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9 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 4:03am

Can Harry and Meghan be “progressive”?

The royal couple are stepping back from their duties, and seeking “financial independence”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Quick, sound the bugles! Kill the swans, release the ravens and ferry some smelling salts to the evermore-puce royal correspondents of England’s daily press! The young couple we love to ogle are stepping down from their roles as senior royals to try and make it on their own.

In a surprise statement, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, to us subjects) announced that they “intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family” and aim to “become financially independent”, splitting their time between the UK and North America. They even seem to be preparing for working life by practising office jargon, describing their “choice to transition into a new working model”.

The Palace is said to be “hurt”. Deciding without consulting anyone, said royal commentator Penny Junor, is “beyond bizarre”. “It’s going to be much more difficult than they realise,” The Diana Chronicles author Tina Brown told Radio 4. Royal biographer Robert Hardman lamented that “monarchies don’t do progressive new roles, it’s about continuity and stability”, calling their statement “just not very professional”. Rather more savagely, historian and royal biographer AN Wilson noted: “She [Markle] doesn’t have a clue, nor does Prince Harry, who’s thick as a plank.”

In reality, royal watchers shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s been clear for a while that the couple have been unhappy in the spotlight. Last October, they decided to sue the Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter Markle had sent to her estranged father (who has been frequently dredged up in the tabloids in an attempt to embarrass the new duchess). At the time, Harry compared press coverage to that of his mother, Princess Diana, who was heavily scrutinised and whose death in a car crash is often blamed on paparazzi chasing the vehicle.

Soon after, the couple appeared in an ITV documentary that revealed Markle’s struggle in the media spotlight, in which she admitted that she was “not really OK” and felt vulnerable as a mother.

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In the same documentary, Harry admitted he’d grown apart from his brother, William, saying “we’re certainly on different paths” and he has also long been open about his mental health struggles after his mother died.

And Jeremy Corbyn must have been weeping into his sprouts along with the rest of the Queen’s Speech-viewing nation when the Queen excluded a picture of the Sussexes from the table where she gave her address, which was covered in framed snaps of the rest of the family (well, aside from Prince Andrew).

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While the hysteria over how the royals should and shouldn’t behave is a bit embarrassing, there is a legitimate question as to how “progressive” the couple can really be, and what that word means when applied to wealthy people trying to establish it as their brand.

Their aims are a little vague. They want to “work to become financially independent”. Up until now, they have been “prohibited from earning income in any form”, but their new status will allow them to have full-time jobs. It’s unlikely they’ll be sending out CVs while repeatedly washing and ironing their one smart work shirt and copy and pasting cover letters like the rest of us. They’ve said they want to focus on launching and running their “new charitable entity”, which is a reference to the Sussex Royal charity set up last June – described by the BBC as “global, linked to Africa and the US” with a “commitment to female empowerment”.

Yet how can this charity venture, or any other charity or philanthropic work they aim to do independently of the royal family, truly be independent, for Harry at least? His cachet, profile and wealth were all built from his status as a royal – that’s his USP. Would any charity, business or other employment in the future ever be separate from his image and privilege? His name is his worth.

Markle, a self-made woman in the sense that she built up her acting career for many years and supported herself with freelance work between acting jobs, before her big break in the drama Suits, has more of a claim to an identity independent of the royals – yet her and her husband’s work is now intertwined.

There is also the question of taxpayer funding. The couple say they will “no longer receive funding through the Sovereign Grant”, which is the mechanism by which royals are publicly funded for their official expenditure. Yet any future official overseas visits (which they still plan to do) will be paid for by this funding, and they will also continue living in their Windsor residence of Frogmore cottage, the renovation of which cost the taxpayer £2.4m last June.

According to their website, 95 per cent of their “office expenditure” is from the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’s private estate that funds “his public, charitable and private activities and those of his family”. There is no suggestion on their website that they will no longer receive funding from this estate.

Also, as they are classified as “internationally protected people”, they will still have armed security from the Metropolitan Police.

“This really is wanting to have your cake and eat it,” remarked Graham Smith, a spokesperson for the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic, to the BBC.

Yet if you take “progressive” to mean a step in a new direction away from the royal family’s historical norms, their aim appears more credible.

For example, they are shedding traditional media coverage led by royal correspondents and the “royal rota” system (which gives privileged access to mainstream outlets) with an aim to “share more, with you, directly” via social media. This reveals an engagement with the public more akin to modern celebrities, who increasingly prefer to shape their own image using Instagram and other platforms, picking and choosing which journalists and publications they work with.

Meghan Markle is the first woman of colour to become part of the royal family. She has written proudly of her heritage, describing herself in a 2015 piece for Elle as “half black and half white”, and her journey to “say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman”.

Yet the reaction from some of the press, typified by the Daily Mail’s “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton” November 2016 headline, was mockery and racism. Indeed, in a statement from Kensington Palace that month, the prince condemned: “The smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”

This bigoted response to the most progressive aspect of the royal couple, it seems, forms part of their attempt to stray from convention today.