Obey? Sophie, how could you!

SHE doesn’t expect anyone to believe she means it, of course. That’s because she doesn’t mean it herself. When Sophie Rhys-Jones vows to “obey” Prince Edward tomorrow, she doesn’t mean that she will do what he says.

She patiently explained to a TV interviewer this week, tying herself in Jesuitical knots, that obeying one’s husband does not mean doing exactly what one is told. When she says “obey”, what she really means is “trust”. Thus, she will “trust” Edward to make all the important decisions affecting their life together.

Come off the grass, girlie.

Is this the supposedly savvy career girl? It could well be her royal mutation. Rumor has it that Prince Philip, jack of tempestuous young women who don’t know their place, insisted the word be reinstated in the royal marriage service (the 19-year-old Diana had enough spirit to refuse to say it at hers).

Perhaps Sophie is making a strategic decision to keep the old duke happy for the sake of a harmonious future in the “family firm” (if it’s not an oxymoron to pair the idea of family harmony with the Windsors).

Perhaps it is her way of showing that she’s going to be a good girl, a nice princess, not a troublemaker like Diana or Fergie. Perhaps she needs the biddable, demure front even more now that her naked breast has appeared below her laughing face in a London tabloid.

On the other hand, maybe she’s gormless enough to actually want to say it. Maybe under all that apparent self-assurance there’s just another lost little girl looking for a daddy to whom she can hand over responsibility for her life; a passive princess. Maybe she’s found another little boy who thinks manliness is about dominance and privilege. There’s a lot of it about.

In a marriage of commoners, it would be a private matter for the couple. But the Windsors are a dynasty. Monarchists tell us the royal family is important not so much for its component parts, which have proved regrettably flawed, but for its symbolism. It is supposed to embody, on our behalf, deeply held values.

It does, and some of them are very ugly indeed. The notion that hereditary privilege should be protected and maintained no matter the cost to the individual is one.

Years ago, long before Diana died, it was reported that Charles’ mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, had helped choose Diana to be the royal brood mare. Diana’s youth and seeming shyness made her the perfect candidate for a marriage in which she was to be a dupe. Her personal happiness was secondary to the need to ensure the succession. The fact that she would live a life of privilege was presumed to make the Faustian arrangement a fair trade.

My husband looked up from reading that report and said: “The last ritual sacrifice of a virgin was Lady Diana Spencer on the altar of St Paul’s Cathedral.”

Sophie is not Diana. She is older and shrewder; she’s been around. Perhaps she’ll say “obey” and give them merry hell anyway (one can only hope).

But the Windsors’ attitude to marriage is a metaphor for their attitude to the world. They remain steeped in the notion that respect is not something to be earned but something to which one is born (or not born, in Sophie’s case). They actually seem to believe that the genetic accidents of “nobility” and maleness endow the right to call the shots in other people’s lives.

True nobility – nobleness of mind or character, as opposed to mere social class – might justify such a prerogative, although true nobility would also bring a disinclination to use it. A genuinely noble person would recognise others’ rights, respect their autonomy, and understand that one person’s social standing and material wellbeing should not be based on the subjection or disadvantage of others.

Of course, it’s not in the royals’ interests to do that, and even the one who chooses to call himself plain old Edward Windsor still goes along with the hierarchical games when it suits him. But any man who wants his wife to kowtow to him in front of the whole world fails a modern test of princeliness.

It’s not in our interests to indulge the Windsors’ time-warp fantasies. It’s been a long time since the British royal family stood for anything with which a more sophisticated, egalitarian, multicultural Australia could identify; when Sophie says “obey” tomorrow, it will just be another reminder of that.

Let’s hope any resulting public distaste helps to ensure that our republic referendum does not end in Australia making a Sophie’s choice.

First published in The Age.