Terence Blacker: Why do we approve of royal riches?

The double standard about unearned wealth is no small matter

In an anxious, money-strapped society, there is only one way to be a public figure receiving millions in unearned income at a young age, without a breath of criticism being expressed in the media. A comedian may be pilloried for tax avoidance, footballers scolded for outlandish salaries, politicians and peers taken to task for expenses scams but, if you happen to be Prince William and you are inheriting £10m on your 30th birthday, the press will merely tip its hat respectfully and wish your royal highness many happy returns.

Indeed, such is the willed blindness of the British media when it comes to the Royal Family that, during the week of the Prince's birthday, the emphasis among grovelling journalists has been how impressively ordinary he is. They marvel at the fact that he and his wife have so far declined to live in a vast house. They gasp in amazement when the "Young Royals" (a phrase now capitalised in a quasi-religious manner) go to the cinema, or travel on a train. "They make a point of walking down to the buffet themselves to get a tea, rather than sending a lackey," simpered one court correspondent.

A sort of lie is being told here. "Prince William isn't on a big salary," a spokesman said in all apparent seriousness when the royal couple travelled on an ordinary airline. "His grandmother has brought up the family to watch the pennies."

Weirdly, the press and TV buy into this fantasy of royal ordinariness and simple civic virtue, and the vast majority of the population follow suit, behaving as if some weird, brain-addling cult has taken a grip of their senses, replacing their normal cynicism when it comes to the rich and powerful with mindless, unquestioning adoration.

The evidence of this national nervous breakdown is all around us. Think of how the Queen has been portrayed on screen by Prunella Scales, Helen Mirren or, most recently, Emma Thompson, with the help of writers like Alan Bennett, Peter Morgan and Helen Greaves. She is wise, serene, gently humorous, kind – a kind of goddess.

The royal spin has worked a treat. In a recent YouGov survey, three times as many Britons thought the Queen was in touch with their everyday problems than thought politicians were. It is a worrying insight into our national sanity: millions of people apparently believe that a billionairess whose single real enthusiasm is Flat racing, whose only visits to a supermarket will have been to open it, is closer to them than ordinary MPs.

This double standard about unearned wealth at the top of society is no small matter. Even if one accepts that members of the Royal Family have a role to play in 21st-century Britain, surely even their most adoring subjects would agree that we should apply the same attitude towards their millions as we do to those of others.