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2 October 2020updated 03 Oct 2020 9:38am

Harry and Meghan: the hollow claims of superstar activism

Sweeping statements made from the safety of Hollywood are no substitute for policy. 

By David Skelton

Yesterday (1 October), the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made another “rare public intervention”, which I think is the third such intervention in around a fortnight. Describing Harry and Meghan’s interventions as “rare” is like talking about Nigel Farage making a “rare appearance on Question Time“. The couple, who swapped their royal duties for becoming part of the Hollywood elite, shared their views on the situation in their former home of Britain from their lavish California mansion.

This time, their intervention, at the start of Black History Month, was about what they defined as “structural racism” in the UK. The issues they raise are hugely important, but the manner of their increasingly regular commentary about the UK, after having abandoned the country and their duties to it, can’t help but stick in the craw.

Clearly, the couple has every right to make an intervention on this important topic – and, in their new role as private citizens, on any topic they wish. What is also clear, however, is that they decided to swap a life based around duty and service for a life based around a lucrative, multi-year deal with Netflix. Their previous role could have enabled them to make a substantial impact with organisations that tackle directly racism in the UK. Now, they seem restricted to making hectoring interventions from a distance, in a manner that seemingly makes a blanket condemnation of their former home.

Of course, we need to do more to tackle racism and inequality in the UK. That is something that no reasonable person should argue against. Persistent issues in the criminal justice system need to be addressed, as do continuing inequalities in the jobs market and in housing, health and education. Politicians, lawyers, magazines and footballers are among those working to describe and confront the barriers that black people still face in the UK.

[see also: The new political football]

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Transplanting ideas and slogans from the US, as so many seem determined to do, is in many ways counterproductive. The United States and the UK have hugely different issues and hugely different experiences, and to suggest the two are comparable to make things easier on social media or in a global media environment is to do the UK a disservice. Rather than considering the specific issues facing BAME people in the UK, the importing of ideas wholesale from the US risks reducing discussion of these important issues to a superficial level. Sweeping statements made from the safety of Hollywood are no substitute for actual policy proposals that address the uniquely British experience.

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But superstar activism almost never gets involved in real policy, and this broad but shallow approach elbows all nuance and detail to the margins, obscuring that which badly needs to be addressed. “Structural racism” is a clumsy phrase that unfairly damns a whole society as racist, and sees British history as one of almost unremitting shame. The repeated use of phrases such as “white privilege” and the newly fashionable “white fragility” by middle-class activists presents a simplified view of the power structures in the UK. It reinforces existing (and misguided) caricatures about the views of the white working class, and creates a myopic world-view that ignores real problems, such as the fact that only 13 per cent of white, working-class boys on free school meals make it to university. Frankly, the people of Barnsley or Consett could probably do without being lectured about “privilege” and inbuilt advantages by a pair of self-exiled aristocrats in a house that has 16 bathrooms.

[see also: The history wars]

Interventions by the ultra-rich, particularly when delivered at a distance of thousands of miles and from the comfort of Billionaire’s Row, aren’t hugely helpful when tackling complex problems. The narcissism of such statements resembles the Instagram activism of those who occasionally post about their commitment to social justice before returning to a steady stream of filtered selfies. We have to do more to bring about racial equality in the UK, but it’s hard to see how the opinions of absentee aristocrats, seemingly oblivious to their own prodigious advantages, are going to do anything to achieve that.

David Skelton is author of “Little Platoons”. He tweets at @djskelton