In the spring of 2021, one topic divided us. On 7 March, Oprah Winfrey’s special interview with the former royals Harry and Meghan boiled down the UK’s “culture wars” into one 85-minute programme.
In this primetime tell-all, the couple spoke out about alleged racism and bullying in the royal family, and revealed that the royal family had expressed concern over “how dark” their son Archie’s skin tone would be.
Meghan also opened up about the suicidal thoughts she experienced as a member of the monarchy.
Harry was present for just 40 minutes of the show, using his time to place the legacy of his mother, Diana, centre stage. “My family literally cut me off financially in the first quarter of 2020. I have got what my mum left me,” he told Winfrey. “I think my mum saw it coming. And I felt my mum’s presence through this process.”
The interview was watched by over 11 million people in the UK and over 20 million in the US; higher-than-expected ratings as lockdowns kept much of the world inside and glued to their television screens.
The programme marked a seismic moment in the history of the royal family, breaking every unspoken rule of royal media engagement. Here we had a British royal couple for the first time attempting to unmask the mysterious and often shady emotional life of the royals.
While the glossy dramatisation of the couple felt silly to many viewers in the UK, there was nothing silly about what the couple said. Serious and open, they came across as two people who, at their hearts, appeared extremely sad.
Still, it sparked a debate that would further exhaust the generational rifts simmering in the UK. Was Meghan Markle a victim or a master manipulator? Are the pair snowflakes or courageous trailblazers? Your opinion on this topic could likely be predicted based on your age and voting preference.
Like Brexit and vaccines, here was another topic to fight over with your older, Facebook-haunting relatives. Two days after the interview was aired in the UK, Piers Morgan stormed off Good Morning Britain after co-presenter Alex Beresford criticised the way he “continues to trash” the Duchess of Sussex. Morgan was later axed from the show after a spike in Ofcom complaints.
Aside from arguments over our changing attitudes to mental health and identity politics, the interview raised constitutional questions about the place the royal family holds in our political life. A third of voters now say the monarchy is not fit for purpose and would back its abolition after the Queen dies. Thanks to Oprah, it might have fewer years left than we think.
Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.