I’m much too old for conspiracy theories, but could there have been a better moment to announce a royal wedding? As news of government cuts to everything from welfare to legal aid thud daily onto the doormat; as students riot (just a little) in Westminster; as the European Union wobbles on the brink of financial collapse, what could be more diverting than speculation about frocks and flower arrangements, bridesmaids and champagne? Only this morning, the top headline here was Prime Minister David Cameron’s multimillion-pound offer to ex-Guantánamo detainees to buy their silence over British complicity in their torture. But as I write BBC News 24 is burbling on ad nauseam about what a modern couple the royal lovebirds are, about what kind of dress "Princess Catherine" should choose, about where the wedding will take place. A helicopter circles above Buckingham Palace. And this just in: Good Morning America began its program today with a royal trumpet fanfare. Oh joy, the Americans are all excited too.
The moment brings an uncanny sense of déjà vu. It’s as if little has changed since 1981, when Diana went to the altar like a lamb to the sacrifice. Then, too, the country was in the throes of cuts—not half as deep as these—imposed by Thatcher’s government. There were riots, real ones, in Brixton and in Toxteth. The torture of detainees was once again in the news: Bobby Sands had died in Long Kesh that year, on hunger strike for political status with other IRA prisoners. Forced jollity reigned. Feminists who wore those prescient buttons warning "Don’t Do it Di" were pilloried as killjoys.
Sharp politicians don’t need conspiracies to use the royal family: witness Tony Blair’s misty-eyed musings on "the people’s princess" when Diana died in 1997. A royal wedding is just what Cameron’s cohort need to give their Bullingdon-club milieu a little populist glamour by association.
The Vaseline now being smeared on every camera lens might even help to blur the complex moral questions around the Guantánamo payout. Six of the former detainees who have been offered compensation have led a High Court case against government departments, including MI5 and MI6 (the UK’s FBI and CIA), claiming that UK forces were complicit in their torture. The settlement comes after an appeal court ruled that the case had to be heard in public; instead of an open court case there will now be an inquiry led by a former judge, who will no doubt make sure that evidence of British—and American—involvement in torture remains under tight wraps, packed up with all the details that may compromise security. As the former deputy chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John Walker, told the BBC, the government’s settlement offer is a clear suggestion of guilt, but we may not learn the whole truth for many years to come. In the meantime, we can think about elaborate wedding dresses.