In their interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spoke well of the Queen. “I really loved being in her company,” Meghan said. “The Queen has always been wonderful to me.” Yet isn’t the Queen most to blame for the whole sorry mess? She’s boss of “the firm” and should be accountable when royalty’s brand is damaged. At 94, with an ailing husband aged 99, she can hardly be expected to get a grip. But that is precisely the point: no firm in the real world, even one running a corner shop, would allow its chief executive to continue so long regardless of performance.
The Queen’s 69 years on the throne, commonly regarded as a strength, have become the monarchy’s biggest problem. It needs someone to dispense with its fustier traditions (such as requiring a young woman to curtsey to her in-laws), establish induction courses for new recruits, improve media relations, start a counselling service for troubled family members and redefine what is meant by “service”. That’s a daunting prospect for a nonagenarian.
Because of the trauma caused to her parents by Edward VIII, Elizabeth II has an aversion to abdication. Yet of continental Europe’s 11 remaining hereditary monarchies (including three principalities and one grand duchy), four – the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg – have seen abdications this century. In Japan, Emperor Akihito stepped down in 2019, becoming “joko” or emperor emeritus.
If the Queen, as nominal head of 16 states, needs inspiration, she could look to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the Habsburgs, who once ruled most of Europe. He abdicated his various crowns between 1554 and 1556 and retired to a monastery. “My strength is simply not enough,” he told the States General of the Netherlands, after recalling “arduous trips” and “arduous wars”. He concluded: “I did no deliberate wrong to anyone… and ask forgiveness of everyone I might have offended.” Quoting from that speech would be a stylish way to go.
Future generations of royalty may cope with the constrictions that royal life entails but Meghan’s behaviour, like Diana’s before her, suggests they will struggle to find partners willing to accept them. In a curious way, royal life before the 1980s, though infinitely more privileged in wealth and status, wasn’t all that different to the life that most of the royals’ subjects led. Just as, for example, someone born in a mining village had few alternatives to going down the mines (or, if female, marrying a miner), so someone born in a palace would not easily escape a lifetime of opening hospital wings, touring factories and attending banquets. Now young people generally expect choice about how they live, where they travel, whom they choose as friends, and so on. They also expect to talk freely about their personal opinions and feelings. The monarchy will never be destroyed by rabid republicans such as Jeremy Corbyn. The threats to its survival will come from inside the palaces.
The great excluded
Is the tabloid press racist, as Meghan and Harry allege? Because it is mostly a matter of nuance, tone and story selection, rather than direct abuse, a definitive verdict is hard to reach. Flick through the tabloids and you will rarely see a non-white face, except in connection with bad behaviour, until you reach the sport section. When the effects of a budget are covered, case studies almost invariably involve white families. A missing white woman or child gets far more attention than an ethnic-minority equivalent.
The soft features pages on fashion, travel, beauty, homes, etc, are particularly culpable. I regularly analyse the 20 or 30 people, including writers’ bylines, shown in a typical Daily Mail Femail section. More often than not, they are all white. The tabloid treatment of Meghan – and the contrast with Kate Middleton – is perhaps dictated more by her “woke” opinions than her skin colour. Hurtful though Meghan finds the press portrayal of her personally, she and Harry should do more to highlight how tabloids exclude a large section of the wider population.
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation