Seventy-two hours after she became the newest princess on the world stage, Kate Middleton symbolises a new royal engagement with entrepreneurial skills. Her eight-year wait for Prince William to pop the question has been called the longest job interview in history. It was certainly an extraordinary investment in time and hope, leaving the future Duchess of Cambridge with little on her CV other than the words “longtime girlfriend” and sundry newspaper photos documenting her presence at William’s side. In the five years since she graduated – along with Prince William – from St Andrews University, right up to her wedding, Miss Middleton had no discernible career, professional track record, or income. It must have been the single-minded, go-for-broke entrepreneurial spirit because the wait might so easily have been doomed to no-return-on-investment. After all, nothing is so fleeting as a young man’s fancy.
But raising up the entrepreneur is a profoundly British practice and notionally repairs the British royal family business. It marries the monarchy to the spirit of an estimated five million small British businesses that employ roughly 13 million people. Napoleon is often wrongly credited with the phrase traditionally used to describe Britain – a nation of shopkeepers. But it comes from Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher who is arguably the father of modern economics and capitalist theory. In The Wealth of Nations, which became one of the most influential works on economics ever, Smith wrote that the founding of a “great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers…is a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers”.
The newly prominent Middletons, Kate’s blood family, are modern boxwallahs, living off the small trade conducted around inexpensive, throwaway baubles such as party hats, paper cups, tablecloths and napkins themed on Hello Kitty, Justin Bieber and other tweenager hearthrobs of the moment. Even though she can now count a future king of England as her son-in-law, Carole Middleton exemplifies the never-clock-off spirit of the small entrepreneur when she dismisses the hype of ennoblement with the words: “I still work through to the early hours to hit a deadline and never take our success for granted.”
It is surely the same verve that inspired Kate’s 23-year-old college dropout brother, James, to register three companies in London in the week before his sister’s glorious wedding. The young Mr Middleton was already engaged in selling “homemade, made easier” themed cake kits through his parents’ business. The royal connection ensures free advertising for life.
Why ever not? It is undeniable that the social status of entrepreneurship has been elevated by the transformation of boxwallah Kate into a full-fledged member of a 300-year-old blue-blooded family. For centuries, trade and all commercial activities were looked down upon in Britain. The aristocracy’s wealth lay in owning land and it displayed a sneering disdain for the vulgar pursuit of money through trade. Lytton Strachey, whose psychologically astute biographical series, Eminent Victorians, required him to focus on the passions and predilections of the British aristocracy, described their 20th century metamorphosis thus: “The old interests of aristocracy – the romance of action, the exalted passions of chivalry and war – faded into the background, and their place was taken by the refined and intimate pursuits of peace and civilisation.”
Those “refined and intimate pursuits” largely stayed resolutely away from trade well into the 21st century, except when profit accrued easily and at one remove. Prince Charles, William’s father and the first in line to the British throne, exemplifies this. Using the Prince of Walesbrand to sell biscuits, snacks and other boxwallah items, he launched his own organic food company, Duchy Originals, 20 years ago. Though Duchy Originals has seen falling revenues in recent years and had to strike an exclusive licensing deal with a British grocery chain, Prince Charles’s entrepreneurial instincts cannot be challenged. In effect, he realised that the common weal and the new middle classes hungered – and would pay handsomely – for some association with aristocracy, even if just a packet of handcrafted vegetable crisps fashioned from the produce grown on his extensive estates.
Clearly, the entry of a boxwallah’s daughter into the royal family came not a moment too soon. As John Berlau, director of the Washington think tank Centre for Investors and Entrepreneurs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently said: “Kate and her family embody a noble, if relatively modern tradition of bettering oneself and one’s family…the tradition of entrepreneurship” and the new princess could encourage the culture of “happiness through individual initiative”.
Berlau went on to extol the satisfaction of “earned success” and the native entrepreneurial spirit of the Middletons, who went from salaried flight assistants to self-made millionaires in the span of 20 years.
This wedding has undoubtedly caused the British sun, which notoriously plays hide-and-seek with the clouds, to shine as never before on small and innovative business ideas like the Middleton’s Party Pieces company. It also offers a sound strategic plan to Monarchy Inc, which can exist – and profit – only if it stays relevant to the consumer. In the ugly and threatening aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997, less than half of all Britons thought the UK would be worse off without the crown; last weekend, 62% voted for the royal family according to pollsters ICM. The boxwallah effect has only just begun.