- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

The two golden-haired youths stare out of the front pages of the newspapers and magazines. It seems we can never get enough of them. They are both wealthy and photogenic, and they have grown used to having their tastes and whims scrutinized by the world. More exalted than film stars, they live in a universe tinged with unreality.

It goes without saying that David Beckham and Prince William come from very different backgrounds. Mr. Beckham grew up in a modest home in East London before making the pilgrimage north to join Manchester United, the country’s — and arguably the world’s — most famous soccer team. William, in contrast, represents a very modern form of privilege. If his father, Prince Charles, embodies the Olde Englande of tweed, tractors and a whiff of new-fangled organic farming, his mother, Princess Diana, moved in glossier social circles inhabited by a strange mixture of old money, Knightsbridge chic and lotus-eating Eurotrash.

United by fame and adulation, Mr. Beckham and the prince rule over us through the news pages and the gossip columns.

And now both young men are at a turning point this week, William celebrating his 21st birthday, Mr. Beckham preparing to join the Spanish aristocracy by signing with Real Madrid..

Together, the two young men are seen as symbols of a new Britain. But what kind of Britain do we mean?

It would be reassuring to think that the hype really does stand for something, that Prince William is a new kind of royal and that David Beckham is a new kind of Briton, a stylish product of the meritocracy that was supposed to have been bequeathed to us by Margaret Thatcher.

There could still be a happy ending to this particular tale. Yet you don’t have to be a monarchist or a Man United fan to feel a twinge of concern. William is a success at the moment, but how will he fare once he leaves university and the tabloid press begin to set about their business in earnest? For the time being, the nation loves William because he is his mother’s son.

Once he emerges as an individual in his own right he will be at the mercy of the public’s whims. If he sticks to wearing the right clothes, if he marries the right girl, if he makes a dashing Army officer, the adoration will continue.

If he makes the mistake of being photographed hunting once too often (he looks a lot less of a matinee idol dressed up for an afternoon’s pursuit of foxes), if he starts to behave as boorishly as his uncle Andrew once did or makes as many public blunders as Aunt Fergie, the mood will change.

Having invested so much time and energy in image management, the House of Windsor may find it has little to fall back.

A large part of the public has already noticed that many members of the Royal Family seem more interested in leading comfortable, subsidized existences than leading a life of public service.

As an institution, the monarchy commands less and less respect among the under-60s. William the pin-up will give the family the requisite glamour, but all models start to lose their looks in the end. Nearly 40 years after they made the fateful decision to open the doors of Windsor Palace and Sandringham to the TV cameras, the royals are beginning to resemble participants in the grandest Big Brother series of them all.

This is reality TV with a silver spoon in its mouth. We can eavesdrop on their satellite phone calls, we wince whenever the Duke of Edinburgh makes a crass joke, we chuckle every time Prince Edward takes up a new career.

Do the Royals really only amount to a form of idle entertainment? For an ever-expanding segment of the population, I think the answer is yes. The British love to make fun of Americans’ reverence for their flag and all the pomp surrounding the president.

Sometimes, though, I think the derision is tinged with envy. Americans are citizens who know that the presidency belongs to them. Britons are subjects who harbor a growing suspicion that the monarchy belongs to the past.

It is still possible that the institution will find a way to improvise its way to safety. After all the monarchy has survived difficult times before. It is easy to forget that The House of Windsor itself was the equivalent of a re-branding exercise, launched in 1917 at the height of anti-German sentiment, when George V decided that the old family name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, no longer had a patriotic ring to it.

But given all the slips the courtiers have made in the last decade or so, I wouldn’t count on their ingenuity if things do turn unpleasant. George Orwell, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, liked to observe that England resembled “a family with the wrong members in control.” The men at the Palace seem determined to continue proving him right.

In the meantime, as Britain adjusts to the prospect of being absorbed into an EU superstate, Beckham-mania fills a certain gap. He is a new kind of Everyman, a gifted sportsman who is also a conscientious father and a contented home-maker.

In a sport defined by macho excesses — for many fans, Saturday’s match is still an excuse for drinking and fighting — Mr. Beckham cuts a distinctive figure. Women admire him for his fashion sense; black Britons see him as a role model for the same reason.

It is a sign of Mr. Beckham’s enduring appeal that his ratings have even survived his marriage to a ferociously ambitious and distinctly untalented pop singer. (As in the famous newspaper headline in “Citizen Kane,” “singer” deserves quotation marks here.)

But the Beckham phenomenon has a less healthy dimension. If you enjoy playing soccer, as I still do — when my legs will carry me — it is wonderful to see him hit a free-kick past a helpless defense. Few players strike a ball with as much grace. But just as Prince William is being turned into a media hologram, so Mr. Beckham is becoming a creature of our celebrity culture.

Even the New York Times, not usually renowned as a judge of soccer skills, could not help pointing out this week that the England captain is not the great player that the publicists would have us believe he is. Highly talented, for sure, but he often tends to drift out of games — a major shortcoming in a midfielder — doesn’t tackle particularly well and has a petulant streak too.

He is, in short, a very good player, but he would not necessarily be guaranteed a place in a European XI. None of his rivals, however, has been branded like Mr. Beckham, a god with the poise of a global superstar. The advertising men are doing their best to convince us he has the talent too, and as long as he has the looks, we may well continue to believe them. As I suggested, he and the prince have plenty in common.

There was a telling little aside about religious faith in one of the magazine profiles of the prince this week.

“The part of the nation that finds time for such things will include him in its prayers,” wrote a journalist, as if faith were the rough equivalent of mowing the lawn. Religion is never the British media’s favorite subject, but there was still some coverage this week of the 300th anniversary of the Methodist Church. A national service of celebration took place in the Anglican cathedral in Lincoln, not far from Epworth, the home town of the church’s founder, John Wesley.

Sad to say British Methodism is in crisis, with the number of adherents down to just over 300,000, a decline of around 60 per cent over the past century. According to one report, the average size of a Methodist congregation here is 55. At one evening service I attended some years ago, when I was in the Chuck Colson-like throes of trying to decide which denomination to join, I found the minister addressing just half a dozen people.

Preachers have warned that the institution has five years in which to reform or face extinction. I have just spent the last 10 minutes trying to think of the name of a prominent British Methodist. Nobody comes to mind. If the church’s press advisors had any daring, they would find a way of using America’s most famous Methodist, President Bush as a marketing tool. On second thoughts, it might not be such a good idea.

The usual British reaction to Mr. Bush is so unhinged that he would probably finish off the church in one day.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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