A Right Royal Con Trick

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Whether it's the monarchy or the new celebrity aristocrats, we should sharpen our guillotines.

The queen's latest state visit was to Legoland. Meanwhile the other princelets visited sites of national significance. William attended the Toytown annual parade, Edward visited the Bassett's liquorice allsorts museum annual open day and Anne opened the International Velvet pony retirement home.

At one level, staring at this gallery of grotesques making conversation with red plastic bricks is quite amusing. And it's easy enough to dismiss the blue-rinse ladies who mourn the passing of the queen mother. Sometimes we even make excuses for these faintly ridiculous and deeply dysfunctional people. After all they're just the harmless icons of middle class Britain.

The truth, I think, is very different. In reality they are effective ideological weapons in the class war - as well as ruthless class warriors in their own right. Their outlandish views, Philip's neo-fascist tirades, Charles's glum defences of traditional architecture and long dialogues with short trees are not the point. The queen went to Legoland to attract tourists and invest commercial decisions with an ideological authority.

When Diana was killed, the reaction drew in millions of ordinary people. They delivered flowers, teddy bears, precious items from their own lives. But they were also renewing a mythology, a perception of the order of the world and pledging themselves to maintain their own allotted place within it. Blair, of course, seized the time to mark out his place among the elect. His tears at the funeral were more than hypocrisy - they were a reassurance that in such times New Labour upheld the traditions and the rights of the powerful, and at the same time staked a claim to a seat at the high table.

These were modernisers when it came to the defence of trade union rights and the welfare state, but dedicated traditionalists when it came to the dominant ideas about the social order. New Labour's aggressive pursuit of market forces could lie down happily with a notion of a natural aristocracy. The queen may be playing with toys, but her massive investment portfolio is managed by the most ruthless financiers and with no concessions to eccentricity or the habits of the past. This is a very modern ruling class underneath the flowery hats. They have enormous fortunes, huge estates and power over the lives of millions. There is nothing harmless about them.

Now it might seem a big leap from Balmoral to the Beckham's Manchester palace or Madonna's place in Holland Park. Hello and OK offer weekly glimpses of the lesser Legolandiae. Oh, they're mostly drunk or foolish or awkward as they smile their twisted smiles at the paparazzi. They're often ignorant, brutish and very short. But in a strange and distorted way they reproduce and give legitimacy to the idea that society will always, and must always, have an aristocracy. They are the princesses, kings, queens, lords, ladies and princes of the tabloids. In a kind of grotesque caricature of the pre-revolutionary monarchs they wave their diamonds about, stuff down the caviar, ride the carriages, say little and work less. Yet behind their brutal banter are ruthless accumulators of wealth and the labour of the millions that pays for the tasteless wallpaper and the ice-sculpture swans at the banquets.

Ignorance, stupidity and prejudice are not the discoveries of the new aristocracy. Centuries of inbreeding and indolence produced an ancien régime that was equally rich in wealthy idiots and bigoted aristos. I'd recommend Patrice Leconte's brilliant film Ridicule for a glimpse of the savagery behind the glitter.

When Edward Said read Jane Austen's novels, he asked a simple question: how did this rural gentry live? Their homes and gardens were all order and elegance - but who paid for them? No one would be so indelicate as to mention in those whispered after-dinner conversazioni that these families were slave-owners, plantation landlords, racketeers and exploiters.

And a similar kind of diplomatic silence seems to fall over the British royal family. Behind the eccentric masks are the hardened faces of ruthless capitalists. As long as they're indulged by sycophantic Labour politicians who yearn for a little ermine on their collar or a nod of approval, we could easily let ourselves forget that the revolutionary movement of the modern age began with the severed head of a French king. They may look like lifeless statues or figures made of plastic bricks, but they are still the class enemy.

Long live the republic!