down in front of the television or blissfully ignoring the whole thing, this Saturday should be a moment for the nation to feel good about its progress and identity, much in the same way the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games showed us all how far we had come.

But is it really that moment? Just as this icon of modernity strides into the royal family, our country is stepping back into the past. That 2012 opening ceremony reminded us of how Britain has always been at the forefront of change, hurtling from the industrial revolution to the creation of the NHS to progress on gay rights. Six years on, as we approach Brexit’s own opening ceremony, Britain stands at the edge of the future and shrinks back.

Brexiteers will argue that the UK’s departure from the European Union is progress, because the country will be ‘free’ to make its own way in the world, agree new trade deals, and as a result become more prosperous. Yet nothing that has happened so far since the referendum has suggested the UK is heading for more prosperity or freedom.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary who has not yet produced much evidence of international trade for Britain post-Brexit, said a year ago that a free trade deal with the EU would be the ‘easiest in human history’. Now Theresa May cannot negotiate with her own cabinet, let alone Brussels, on the future of customs arrangements and the Irish border. We are a long way off securing a final deal on trade. Apparently without irony, Fox gave a speech on Tuesday warning that delays on trade deals outside the EU could cost the country billions of pounds in lost tax revenue. And why would that be? In the eyes of the Brexiteers, their own actions are never at fault.

Despite the weak mandate for a hard Brexit, it seems as though a hard Brexit is where negotiations are heading. The Brexiteers in the cabinet and the wider Conservative Party show no signs of backing down in trying to block the prime minister’s preferred option for a customs partnership. They will almost certainly overturn every vote passed in the Lords in the last few weeks, including on the seismic defeat for the government on staying in the single market under a form of Norway model. Where once a ‘no deal’ option was a last resort if negotiations failed on all other alternatives, it is turning into, for some, a preferred choice.

The archest Eurosceptics are so wedded to the idea of a hard Brexit, thinking only that can deliver sovereignty and freedom for the British people, that sensible debate on the negotiations is ignored. Warnings about economic decline, in a country that last year saw the weakest growth out of the G7 nations, are dismissed as the return of Project Fear.

Having lost the argument for a hard Brexit with the British electorate and with the House of Lords, Brexiteers should feel compelled to compromise. Yet out of an ideology that is fixated with the past, rather than a pragmatic, open and hopeful vision for the future, they refuse. So much for progress.

And now they are being aided and abetted by Jeremy Corbyn, who has ruled out official Labour backing for the Norway option of Britain staying in the single market. The formal leadership positions of the two biggest political parties in the UK are in favour of a hard Brexit. This is something that would have been unimaginable at the time of the last major royal wedding in 2011.

Even though Brexit has not yet happened, Britain already feels like a narrower, less tolerant place since the start of the decade. The anti-immigrant rhetoric of some aspects of the 2016 referendum campaign was almost certainly linked to a spike in hate crimes. Since then, hate crimes have increased by 29% in England and Wales, according to Home Office statistics – the vast majority of which were racially motivated.

In February, a racist letter was sent to Prince Harry and Markle. In March, at least four Muslim MPs were subjected to a race hate letter campaign. The consequences of anti-immigration rhetoric, fuelled by May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy at the Home Office, reached their crescendo with the Windrush scandal last month.

It is welcome that such rhetoric is being detoxified under the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, but the government, having released a particularly unpleasant genie out of the bottle by fuelling anti-immigration sentiment, is going to have a major task getting it back in. The British people, some of whom may be setting up the trestle tables and Union Jack bunting this weekend, have many things to celebrate about this country. But there is no denying an intolerant, xenophobic undercurrent is stronger now than it was when Harry’s brother got married in 2011.

Like Princess Diana in the 1980s, icons define their age and the society that gazes at them. Markle should be a symbol for a Britain that is modern, open, diverse and hopeful, on the verge of a new decade. Yet she becomes our newest royal against the most incongruous of backdrops – Brexit Britain.

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