Was it OK to enjoy yesterday's marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton? Because I did enjoy it. It was an event I had taken no interest in whatever in the lead-up, and one to which I didn't expect to give any time on the day. As it turned out, however, I did give time to it. I got drawn into the BBC's coverage, being watched wall-to-wall in this house by my own dearly beloved; and occasionally popping my head round the door to see how things were going eventually hooked me good and proper. The huge amount of wedding chat on Twitter also helped to pull me in.
So I've been wondering if I should feel guilty about this behaviour. Was it OK - OK for me as for a zillion other people - to enjoy the Royal wedding? Not that anyone needs my agreement or endorsement, but I shall argue below that it was OK, even if one's commitments are, as mine are, democratic and republican. I make the argument in two stages. First, I set out the positive case. Then I meet what I take to be the main form of carping objection.
(1) I do not support monarchy: neither monarchy in general, nor the British monarchy as is. Yet I have the good fortune to live in a democratic country, in which, if opinion surveys are to be trusted, somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the population do support the continuation of that institution. If many of this number want to make a Royal event the occasion for a great party, why should I begrudge them that? Why, indeed, feel it necessary to grumble from the sidelines rather than joining in and enjoying the day? After all, nothing stops anyone who wants out to stay out. And apart from that - apart from the fact that participation is not compulsory - there are other more substantive reasons why one might want to join in. Many might be taking part because they have royalist sympathies, but even without these you might share some of the other impulses evident in what the participants say.
Here are three such impulses. (a) Feeling part of a wider national community, which many take the monarchy to symbolize: even if you aren't attached to this particular symbolism, you might find the occasion one you can identify with as an experience shared by a wider collectivity to which you are pleased to belong. (b) The wedding, like any wedding, expresses the love of two people, and one may enjoy the sight of their happiness and the celebration of it. (c) The occasion is, just in itself, a grand get-together, with some considerable pageantry thrown in; and people seem to like taking part in such events periodically. For any or all of these reasons, none of them noxious, someone might, without any qualms, enjoy what took place yesterday.
(2) But then you read a certain kind of reaction to the Royal wedding and are given to understand that simply enjoying it - just like that, no buts - is too narrow a focus ideologically. It is failing to see some related and lamentable phenomena. This is the view of Polly Toynbee. She flirts for a brief moment with the temptation to go along with the happy proceedings - 'we may just wish them well and use the day off to party, as many did' - but she finds this not to her taste, preferring to strike a more ominous note:
History may see the wedding as a Marie Antoinette moment, a layer of ormolu hiding a social dislocation whose cracks are only starting to emerge.
And Toynbee details those cracks: static GDP, shrinking household incomes, jobs and services cut, the NHS at risk. The same thing in today's Guardian leader: 'only a churl', it starts out by saying, would deny that this was a sumptuous and spectacular day. But:
Britain is not now a happier or a safer, a more purposive or a less unequal place than it was before Prince William placed the ring on his bride's finger.
And in case its readers had imagined that a wedding could have dispatched all troublesome questions, the Guardian reminds us of what some of those questions are.
Let us distinguish in these two pieces their grudging spirit from the political concerns of which they remind us. That I do not invent about the first is shown by the fact that neither piece flinches from speculating on the future of this marriage - on whether or not it will be a success. Toynbee writes: 'The more extreme a ceremony's extravagance, the more superstitious you might feel about the outcome: the simpler the better the prognosis, in my experience.' The Guardian, likewise, editorializes: 'An undeniably affecting wedding between two people who seem nicely primed for their shared future – though who can really say, after last time?' Compare this sentiment with that of the crowds yesterday: people wishing the couple well, wishing it in spades, hoping for the best on their behalf - the sort of thing one does at a wedding. Of course marriages fail as well as succeed; everybody knows this. But who, other than precisely a churl, makes it their business at the side of a wedding party to hint darkly that the marriage may go wrong. How miserly, how pathetic.
As for the political concerns, these are real enough. But insisting on their linkage to William and Kate's wedding presumes something that, though it is loosely true, is in context false. This presumption is that everything must be connected. Well, metaphysically perhaps everything is connected; and it is certainly proper to remind all of us who live reasonably well in this world that not everybody does and we have a moral obligation to others in need or emergency to do something to help. This is not the same thing at all, however, as saying that no one may enjoy any part of her life, have a good time, celebrate together with others. That would be a bleak, inhumane philosophy. Would you forbid a child a birthday party, or anyone a holiday or the price of a book or a visit to the theatre or a football match because there are people for whom these are unaffordable luxuries, or who are, indeed, even worse off than that? An unlikely reference here - unlikely because of the extremity to which it refers - is Adorno's famous dictum about no poetry after Auschwitz. What was wrong with that thought, as he himself later recognized, provides a necessary pointer; for not only is poetry needed as a form of response to adversity, even the most terrible, but the idea that human beings should forego all enjoyments while there is trouble or evil in the world is also a sorry counsel of deprivation.
We should not let great occasions that enhance the lives of many obscure the hardships of others, but then there never was a danger that Britain's current political problems would be lost sight of behind yesterday's celebration. It was, after all, only one day. You can still make your republican points, if that is what you want to do. You can still fight for a more egalitarian society likewise; you can focus on global poverty. And you can think it a serious misjudgement that two former prime ministers weren't invited to this palpably national occasion. But none of these was a 'but' to puncture the enjoyment of a splendid day.