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The break-up of a family firm

In the 1960s the Queen and Prince Philip employed PRs to transform the monarchy into a “royal family”. It was a disastrous error that turned royals into celebrities and opened the way for the Harry and Meghan debacle.

A new hysteria is gripping the temples of celebrity. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are getting more clicks on the New York Times website than the impeachment of Donald Trump. A family spat of no public importance is obsessing the nation and the world. A young couple in trouble with the family firm is going through a rough patch. So what?

I blame the Queen. Harry and Meghan want to take a half “step back” from royalty. The decision has been a gift to pop philosophy. How do you half step back from a vacuity? How do you half-call a constitutional bluff? Why were the couple, so distant from the throne, in this absurd position in the first place? The truth is that they are victims of a policy dating back to the 1960s, a decision by the Queen to embark on a new concept of monarchy. It was crudely to make a family soap opera.

Eighteen months ago, when Harry and Meghan became global celebrities over their wedding, I joined everyone else in going a little mad. I began to draft a musical, starring the young couple, awash in bliss and fame, with the world at their feet. After a year, the paradise began to pall. In a poignant song, Meghan revealed her dread of palace life and her loathing of the press. She loved Harry but she wanted to go home and restart her former career.

In the script a titanic row ensues. Meghan argues that if she were a man and Harry a woman there would no question. The wife would follow the husband. Eventually she wins, and “Mr and Mrs Sussex” set up home in Hollywood. There they milk the one asset left to them by Harry’s family: celebrity. Meghan becomes a major star and feminist icon. She does a Reagan, enters politics and runs for president. Harry takes to the bottle and ends up as a joker at White House banquets. He is called Britain’s revenge for the American Revolution.

Back to the Queen. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the British monarchy stood aloof in its almost paranoid formality. Crowned heads were falling across Europe. The family was traumatised by the abdication of Edward VIII. Whether or not the prime minister Stanley Baldwin or the Archbishop of Canterbury correctly divined the national mood, it was decided a king could not marry a divorced woman. Edward chose to step down rather than abjure Wallis Simpson. His shy, dull brother George VI succeeded him, and his niece Elizabeth succeeded in due course in 1952. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was also forbidden to marry a divorcee on pain of being stripped of royalty.

The Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip was considered a dream ticket. A naval officer of Greek royal blood, he had infatuated the teenage Elizabeth much as Albert had infatuated Victoria. The Queen adopted her father’s calculated mystique, even banning cameras from the moment of “sacred” anointment in the Abbey. Ten years on, however, restlessness set in. A press officer arrived from Australia, William Heseltine, who collaborated with Prince Philip on a new strategy. Britain was changing. The Sixties were swinging and the monarchy should swing with them. Heredity should be celebrated not hidden. Monarchy would become a “Royal Family”, a family firm.

At Philip’s instigation, the royal children went on public display, starting in 1960 with a televised picnic at Balmoral. The project culminated in a 1969 fly-on-the-wall documentary entitled Royal Family, remarkably revealing even by today’s standards. There were 75 days of filming, an event covered in Netflix’s The Crown. The Queen is seen buying an ice cream and discussing politics with a visiting President Nixon. “World problems are so complex, aren’t they now?” she confides. Afterwards the Queen (and Princess Anne) thought the film a terrible mistake. She hated it, had it locked away and banned repeats. David Attenborough, who was the controller of BBC Two at the time, rather agreed. He feared that the documentary was “killing the monarchy” by destroying its mystique. But Attenborough was not killing the monarchy; he was, rather, party to the devastation of the Queen’s family to a degree that could not easily be reversed.

The Queen’s intention has been to dilute and disperse monarchy, to make it somehow “relevant”. It was to be a corporate family, built on the orchestration of publicity. The dignity of the monarch was to be touched by the glamour of youth, with weddings of dazzling splendour, photo-opportunities galore, state occasions and relentless pomp globally promoted. Added to this would be a daily agenda of charitable patronage and sponsorship, public duties in perpetual overdrive. Even a minor royal gets a Windsor carriage wedding and a subsidy in return for a dozen charity presidencies.

The publicity grew more intrusive and scurrilous as the younger members of the family matured into teenagers and into marriage. The press was uncontrollable. The arrival on the scene of Princess Diana in the 1980s saw all privacy and decency collapse. Bathing pools were staked out. The infant Prince William was photographed peeing in the park. Within a decade, three of the Queen’s children were divorced and the concept of a “normal family” had mutated into something fit for prime-time television. The end of the Prince of Wales’s marriage and the fate of his wife Diana led to a global frenzy.

Alongside this was a royal press corps avaricious for daily fare. Marketable stereotypes were required, and the two royal princes were a gift. William, second in line to the throne, was handsome, conventional and with a spouse to match. Harry, even after military service, had to be cast as a hellraiser and a risk. He took to the role. He then married a beautiful and articulate mixed-race American actress. Pomposity was punctured, royalty refreshed. Harry and Meghan soared up the royal charts. The Queen’s 1960s plot had secured a coup.

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Now – and in my view predictably – Harry has walked off stage. After the couple’s statement on 8 January, the fury of the palace press knew no bounds. How dare they? The Queen humiliated. The palace insulted. What of the title, the Frogmore residence, the money? My only titbit of inside information is that, at the time of the wedding, this possible outcome was “gamed” by palace advisers, including a complex deal with Meghan regarding privacy. As it is, the couple jumped the gun. Their announcement bred a hilarious pastiche of Cold War Kremlinology. Who can say what is happening behind those mysterious walls?

Of course, none of this matters. Politically, constitutionally, it is an irrelevance. Harry, at number six, is not seriously in line to the throne. The British monarchy has long shown itself immune to crisis; indeed I wonder sometimes if it welcomes crises as implying continued importance. The divorce and death of Princess Diana were awful, as was the shaming of Prince Andrew last year. But how Harry leads his life is between himself, his wife and his father. That is the point of heredity. It is immune to character, as it is to merit.

Yet every editor knows there is a yawning gulf between the “public interest” and what interests the public. By any standards, Harry and Meghan have become staggering celebrities. They were idolised, their charities blessed, their presence craved. A snap YouGov poll soon after the announcement suggested 45 per cent support for them against 26 per cent disapproval – though only a minority thinks they should remain receiving public money as half-royals. Celebrity theory is as yet in its infancy, but it is market driven. No one can decide to become only half of one.

The public invest something of themselves in their heroes. They see in their idols a reflection of their own fantasies and delights, hopes and fears. When they witness celebrities traumatised it can be unsettling, as the death of Diana vividly showed. People cried in the street.

While Harry was brought up surrounded by the furies of the celebrity media, Meghan’s career was the opposite. In her profession as an actor, image is an artifice, daily crafted and laundered by publicists. This does not work with royalty, which comes with image attached. Its rituals are those of mind-numbing deference. It has no accountability. The only mirror it has is the press. The tabloids are the price that must be paid for adulation. They honour no discretion and have no sense of fairness. The press is a memento mori, whispering into the victor’s ear that he – or she – is only mortal.

As Harry knew from his mother’s experience, all this is par for the royal course. Andrew’s former wife, Sarah Ferguson, was appallingly treated. So at times were Princess Anne, and Prince Edward’s wife, Sophie. Press attention should be water off the royal duck’s back. Prince Philip’s advice was reportedly: “Don’t read the bloody papers.” But for Meghan the whisper in the ear was a scream, affecting her family and friends, and given added savagery by the falsities and racism on social media.

To be daily compared to the Duchess of Cambridge, from an utterly different background, must have been intolerable. The dress comparisons, the stuffiness of the court, its hyper-caution and obsession with precedence and procedure, added to the impossibility of contact with ordinary people. As the magic wore off, we must assume this intelligent and ambitious woman could see only horror stretching to infinity. It is easy to reply: what did she expect? Nothing in matrimony is what you expect. It is a train racing from a tunnel into blinding light, and sometimes back into a tunnel.

The Sussexes’ predicament was clearly desperate, and it is perhaps to their credit that they have brought it to a head early. Their handling appears startlingly inept, apparently due to a transatlantic split of publicists. The couple may see themselves as part of a wokeish “new progressivism” in the concept of royalty. But if you want to stay on the books, you do so by the leave of the firm and its boss. The contract is for life. If not, you resign. That appears to have been the gist of the “talks” at Sandringham on 13 January, with media attention worthy of the Treaty of Versailles.

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We should remember that other European royal families, of the same constitutional status as Britain’s, did not go down the same path. They took one of privacy and discretion. The King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, is still an airline
pilot. He occasionally flies KLM jets, safe in the knowledge that few people recognise him. In 2001 Prince Haakon, heir to the Norwegian throne, married a single mother with a drug-fuelled past. Despite some controversy, he survived incognito.

The King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, has reigned for 46 inconspicuous years as a nine-to-five job, his family merged into the Swedish bourgeoisie. The Crown Princess, Victoria, works intermittently for the UN. The King of Spain, Felipe VI, may have taken after his philandering father, Juan Carlos, but he became king without fuss on his father’s retirement in 2014. None of these “houses” has an extended state- subsidised royal family. None has grown unstable as a result.

There is no doubt that the exploitation of royal family celebrity by its managers worked. The Queen is regularly cited as central to “UK plc” and to tourism. The British people remain overwhelmingly in favour of retaining monarchy as the focus of their patriotism, even during the wobble over Diana’s death. Republicanism is dead. The last ostentatious republican, the Fife MP Willie Hamilton, left parliament in 1987. If Scotland went independent it would certainly retain the Queen.

As for how royalty behaves, the political scientist Vernon Bogdanor agrees with Walter Bagehot, that the monarch should be a “‘dignified’ rather than ‘efficient’” element of the constitution. A constitutional monarchy should be beyond all controversy. “In doing so,” says Bogdanor, “it alone can represent the whole nation in an emotionally satisfying way… everything else is but embellishment.” The Queen must be a glorious anthropomorphism of the nation as a whole. If she has opinions, she keeps them to herself. The contrast is clear with countries where state headship is combined with an elected executive presidency. The state risks being tainted by partisanship: witness the embarrassment many Americans feel at having their national loyalty identified with Donald Trump.

A rare occasion when the monarch might overstep the mark was conjectured by Mike Bartlett in his ingenious play, King Charles III, in 2014. It was based on the present Prince of Wales as king, refusing formally to sign a bill censoring the press (good on him). In the resulting crisis, William and Kate engineer Charles’s abdication, while the tearaway Harry takes up with a republican girlfriend. It was not wholly implausible. When Belgium faced a similar crisis over King Baudouin’s refusal to sign an abortion bill in 1990, he was allowed to abdicate for a day.

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How the monarchy conducts itself is not wholly irrelevant. It is part of the collective context in which the nation’s politics are enacted. It represents tradition and upholds precedent. It sets boundaries and dictates a courtesy in the conduct of public affairs – however often that courtesy is infringed. The British political system is resilient, as the past three years have shown. It can tolerate the odd eccentricity, such as the blatant purchase of parliamentary seats in the House of Lords. But the question is how far such eccentricity can extend.

The present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is deft at stepping mildly out of line. His views on architecture, health and the environment are not overtly partisan. But it does not matter as he is no more “powerful” than a newspaper or television commentator. His influence is that of celebrity. I would rather have the heir to throne engage intelligently in public debate than indulge in the antics of his younger brother.

Charles knows his limits. To expect such controlled nuances in the constitutional mystique of royalty to apply to an ever larger family has always been an accident waiting to happen. We are perhaps lucky that Prince Harry is no more militant than in defence of the planet, wild animals and injured servicemen. But who might be next?

More serious is the fact that the current system will impose the same disciplines and direct the same public exposure on an ever widening array of royal offspring as the years go by. In the case of the children it must rank close to cruelty. Most British minors have their faces blanked out on camera, but not royal ones. Their faces are grist to the palace publicity mill. They are sentenced to be recognised for life.

We will miss Harry and Meghan, since disappear it seems they must. Back at the ranch, Prince Charles is apparently intending to “slim down” the monarchy. Perhaps he will reverse his mother’s 1960s revolution and abolish the royal family altogether as surplus to constitutional requirements. It will come too late for Harry and Meghan. But Mr and Mrs Sussex can at least reflect on how they have helped end a great mistake in a blaze of sensation, and enjoy some peace and quiet. l

Simon Jenkins is an author, columnist and former newspaper editor

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing