Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s collision with the royal household is an IED planted at the heart of the UK’s constitution. That’s why so many white, male journalists are throwing tantrums about it – and why the palace has responded with a mixture of fear, paralysis and vindictiveness.
Harry and Meghan, by their own evidence, were forced out of the royal family: by the overt and persistent racism of the right-wing tabloids and the cold-blooded snobbery of the senior flunkeys surrounding the Queen. Custom dictated that their son, Archie, could not have a royal title until Prince Charles became king; but Meghan claimed she was told the convention would be changed for Archie, and that he would not have protective security. The tabloids waged a relentless war against Markle using undisguised racist tropes. The pressure of celebrity did the rest.
The couple were probably deluded in thinking they could be part-time royals – though since it is Charles’ wish to slim down the monarchy, you might have thought he would have some new template in mind. In pursuit of privacy, and in defence of their mental health, Harry and Meghan quit.
The press did its best to minimise the implications, but they are now clear. This was a moment just as significant as the abdication of Edward VIII because (leaving aside the parallels involving divorce, the US and glamour) it disrupts the hereditary principle. The implication is that if you can quit as a royal, then royalty itself could quit.
Though today the monarchy enjoys strong support, that could change. The British left, while republican in spirit, has been content to leave the monarchy alone, especially since the last Labour government made crucial improvements to the rule of law, through the Human Rights Act and the creation of the Supreme Court.
But since 2014, the way the monarchy might end has become clear, for those willing to use their imagination. First, it is possible that Scotland will leave the UK, either in this decade or the next. While support for independence has been dented by the Salmond-Sturgeon feud and by the rise in the UK’s debt to almost 100 per cent of GDP, demographic change will go on boosting it. The 16-year-olds who voted en masse for independence in 2014 are now in their twenties. When their children are 16 there will be two generations of young Scots who’ve grown accustomed to the idea of their country becoming the “warm south of Scandinavia”.
When the next Scottish independence referendum takes place, the stance of the monarchy will be critical. If it is held during the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, that will likely be worth two or three points for the No campaign. If it takes place under King Charles III, I would expect unionists and monarchists to hide behind the sofa. Because though the royal family loves Scotland, it is an imaginary Scotland they love: the Scotland of stuffed stags, Brora cardigans and tartan wallpaper.
If Scots vote for independence, they will likely do so in the expectation that the British monarch will be their head of state. But the 2013 white paper Scotland’s Future gave no details about the constitutional relationship between the Queen and the Scottish Parliament. This time around, with the UK out of the EU and Scotland aspiring to rejoin, voters will demand concrete constitutional proposals. While British sovereignty is constituted by “the Queen in parliament”, Scottish sovereignty would be shared with Europe by design and this could include a clear separation of powers between the executive and the legislature – after all, once a country becomes independent, it can have any constitution it wants.
If Scotland leaves the UK there is, in addition, no guarantee that the rump state (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) would constitute a viable permanent member of the UN Security Council. The word “British” would cease to have meaning for most people. The small matter of where to base the nuclear deterrent would be in question. And with an in-built Tory majority in the remaining UK, there would be a clamour for constitutional change everywhere south of the new Scottish-English border (which, owing to Brexit, would be a hard one).
And that’s where Meghan and Harry come in. The entire authority of the monarchy rests on tradition and mystique. Its moral authority has been twice shattered in the past 30 years: first by the treatment of Princess Diana and the scandalously cold reaction to her death in 1997, and now by the victimisation of Meghan.
But Harry and Meghan have done more: they have shown you can walk away. Their willingness to expose their own trauma – he a combat veteran, she the victim of racism – stands in marked contrast to the atmosphere of sangfroid and bitterness that the royal palaces emanate into the social layers close to them. Over time, if Harry and Meghan don’t screw up, they will become the alt-royals in a way that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson could never be. Notwithstanding Harry’s juvenile party escapade in a Nazi uniform, they appear progressive.
At some point in the 2020s we are likely to see a smaller, less popular retro-monarchy around Charles, and its mirror image – an emotionally intelligent, trans-Atlantic couple slumming it in an LA mansion. Even if the Sussexes took a vow of omertà, the symbolism would be powerful: there would be two kinds of royalty – the one many of us would like and the one we’re stuck with. You only have to listen to this week’s radio phone-ins to understand that, for many people disengaged from party politics, the row over Meghan has become politics. That’s why the culture warriors of the right are so incensed.
I’m a lifelong republican but this is the first time I’ve been able to see a clear path away from the current system. The Mountbatten-Windsors, as we all know from watching The Crown, created this style of monarchy in response to the egalitarian society that emerged during the Second World War and the mass communication culture that followed.
Charles understands it’s a monstrosity and wants to slim it down. But he also has a lifelong passion for political intervention – sometimes, quietly, on the side of progressive causes. Once crowned king, he will have to go very quiet, because after Josh O’Connor’s portrayal of him for Netflix, I see no appetite in British civil society for having Charles’ opinions thrust upon us.
In Boris Johnson, meanwhile, we have a right-wing culture warrior who allegedly lied to the Queen and who tried to do his own bit of constitutional re-engineering by unlawfully suspending parliament. And we have a Labour front bench that sees constitutional change – the devolution of more powers to Wales and Scotland, and of sovereignty down to local and regional level – as the key to the party’s future survival.
Meghan is not the spark that will light the fire of constitutional upheaval in Britain: Scottish independence is. But Meghan and Harry have made sure the grate is replete with firelighters and that the briquettes are dry.
At the next Scottish referendum, the future constitution will have to be designed in advance: nobody this time is going to the polls on the simple promise that “the Queen will be head of state”. They will ask how, under which legal precedents and with what political powers. That, in turn, should prompt the same debate at Westminster.
I would accept a radically slimmed-down monarchy, with one place of residence, a gender-neutral line of succession and the abolition of most appointments, titles and privileges. In common with all sensible reforms in Britain, even this sounds revolutionary, because it implies enhanced powers for the executive, requiring better legal safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny.
The challenge of revising the UK constitution without intensifying the power of non-royal elites is, of course, why Labour has traditionally left it alone. But if Scotland becomes independent, Labour will have to embrace constitutional change at the level of parliamentary elections and regional power to avoid the UK becoming a one-party state.
Change is inevitable because two factions of the British electorate are now lined up behind two factions of the monarchy, with two concepts of its constitutional role. Don’t let the pizazz and triviality obscure that fact. It has been coming since Charles and Diana separated, but it arrived the moment the camera jib swooped over Oprah Winfrey and Megan.