Published:

By Peter Hoskin
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Just
give me a few minutes while I read Hilary Mantel’s essay on the
monarchy
—transliterated
from a speech she gave two weeks ago—for the London Review of Books…

…okay,
I’ve done that now. Let’s talk.

It’s
true that the essay puts the words “Kate Middleton” in close proximity to some
rather severe descriptions, such as “jointed doll
on which certain rags are hung” and “painfully thin” and “perfect
plastic smile”. These descriptions are what have got the Daily Mail so upset.

But,
when you read the essay in full, it’s clear that Mantel intends far more
kindness to the Duchess than cruelty. Her overarching point seems to be that
this is how we—the media mostly, and the public—regard our Royals; as subjects
of flimsy fascination, to be loved, hated or derided based on superficialities.
I mean, the essay even concludes with the line, “I’m asking us to back off and
not be brutes”. This is an outpouring of great sympathy.


Which
is one reason why David Cameron’s remarks on the subject—delivered from India—are
not entirely welcome. “I think she writes great books,” he said of Mantel to the BBC, “but I
think what she’s said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided, completely
wrong.” And then he went on to praise the Princess as a “fantastic ambassador
for Britain”. Sadly, none of this creates the impression that Mr Cameron has
actually read the essay in the first place.

But
there’s another reason, too, and it’s one captured by Tom Chivers in a punchy
blog-post

this afternoon: should a Prime Minister really be commenting on stuff like
this, particularly when he’s half-way through an important trip to India? Politicians
do not have to comment on everything, even when journalists press them to. As
Chivers says, there’s always the option—albeit rarely used— of saying “I have
no idea and I don’t care”.

The
prime ministerial bully pulpit is a powerful tool that can, and should, be used
in some cases. But what we’ve seen today is a Prime Minister fuelling the
vilification of an author, over an issue that doesn’t clearly relate to
politics or politicians, and on a weak basis. If only one person is turned away
from Hilary Mantel’s books because of his comments, it will be one too many.

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