Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 9 March 2021. It has been repromoted ahead of Harry and Meghan’s long-awaited documentary airing on Netflix on Thursday 8 December.
Can you imagine what is going on in Buckingham Palace right now? The atmosphere in the “crisis talks” the family is apparently “locked in”. The look on Princess Anne’s face. The sweatless, spluttery indignation of Prince Andrew. The mute, blank horror of Prince Charles. The faint air of hysteria from the staffer bringing in the little thing of crumpets.
I mean, even institutions with competent PR wings would be in full Princess Margaret-level meltdown at the pickle within which this family now finds itself. What on earth is there to say? Where would they start? In the process of what was surely one of California’s most explosive gender-reveal parties, has Prince Harry, as one government minister put it, “blown up” his family?
I’d like to venture an alternate theory. Which is that one or two of the firm’s members, just a bit, are taking a sidelong glance though the nearest window and wondering if this would be a good time to make a run for it too. There’s a chance, I imagine them quietly thinking, that if the whole strained, dysfunctional edifice does come tumbling down, they just might be able to scramble out from beneath the ruins and finally run free in the heather.
It’s probable that Meghan Markle on Oprah won’t spell destruction for an institution that, after all, survived Maitlis on Andrew. But surviving, as every horse-owner knows, is not thriving. When it comes to the monarchy, might there be a case for a swift bolt to the head, if only on compassionate grounds?
Let’s start with the interview’s least surprising revelation: being a royal is awful. It made Harry miserable, and whether they know it or not, it is making Prince William and Charles miserable too. “I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped” Harry said. And: “My father and my brother, they are trapped, they don’t get to leave.”
Well of course they feel trapped. Of course they don’t like it. Of course the life of a British prince is a rickety carriage-ride to mental illness. The business of being royal is essentially to be a touring version of your own waxwork at Madame Tussauds, the less animated the better. It is not so much a job as an anti-job: the task is to express as little of yourself as possible, and then be packed away securely overnight, the better to preserve your mystery for tomorrow’s crowds. The less you do, the more they cheer. Say anything, express anything, have a thought of any kind, and you will be punished and mocked and got at.
The function, the “high aim” of the whole thing, is embarrassing for them too. For the true service the royals undertake is really as a public displacement activity. They permit us to relax into the opulent role of Julian Fellowes – fretting over the wrong fork or a lapse in tights-protocol – rather than thinking about our problems, or bothering to read the stories about nurses’ pay or universal credit (too dry).
And as Harry and Meghan seem to have found, you cannot improve things from within. You can’t “modernise” the monarchy for the same reason you can’t modernise the Tower of London – the history is the point. We like to see the royals doing the sort of things they always do, in as traditional a manner as possible, so we can feel the ancient shiver of Tudor and Plantagenet as they go by. In Britain we don’t want our heritage buildings re-designed with “open, flowing interior spaces” and “experiments with natural light” – we find it to be tantamount to vandalism. Neither do we want our royals “rebranding” things or using words like “hydrate”. We want things as they were.
As if that wasn’t stifling enough for those within the firm, you can’t really retreat into the work either. Talked up, this royal “work” seems to contain the possibility of fulfilment and real achievement – the raising of awareness here, the boosting of a favoured charity there. But when you break it down, it amounts to little more than the performance of being themselves in different locations. Influencers, really, minus the ability to go to Dubai against government advice.
No, the best you can do as a member of the royal family is probably what Charles seems to have done, which is become a “character” – repackaging his much-mocked passions (organic farming, architecture) as old-mannish quirks and foibles. A bit of respect traded in for a bit of flexibility. Still wouldn’t be enough for most.
It’s an odd sort of nostalgia that makes Britain insist on flooding its schedule with such an outdated show – a sort of continual Christmas re-run of Mrs Brown’s Boys – when there are much better things on now, and when you can clearly see the actors are bored out of their skulls. It’s certainly not healthy for either side. Best, surely, to gently release this maladapted family into the wild and see how it does. Some of the smaller ones might just be OK.
[See also: How Princess Diana became a millennial obsession]