I moved to Dubai from the UK in 2011, shortly before Prince William and the future Duchess of Cambridge got married. We put up Union Jack bunting in our Marina apartment, and went to the Ritz Carlton to join the other two billion people around the world watching their spectacular wedding being screened live. I’ve never been much of a royalist - aware that it’s an old-fashioned institution that reinforces a hierarchical class system - but this wedding moved me. Maybe it was the pomp and ceremony of a fairy tale wedding, or maybe it was just the homesickness of being a new expat, but I felt proud of my country and even had a little lump in my throat watching the royal couple walk down the aisle.
It’s now 10 years later and the world’s eyes are on the British monarchy again for a very different reason. In the decade that I’ve been an expat in the UAE, I have watched my homeland become increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. From the embarrassing chaos of Brexit, to the desperate handling of the COVID pandemic – hopefully now turning around with an efficient vaccine roll-out – I have sometimes struggled to find reasons to be proud of being British.
And now: Meghan and Harry. While this might seem like mere celebrity tittle tattle, for many British people - especially those living abroad - it is more than that.
When the couple announced their decision to break apart from the royal family last year, I was surprised to find myself a little offended. It must be something along the lines of ‘it’s OK for me to complain about my family, but woe betide any non-relative doing the same thing’. Like it or not, the British monarchy is synonymous with Britain itself for many people. We might complain about the system, but if a non-Brit insults the British monarchy, they’re also, to some extent, insulting Britain.
I don’t have anything against Meghan Markle. She’s an accomplished, professional woman with a history of philanthropy and good luck to her. Becoming a mother for the first time under the scrutiny of a jeering public would be unbearably difficult for anyone and I can’t blame her for wanting to regain her sense of control. Her honesty about her mental health struggles while in the spotlight is genuinely brave.
I don’t have anything against Harry either – I think the entire UK nation has a soft spot for the more wayward younger royal brother, whom we all remember as a red-haired little boy mourning the death of his mother in such a painfully public way.
Yet in the interview with Oprah, Meghan said that she entered the royal family naively, unaware of the meaning of what being a member of the royal family really meant. Apparently she never googled her future husband.
For anyone who’s watched the latest series of the Netflix show ‘The Crown’, this has echoes of Princess Diana, and the doe-eyed shock with which she came to realise the less golden side of her fairy tale existence.
But Diana was a sheltered 19-year-old, living in a world without internet search engines when she got engaged to Prince Charles in 1981.
Meghan Markle was a strong, independent 36-year-old woman who had worked her way up as a professional actor in the cut-throat world of Hollywood show business when she married Prince Harry in 2018. You would expect that she did at least a little bit of research. After all, marrying into the royal family isn’t just a major step in your personal life – it’s also a new job.
Much has been made of the fairy tale side of Meghan’s journey and how easy it was to be swept up in the romance of it all. But people seem to forget that fairy tales are some of the darkest literature we have, filled with monsters, witches and tough moral lessons.
And the moral here is this: if you buy into the game, you have to accept that people will expect you to play by the rules.
If you want to quit the game, fine. But you can’t expect to still hold onto the chessboard and its pawns once you’re out.
And if you then throw a public pity party in the glorious grounds of a California mansion while people around the world struggle with a pandemic that has destroyed countless lives and left thousands of people in financial ruin? Well, to use typically British understatement, it comes across as a little tone deaf.