Daniela Elser: William and Kate’s quiet revolution inside royal family


If history has taught us one thing it is that revolutionaries tend to be male, charismatic and often bloodthirsty, belligerent ideologues hell bent on getting their way, often with an unseemly penchant for too much facial hair.

But looks can be deceiving.

That’s the lesson that Kate Duchess of Cambridge, all bouncy blow-dries and big smiles, a woman who seems about as progressive as a vanilla wafer, can teach us. Because look a tad closer, past the pussycat bow collars and the headbands, and there you will find an activist in Sloaney clothing and a woman who has been surreptitiously revolutionising the monarchy without anyone quite noticing.

Now don’t choke on those Easter egg you’re quietly scoffing. I’m serious.

What has gone gloriously under the radar these past few years as the Meghan and Harry hurricane has consumed the media oxygen and clobbered the palace is that Kate, and her husband Prince William, have been stealthily working on the most revolutionary shift in the royal family since the Diana, Princess of Wales first got the idea into her head to hug someone with an incurable disease.

Only two years ago, in 2019, it was Harry and Meghan who looked like they would be the royal family’s great saviours, converting legions of new fans to the royal cause and transforming the moribund image of monarchy from a pale and stale dinosaur into a thrillingly proactive and progressive force.

That fever dream clearly didn’t last or ever really come to bear; all that promise and hope dashed in a tempest of family hurts and anger.

But what the endless, consuming drama of the Sussexes has obscured is quite how profoundly and dramatically both Kate and William are changing the royal status quo – quite how radical they are without anyone quite twigging.

Let me explain.

From the day Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 until that glorious day the Cambridges tied the knot in 2011, royal work had remained relatively unaltered. To be a working member of the royal family was to pick a handful of chosen causes, maybe a disease, some sort of animal charity or something involving deprived kids, and then spending decades doing One’s Bit. One’s Bit, of course, translated into giving speeches, turning up to events and thus dragging the press pack behind One, all in the hope of gussying up some publicity and helping the cause in question. Royal work, in this paradigm, translated to one’s ability to help generate media coverage and public interest, like a very well-dressed Pied Piper with a cut-glass accent.

What Diana, doe-eyed and miserable, worked out nearly 40 years ago, is that this equation could be taken one step further: One’s Bit could mean turning up at, say, an Aids hospice or leprosy hospital and dashing stigma and shame. One’s Bit could even be extended to create far more impact by weaponising one’s personal vulnerability and experience, which is exactly what she did by speaking out about her eating disorder.

But still, the underlying schematic stayed the same: Turn up, smile, pictures, and get back in the Bentley. Will One be home in time for Coronation Street, Baskins?

And it is that model that William and Kate have been quietly subverting.

Sure, they still turn up, smile for the press and do their darnedest to drum up press interest in their various causes, but they have been doing more – much more – behind the scenes.

Take Kate’s Early Years project which could easily be dismissed as the mum-of-three picking a charity that is lovely and nice. No nasty weeping wounds here! However, what brought Kate to this point wasn’t the prospect of a lifetime of photo opportunities beside an adorable selection of ethnically diverse tots, but that intervention in those precious pre-kindergarten years is the secret to substantively and effectively tackling addiction, family breakdown, suicide and homelessness.

Nor is it a cause where she is happy to be a fragrant figurehead.

“This is not a flash-in-the-pan campaign,” public health expert and Early Years collaborator Dr Xand van Tulleken wrote last year. “Nor is it one person’s whimsical idea that it would be ‘nice to do something for children’.

“As was absolutely clear at that very first meeting, the Duchess has shaped this project. She is absolutely across the research and the data on early years … she has worked hard to become an expert herself. That interest in early years will outlast politicians and even scientists.”


A post shared by Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@kensingtonroyal)

Clear royal career path for the Cambridges

What is also worth pointing out here is that Kate and William are the first HRHs to begin their dedicated working royal life with crystal-clear ideas of what they want to achieve during their careers. It might only have been in 2017 that the couple finally acceded to their destiny and became full-time representatives of the Queen (before that Prince William had worked as an air ambulance pilot) but when they did so it was with two shiny, detailed and well-thought out blueprints of what they wanted to achieve in the decades to come.

No senior member of the royal family has ever embarked on their monarchical duties with a lifelong plan set out before them; no one has ever gone into this gig with a decades-long horizon and belief in using that incredibly long runway to achieve something profound and substantively effective.

(Don’t lose sight of the fact here that Kate will be the first Queen of Great Britain to ever wear a crown who has a university degree.)

Then there is the fact that she has masterminded an innovative approach to handling the media and her young children. Traditionally, tiny Windsors would be regularly pressed into tiny, scratchy suits and forced to pose for the press – a sort of gentrified version of child labour.

Kate instead looked to Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria’s example and quietly rewrote the rules. She and William have schooled us to expect a steady drip feed of shots of her family, shot by the royal, in return for the long lenses of Fleet Street to stay the hell away from her little ones. In her hands, the images released are not staid, posed portraits of children on their best behaviour but tender, moving family snaps.


A post shared by Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@kensingtonroyal)

The images, taken by her, of William with his arm around his father Prince Charles and of William with his three children playing on his back released last year for Father’s Day might be the most intimate, personal shots of the royal family we have ever seen.

William, a covert rebel in the royal ranks

So what of William? A man who outwardly sometimes resembles the embodiment of Wonder White?

Well, he’s actually quite the covert rebel himself.

Take his stance on ivory. The Prince has long been a vocal and strenuous advocate for conservation in Africa including taking a staunch position on the ivory trade. In 2014, he called for the 1200 ivory artefacts in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace to be destroyed or removed.

In 2015 he walked the diplomatic tightrope that was an official visit to China, the first any member of the royal family had undertaken in nearly 30 years. During William’s meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing he discussed the wildlife protection and on the final day, the Duke gave a speech condemning this “vicious form of criminality” that “erodes the rule of law, fuels conflict and may even fund terrorism”.

Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the conservation charity Tusk, of which William is the patron, was with the royal on the China trip.

“It was very political, raising the illegal wildlife trade in China. I’m sure the diplomats were having all sort of nightmares in advance,” Mayhew recently told The Times. “But he was gathering greater confidence that he had the ability to be a mouthpiece for the issue.”

Likewise, William’s 2018 official tour of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, when he became the first member of the royal house to visit the occupied West Bank. In a powerful speech he told Palestinians, “You have not been forgotten,” and broke with diplomatic protocol by referring to the Palestinians Authority as a country.

None of these issues – or his willingness to engage with them head on – are easy or safe.

What both William and Kate seem to intrinsically understand is they have the remit and the resources to play an activist role in British life and to aggressively effect change. Unlike politicians or CEOs, they don’t have to achieve what they want in a matter of years but have a lifetime ahead of them.

It is that incredible gift that they both seem keenly aware of hungry to take up.

Like Kate’s Early Years project, in the past year William’s conservation work has coalesced into the $98 million (£50m) Earth Shot prize, an impressively ambitious venture with a global outlook and reach.

So too has their Heads Together mental health campaign (launched nearly five years ago with Prince Harry also at the helm). The trio didn’t just bang on about how important the issue is and try to drum up some funding; instead they debuted their biggest joint initiative and later appeared on video in conversation, shot in the palace gardens, discussing why tackling mental health matters so profoundly.

Throughout all of this both of the Cambridges (and Harry back when he was still in the band and hadn’t yet become the Ginger Spice of the palace) put themselves, vulnerable and authentic, at the fore. Again, while they were following in Diana’s example, they have taken this to a previously unthinkable degree of public openness and of being emotionally forthright.

Unannounced visit reveals Kate's true colours

No moment better exemplifies Kate’s quiet renegade status that her clandestine visit last month to the memorial to murdered woman Sarah Everard. The Duchess arrived with only a small handful of protection officers and laid a bouquet of flowers picked from the palace gardens. Later, royal sources told the media that Kate “remembers what it felt like to walk around London at night before she got married”.

Without anyone quite realising it, these past few years Kate has come to embrace the power and the possibility of her position.

And what she and William have both been doing is dramatically widening the scope and lens of not only what a working member of the royal family can achieve but what a working member of the royal family wants to achieve in their lifetime.

In essence, the couple has undertaken a grand re-imagining of what being a duke or duchess – or a king or queen – actually means in the 21st century.

There is a certain irony that it has always been Harry and Meghan who have been held up as the monarchy’s great saviours when all along, right there in the bosom of the royal house there have been two regal revolutionaries plugging away under everyone’s noses.

Vive le Marks and Spencer revolution!

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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