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Can William and Kate’s Wedding Really Save the British Economy?

In what seemed like a rare moment of complete political transparency, David Cameron stepped out of 10 Downing Street last week to tell us that his ministers had cheered and banged the cabinet table when he announced the news of Prince William's engagement.

And cheer they might. Grim news has dominated headlines here lately: strikes, government cuts, rising unemployment, and falling house prices. The perfect formula for a classic north European winter of discontent was facing Cameron's government until Prince William did the Right Thing.

No surprise, then, that wedding news has cleared many of the front pages, inside pages, and TV news broadcasts for days. (One favorite angle was a detailed and wholly imaginary seating plan for the wedding breakfast itself: who sits where, which friends are invited, and which of Kate's more colorful relatives get the brush-off.)  Most papers are offering special supplements of as many as 80 pages of photographs, charting the new royal couple’s life. Commemorative wedding china is in production and, in some cases, already on the shelves, and a public holiday has been declared for the wedding day, which was announced Tuesday to be April 29, 2011. (The government had reportedly pressed for “sunnier” weather on a later date than the couple's original choice of March.)

The whole nation has been declared “electric with excitement” by one of the U.S. correspondents rushed over to provide in-depth morning news commentary. If the nation is at all represented by what used to be called Fleet Street here, that description just might be accurate.

But, across a choppy Irish Sea, Britain's biggest trading partner might be forgiven if last week it looked toward its former colonizer with a momentary pang of wistful regret: Republicanism is no match for an aging constitutional monarchy that can still, when backed against the wall, inject a heady dose of economic adrenaline and patriotism into a troubled economy just by tolling royal wedding bells. Ireland's economy is in a major crisis—house prices in Dublin have fallen by half this year, and the country is now brokering an unprecedented multi-billion-euro bailout from the E.U. Things are not quite so bad in Britain, which has promised to help out its neighbor.

Nonetheless, the news about William and Kate is being framed in the UK almost wholly in terms of the severe economic situation here, and, so far, the government, most of the news media, and Buckingham Palace itself seem to be cooperating in a harmonious convergence of interests.

The day after the wedding was announced, newspapers calculated that the British economy would see a boost of some 620 million pounds just from the wedding itself, by way of increased tourism and souvenir sales. Marks & Spencer is promising that a cut-price copy of the blue dress worn by Kate on the day of the announcement will be in their high street shops next week, and we can only imagine what knock-off wedding dress sales worldwide will bring. By week’s end, The Sun newspaper was headlined “THANKS A BILLION, WILLIAM,” reporting another 400 million pounds of good retail news to come. (One letter to the Daily Telegraph this week even suggested that the royal couple, in the interest of national marketing synergy, forego Westminster Abbey in favor of Britain's new 2012 Olympic stadium as the backdrop for their nuptials.)

As important, palace press officers told reporters how eager the royal couple and the government are to strike a balance between a wedding that is fiscally responsible—i.e. not as lavish as Charles and Diana's 1981 St. Paul's extravaganza—and, to paraphrase most newspaper versions, sufficiently swank and impressive to insure that the world knows Britain can still put on a good show. The BBC and other news outlets dutifully reminded the country that royal weddings have taken place in hard times before: The current Queen saved her clothing rationing stamps to put towards the cost of her own wedding dress in 1952, and service men and women lining the royal procession route then wore battle dress rather than ceremonial uniform in a money-saving effort. Royal correspondents in every paper reported that the cost of the wedding would be shared, with Prince Charles paying for some of it out of his own, really quite deep pocket, to ensure the taxpayer did not have to foot the whole bill.

And what is that bill going to be? There are many different estimates, some as high as 80 million pounds and most dependent on how one quantifies the security personnel needed to protect a wedding party of some 3,000 guests and statesmen—the Obamas will be invited—in the heart of London.

One commentator last week condemned Prime Minister Cameron for making this wedding too political, yet the criticism suggests a naïve failure to grasp that the monarchy is still deeply entwined with the state in Britain, and not always in logical ways. David Cameron is fond of calling this country a “modern democracy,” as he did recently when announcing a new transparency in public accounts. But he needs to add the phrase “with an old fashioned monarchy still attached.”

One of the reasons Prince Charles is so rich, aside from the fact that he is paid by us to be the heir to the throne, is that he is also the Duke of Cornwall and, as such, CEO of the Duchy of Cornwall, a money-making agro-business that owns thousands of acres of land in southwest England. A notorious prison for hardened criminals, Dartmoor, is on the land, so the government still pays Prince Charles's Duchy around $1.3 million pounds a year in rent. Perhaps that is some of the money he will be using to pay for his older son’s wedding, as critics will surely note.

For now, the royals and the press seem to be enjoying a pre-wedding honeymoon. But who knows how long that will last? Martin Bashir, who did the first and most explosive Diana interview for the BBC all those years ago, popped up from New York on a BBC panel here to discuss the inevitable comparisons with Diana. (The Daily Mirror addresses some of the ghosts being resurrected this week with this headline over a picture of the engagement ring: “WITH THIS RING DI THEE WED.”)

Bashir agreed that Kate was better-prepared for her role, having known William for so much longer than Diana knew Charles at the time of their engagement, but the new royal couple’s lives, he noted, will now be subject to intense scrutiny. He warned of the impact of the media’s financial woes; businesses that are now suffering will feel greater pressure to get a royal scoop than they did in Diana's day.

In other words, the honeymoon may be a short one.

As for the government, it will try to ensure that the romance lasts as long as possible: One of the ministers in that cabinet meeting where Cameron announced the wedding plans told a mutual friend later in the week that they did not, in fact, all cheer and bang the table. While welcoming the good news of course, he relates, they were not all old Etonians behaving as if they were teenagers in the Hogwarts dining hall. He and his colleagues know, as does the prime minister, that it will take more than a royal wedding to fix what needs fixing in this economy.

Marcus Wilford is a London-based news producer and writer.

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