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9 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:14pm

The Meghan and Harry saga encapsulates our biggest political divide

The divisions between the young and the old now define British politics. Should the monarchy and the Conservative Party be worried?

By Ailbhe Rea

There is a dramatic generational divide in public opinion following Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, as there has been throughout in public attitudes towards the couple. 

The younger you are, the more likely you are to sympathise with Meghan and Harry and believe that they were treated unfairly by the royal family, a snap poll by YouGov shows. Conversely, after the age of 50, people are more likely to sympathise with the Queen and believe Harry and Meghan were treated fairly. This produces some stark statistics: an outright majority of the over-65s believe the couple were treated fairly, while 61 per cent of 18-24 year olds believe Harry and Meghan were treated unfairly. 

Why does it matter? It is a reminder, if a reminder were needed, that the defining political divide of our times is age. That was the case in the EU referendum referendum, the 2017 general election, and the 2019 general election, with younger people dramatically more likely to support Remain and to vote Labour. It is now assumed in politics that younger people are more likely to vote for left-wing parties and that voters move right as they get older; and indeed, since at least 1992, younger voters have been somewhat more likely to vote Labour, and older voters Conservative. But these divides have rarely been so stark. The polarisation sharpened dramatically in 2015, even more so in 2017, and still further at the most recent election. 

The fundamental question facing both the monarchy and the Conservative Party in the decades ahead is whether these stark age divides eventually spell ruin for both of them. As Eleanor Peake argues in her piece on the Meghan and Harry interview, the pair weren’t necessarily trying to appeal to an older, UK-based public, but to young and international audiences. “While older generations in the UK will certainly find this style of tell-all interview distasteful, it doesn’t really matter. Years in the future, it won’t be the establishment that will be deciding the future of the monarchy. It will be the young.” 

Certainly a seed of suspicion has been planted that it could have been the heir to the throne himself, Prince Charles, who made racist comments about the colour of baby Archie’s skin. (Harry has communicated, via Winfrey, that it wasn’t the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh who made those remarks, but he hasn’t ruled out his father or his brother, the two next in line to the throne.)

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When the Queen is one day succeeded by Prince Charles, the transition of power from a hugely-popular mainstay of the British establishment to a new and more divisive figure will be a challenging one. That was the case long before these fresh allegations against the Palace. Whether that transition is successful or not partly rests on whether the people who are currently indicating support for Meghan and Harry, and less support for senior royals, become more sympathetic to the royal family with age or whether the passage of time see these people retain their views.

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That’s the question: do political attitudes change with age (meaning the monarchy and Conservatives have little cause for alarm) or are these divides the fixed product of different generational experiences? (A more worrying trend for these institutions.)

[See also: Why the Meghan and Harry saga shows the monarchy isn’t fit for the modern world]

Research appears to suggest that there is something inherent to the biological process of ageing that makes people more resistant to change, and therefore more likely to vote for conservative parties as they get older. But we can also observe enduring generational shifts, particularly on social issues such as attitudes towards homosexuality. Those two things point to different answers as to whether political parties and the monarchy should be concerned by the sharp age divides in our politics. 

While the ramifications of the generational divide remain unclear, Labour is responding by trying to increase the average age of its voters, with policies targeted at families with children and the middle-aged, and the Conservatives are hoping to retain their current broad voter coalition. 

But the royal family may have missed a trick by failing to absorb a mixed-race American celebrity with young and progressive appeal into the institution. The Meghan and Harry saga has been a story of the monarchy’s inability to reflect the attitudes of young people, to modernise and to future-proof itself for the decades ahead. The royal family will have to instead hope that young people’s minds duly change with age.

[See also: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle show the triumph of bohemian values over bourgeois ones]