How to be Royal: Kate Middleton at the Sarah Everard vigil

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

I am not much of a royalist. I don’t buy Hello magazine or any of the tabloids. Though I don’t follow any soap operas, I have enjoyed The Crown, while not taking it too seriously. I didn’t watch the Meghan Markle-Oprah Winfrey interview. I rarely know more than what is unavoidably absorbed from mainstream media. But I am fascinated by symbol, gesture and leadership. I have written elsewhere of Prince Charles’ love for “Ireland North and South”, and his unremarked but significant current contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process. I do believe that a benign and formally powerless monarchy is the best insurance policy that democracy has against vain and tyrannical elected leaders, who, as we have recently seen, can themselves choose to undermine the very freedoms and rights that put them in power.

I should clarify that I have no current opinion on "Harry and Meghan". As Meghan Markle joined the royal family I hoped for good things but glimpsed an impending train wreck on the horizon and decided to mentally detach from the complexity of it all.

The gesture of the Duchess of Cambridge, still often referred to by her birth name, Kate Middleton, in visiting the vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, was an exquisite riposte to the Duchess of Sussex. It was tiny, silent but immaculately formed. It was spontaneous but very carefully thought through. I can imagine the urgent conversation, the risk analysis that took place on Saturday afternoon among the family and their royal advisers. It worked because there must have been, behind the scenes, many conversations in recent times about the role that the Cambridges, the Duchess in particular, might begin to play in a new royal family. And the explosion of sympathy among women following Everard’s tragic death offered a perfect opportunity. For, let’s face it, the Royal Family is in deep doo-dah. The aging Queen, exemplary in so many ways and also deeply conservative, permits the family to become wounded and vulnerable. There is much that cannot change while her reign persists. Prince Philip’s continued presence in hospital {correction - he has returned to Windsor today 16/03] is a potent sign of the state of royal matters, while Prince Andrew lurks out of sight, a looming timebomb.

Kate Middleton, for this is how she presented herself on Saturday night, appeared for a few minutes on Clapham Common dressed simply in jeans, boots and a jacket. She said nothing and laid an unassuming bunch of hand-picked daffodils. She was breaking the Covid 19 rules if not the law by traveling that far from Kensington Palace to a public gathering. Not wearing a mask might have been thought unwise in a crowd, although it was outdoors and unlikely she came close to anyone. From the videos that appeared she was barely recognised but no doubt ensured somehow that her visit would be noticed. This was certainly a risky act both in security and PR terms.

The unspoken statement was loud and clear. The duchess was presenting herself as an independent character, in a flawless and unapologetic gesture that was at the same time deeply compassionate and deeply political. She showed empathy both for the family of the murdered Sarah Everard and for all women who identify with her. Kate said afterwards that she too remembered walking home late at night through the streets of London. And so did I for many years through the streets of Stockwell, Tooting Bec and Balham -- I also carried my keys, changed my route because I sensed someone behind me, planned an escape if necessary, avoided a laneway or underpass.

Kate Middleton is no Fergie, no Meghan Markle, no Princess Margaret. She has barely put a foot wrong in the ten years since her engagement to Prince William. She dresses conservatively, often in high street brands, is not often seen without her husband or children and, in the tradition of female royals other than the Queen, rarely says a word in public. She has maintained a dignified silence in the face of Meghan Markle’s nuclear strike on the royal institutions. Kate’s action on Clapham Common brings to mind Diana’s visit in 1987 to an Aids ward, where she shook ungloved hands with a patient. That equally carefully managed event had the same blend of compassion and controversy and set the same crystal clear tone of personal agency. Kate Middleton has placed herself on the side of women, even of feminism, and against violence against women. She has given a clear signal of what we might expect from the next chapter of the royal narrative. Perhaps she will become the princess or queen that Diana that might have been, might have evolved into, if her marriage had survived. Because the family as we know it will almost certainly disappear – perhaps sooner rather than later – but the saga, and its potential as a symbolic force in society, for richer or poorer, better or worse, will continue.

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