On Friday, William and Kate were pictured looking young and attractive, and (unusually for public images) very in love, going for a mountain trek in casual clothes in Bhutan. Kate also wore a stunning red poppy-design dress for an official function.
It was, then, a typical, day in the royal tour of India and Bhutan, which has yielded its predictable harvest of pictures of Kate in new dresses, gamely playing local sports and mixing with the great and the good of high society and disadvantaged kids.
Is that all there is—or is there more to this diplomatic charm offensive than meets the eye?
William and Kate concluded their tour of India today, Saturday, with a big set piece outside the Taj Mahal, where they made the the dreams of a thousand picture editors come true by posing for pictures on ‘Diana’s Seat’, the same bench on which Diana sat, forlorn and alone, some 30 years ago, as her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrated.
William and Kate posed on that same bench, and likely hope they can erase those bad memories of Diana forever by presenting a new image of royal marital unity to the global media.
It will be the icing on the cake of a royal tour has undoubtedly been a Good Thing for the reputation and image of William and Kate. At home, they are increasingly being painted as workshy and indulged, by a UK press corps that is tentatively finding its teeth again after close on a half-decade of restraint following the fall out from the phone hacking scandal. The honeymoon for the young royal couple is over.
But on the international scene, the fluffy cloud on which Will and Kate zoomed out of Westminster Abbey in April 2011 shows no sign of losing its vibrant shade of pink.
That, in large part, is due to international tours like these where they are able to play to perfection, for a few days at least, the part of a hard-working modern royal couple; unaffected and equally at home with desperately disadvantaged street kids as they are doing meet and greets with important dignitaries and political leaders.
However, by sheer ill-fortune this tour to India came at a politically very sensitive time in British relations with its former colony; the gigantic Indian conglomerate Tata recently announced it is pulling out of all the steel plants it owns in the UK. Tens of thousands of jobs, and a crucial part of Britain’s industrial infrastructure and heritage could be lost unless a new buyer is found.
This is a kind of nightmare scenario for visiting royals; these trips are always planned to be as non-controversial as possible. Along with human rights, sharp industrial policy doesn’t make for good regal small talk.
In the old days, the policy would have been simply not to mention anything as tacky as the steel crisis back home.
However, one of the aspects of his character which William shares with his father is a willingness to speak his mind. And so the royal press pack following the tour were extensively briefed that William had indeed raised the crisis in Britain’s steel mills during his meeting with Indian PM Narendra Modi.
“The pressures facing steel manufacturers in the UK and India were discussed,” was the line coming out of the meeting from royal aides.
No-one seriously believes William’s intervention will make a blind bit of difference to the decisions made in Tata’s Delhi boardroom, of course, but William’s ‘intervention’ made for excellent headlines back home, just as the crisis was being debated in Parliament.
In a sense, however, both those who say royal tours are an essential element in burnishing the image of the UK abroad and those who say the whole charade is a waste of taxpayers’ money are right.
The tour is already being talked about as a huge cultural and diplomatic success by supporters of the royalty, the royals themselves and their staff; while the Jeremy Corbyns of this world will find it easy to ignore.
The antis will point to Tata’s continuing closure program—or the fact that poachers shot dead and de-horned a male rhino in India’s Kaziranga national park less than 10 hours after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge enjoyed a jeep safari there to promote environmental protection—as evidence of the ultimate futility of such visits to events in the ‘real world’.
As the royal and society writer Catherine Ostler says, “I think it probably preaches to the converted; the monarchists who line the streets love them, think Kate’s super-pretty and are struck by their youth and enthusiasm, energy and down to earth natures.
“But those who resent their colonial past don’t see why these two people with not a lot to say are trotting round their slums and making small talk with Bollywood stars. Personally I think the combination of six-day fashion show with slums thrown in is a tiny bit tasteless.”
However the writer and CNN contributor Victoria Arbiter, who grew up in Kensington Palace where her father, Dickie, was the Queen’s press spokesperson, said via email: “The party line for royal tours such as this is that they foster positive relationships between countries while also offering an opportunity to promote British interests abroad. Whether either objective has been achieved with this particular visit remains to seen, but tours do allow for royals to champion their own interests particularly in the charitable sector.
“Following William and Kate’s visit to Kaziranga National Park, Kensington Palace announced that the Duke is planning to fund training and equipment for rangers through his charity, United for Wildlife. It’s rare for the plight of an orphaned baby rhino to make front page news around the world, but it does so when the Duchess of Cambridge is photographed feeding it.
“There will always be those who grumble about the cost to taxpayers and denounce tours as little more than a royal jolly, but with British fashion websites crashing as people scramble to emulate the Duchess’s style, thousands of pounds being raised for numerous charities and brand Britain featured heavily by the global press, the return is without doubt more lucrative than the investment.”
Kate—and her fashion choices—definitely have been the main focus of media attention. It is images of Kate that are dominating front pages and news bulletins in India and around the world.
William, may be at risk of developing an unfortunate habit of looking, rather as his father did alongside Diana, like a useless appendage, but Kate is now established as the new global icon of royalty.
She may be a bit dour at home, but overseas, even the harshest of critics would have to conclude that she is maturing into a confident, willing, and credible ambassador for much of what is good about modern Britain.
And that, ultimately, is what this tour is really all about; not driving the tourist market, not making steel—but preparing Kate for the central role in British public life she will one day take.