Things go better with Kate

With perfect timing, the image-builders who play such an important part in marketing the Royal Family have chosen the first days of the new year to launch phase two of “Project Queen of Hearts”. The charities who have found favour in the eyes of the country’s new princess – Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – have been named. The media are now so used to this connection between royalty and good works that the announcement has been dutifully reported as a spot of glad news during a week when an uglier side of modern Britain has been on display. It is a story with everything – celebrity, royalty, caring. What could be more heartwarming?

There is another side, though, to this well-spun project. In the context of the debate about social alienation, joblessness and lack of opportunity, the parading together of the spectacularly privileged and the needy, one bringing hope and beneficence to the other, shows that, beyond the gloss, the standards of the past are still in place.

It goes without saying that the princess brings no particular skills to the job. Were it not for an accident of romance, she would be a sweet and ordinary 29-year-old flogging partyware. Now though, she can transform the lives of the sick and the underprivileged with a wave of her gracious royal hand. Just as Elizabeth I controlled England by conferring patronage on members of the aristocracy, so a future queen will keep control of her image by smiling upon scouts, art galleries, addicts and sick children, sprinkling on them the fairy dust of fame and royalty with occasional visits and her name on letterheads.

It is an arrangement to suit everyone. The charities get cash and visibility. The princess gains a public persona – much-needed, as it happens, since there has been a growing sense over the past few months that, beyond the trim figure and the pearly-toothed smile, the new member of the Royal Family is ever so slightly dull.

Deprived of any hint of individuality, the tabloids and celebrity magazines have struggled to give her a satisfactory role (wayward/strong/vulnerable/neurotic) in the soap opera of public life. With a certain desperation, they have fallen on the slightly shop-worn Queen of Hearts line, detecting in her choice of charities a love of art or an enthusiasm for the outdoor life of boy scouts and girl guides. Somehow these seem unlikely to rival that enduring and dominant symbol of the new Royal Family, Pippa Middleton’s bottom.

Those who are promoting this country to the world in Olympics year could learn a lot from the marketing team at Buckingham Palace. It reminds us that, behind the spin and the sentimentality, Britain remains true to its traditional, historic values of unthinking privilege and social division.

Independent, 6 January 2012