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10 December 2022

We’ve given Prince Harry no choice but to sell his story again and again

As Meghan Markle so obviously understands, the modern royal family is first and foremost a branch of show business.

By Jonn Elledge

The video is so perfect it feels like it must have been staged. Somewhere in Afghanistan, in 2013, Prince Harry is giving an interview in full military kit. He’s midway through a sentence, answering a question the edit doesn’t let us hear (“it wasn’t done in the wrong way, it was just-”) when someone off camera points out that his unit is scrambling. Harry looks behind him, checks he’s not attached to any mics, then legs it over to a waiting helicopter. The time elapsed between him being mid-flow and him being halfway across the concrete is something less than five seconds.

All this makes for excellent PR for the army, the crown and Harry himself, all at once, and the decade-old clip still periodically goes viral to contrast the prince’s bravery with, say, Piers Morgan storming off a TV set because Meghan Markle wouldn’t return his texts. (“When the call came,” the reporter’s helpfully consent-manufacturing voiceover runs, “his duty was very clear to see.”) If it were staged, and Harry were in on it, that’d make him a better actor than anything he’s done of late has suggested. The trailing off, mid-sentence, the second it takes to absorb what’s happening, the way he turns and runs – all give the impression that this is a man who knows what his purpose is. That is a feeling someone born at his point in the line of succession may not often have had.

It’s clearly nonsense to say that a man of the wealth and privilege of a literal prince has had it hard, and in the middle of a cold snap in a cost-of-living crisis it’s offensive nonsense, to boot. Worrying how you’re going to feed your family is hard. Worrying about achieving self-actualisation as a minor player in a dynastic soap opera is merely a headfuck.

But a headfuck it must be, nonetheless, in at least two distinct ways. Firstly, it’s in the nature of a hereditary royal family that some of its members will be told at their birth they’re among the most important people in the world, then, thanks to the right combination of births and deaths, spend the rest of their lives growing increasingly insignificant. At the time of his birth, Harry was third in the line of succession, with a real, if slim, chance of ascending to the throne; at the time of writing he is fifth, with essentially none. His uncle Edward, also third at the time of his birth, is now thirteenth. And so it goes.

This would surely do odd things to you, even if there weren’t a vast institution primed to protect its highest-ranking members at all costs, which quite obviously there is. And it’s not as if the history books offer much comfort, either: younger sons are either forgotten, recalled for their amusing bad habits, or remembered instead because everyone ahead of them died. In the vast majority of modern existence which doesn’t function like an Austen novel, whether you were born earlier or later than your siblings no longer matters. In the palace it’s the only thing that does.

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The other way the Duke of Sussex’s station in life must surely mess with his head concerns the media. Harry clearly, and understandably, hates the press, both for the paparazzi’s complicity in his mother’s death and for the way it has treated his wife. But he can’t get away from it – not just in the sense that it will inevitably follow him everywhere, though it will, but because he needs it to.

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Consider the six-part Netflix documentary series Harry and Meghan, the first half of which was released this week. Like everything else the couple has done since leaving their royal duties, it’s yet another retelling of their story, with the odd bit of score-settling for flavour; like everything else on Netflix, it’s four hours too long, the TV equivalent of a meeting that could have been an email.

It’s also, more to the point, so emotionally manipulative it sidesteps drama altogether and slides straight on into the comic. Two particularly subtle examples should suffice. In the opening credits, sombre music and dreary colours give way to major notes and sunshine when the couple leave the Firm, as if to contrast horrible, starchy Britain with the promised land California. Even better, there’s a sequence in which Meghan is showing her baby son an arty, black and white portrait, and whispering, “Who’s that? That’s your grandma, Diana!” Structurally, I could do with another sentence here to wrap up this paragraph, but I genuinely can’t think of anything with even a hope of topping that.

Even so, though, I’m not sure it’s really fair to blame the couple for doing any of this stuff. Something Meghan seems to have understood better than some of those inside the institution is that the modern royal family is first and foremost a branch of show business. So of course they rail against media intrusion, then sell their story again and again: their story is what the world will buy.

The reason that interview from Afghanistan sticks in the mind is because it hints at another path for Harry: a world in which he had a role and a purpose not dependent on his birth. That is not the world he lives in now. Perhaps if we had a smaller, more continental style monarchy, its junior members would be able to slip away into other realms of life, and have something resembling a normal career. But that’s not the monarchy we have today: Prince Harry can only ever be Prince Harry.

And now people are angry he’s still trading off the institution he quit. The world wants only one thing from him – then gets annoyed that it’s all he has to offer.

[See also: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle show the monarchy isn’t fit for the modern world]

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