It all feels very familiar, doesn’t it? An American divorcee; the compromised happiness of a senior royal; a tell-all interview; tight-lipped silence from Buckingham Palace; a family that seems so out of touch.
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Except that in place of Mrs Simpson or Diana Princess of Wales, this time around it’s Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and his American wife Meghan. They, the UK popular press and menagerie of magazines that make money marketing this tittle-tattle, would have you believe have shaken the House of Windsor to its core.
It’s only been three years since the youngest son of Prince Charles and Diana was married off to Meghan Markle in a fairy tale wedding at Windsor on beautiful sunny day with all of the pomp and polished pageantry that only the British can muster. If this were an episode of that Netflix hit series The Crown, episode two would have them falling out with Prince William and his wife Kate, and episode three would have them fleeing royal life, handing back their titles then moving to Vancouver before finally settling in Hollywood, home to celebrities, wannabes, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and now Mr and Mrs Sussex.
The rupture between what Prince Harry refers to as ‘The Firm’ — gosh, that seems almost as if it’s a Netflix crime series to rival The Sopranos — and the couple now finding their feet in Los Angeles has opened up a culture war that has also exposed changing attitudes towards the monarchy in the United Kingdom and is rippling through the Commonwealth nations too. Most Brits find it hard to fathom that their nation once flew its flag on almost a quarter of the world’s population and a fair-sized chunk of the map was coloured pink. For most, Queen Elizabeth is the only monarch they can remember, a royal whose grace, poise and dignity has never faltered nor could rarely be faulted when it seemed as if the family around her went through personal crises that were fully documented by headline writers. And yes, I have been one of them.
I chuckled quietly to myself this week, remembering that when Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second-eldest son who had previously separated from his wife Sarah Ferguson in 1996, was then reported to be reconciling and living in their family home part-time, I penned the much-approved tabloid headline: Prince charming Fergie four nights a week.
This week, headline editors have feasted on the revelations in a two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey — the confessor for the stars — that before their son Archie was born, there had been “concerns and conversations” with one member of the royal family over the colour of his skin.
Asked by Winfrey whether there were concerns her child would be “too brown,” Markle said: “If that is the assumption you are making, that is a pretty safe one.” Winfrey later confirmed on Harry’s behalf that the remark was not made by the queen or her husband.
If there weren’t saying it aloud, politicians at Westminster were muttering off the record to scribes that there are some pretty major long term ramifications of this and it could threaten people’s succession to the throne. The position of the constitutional monarchy, the position of the union, the position of the Commonwealth all would be thrown into some jeopardy.
Really? An institution that has survived politics and revolutions, pandemics and popular revolt, is now critically endangered?
A snap YouGov poll of 4,654 adults on Tuesday, taken after the interview had been broadcast in the UK, found 38 per cent of Labour supporters had the most sympathy for Harry and Meghan, in contrast to just 8 per cent of Conservatives. By contrast 64 per cent of Conservatives said they had most sympathy for the queen and wider royal family. The reaction also divides along generational lines. Forty-eight per cent of 18-24 year olds and 28 per cent of 25 to 49 year olds were most sympathetic to Markle and Prince Harry compared to just 9 per cent of the over 65s.
The motto for the monarch could very well be “never complain, never explain”. A precisely parsed 60-word statement issued from Buckingham Palace in the wake of the controversy caused by the Sussexes sought to set the record straight in only the manner in which royal statements can: “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.”
The wider royal family has often grappled with the line between public and private matters — clearly Prince Harry and Meghan do not.
The palace has never acted swiftly.
In the days after Princess Diana’s death in 1997 but before her funeral, the Queen copped criticism for remaining out of public view at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, with some believing she should have been leading the mourning in London instead.
It took days before she arrived at Buckingham Palace to witness the outpouring of public grief outside its gates and to address the nation.
If the palace has never acted swiftly, sometimes it simply doesn’t act at all.
Even as controversy gripped the palace in 2019 due to Prince Andrew’s associated with convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, the Queen never released a statement in her own words. Instead, she left public statements to those released by Buckingham Palace and Prince Andrew.
No family, be they royals in palaces or paupers in huts, wants to see the dirty linen of families laundered in full public view. Besides, at the end of the day, does it really matter one iota? No, this is not a profound crisis shaking the House of Windsor to its foundations. It is merely an added-features bonus episode of The Crown. Watch it. Then delete.