Meghan and Harry have asked serious questions – the monarchy will survive, but it is drifting into irrelevance

Sean O'Grady
·4 min read
<p>Meghan and Harry, centre, with the rest of the royal family</p> (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Meghan and Harry, centre, with the rest of the royal family

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It was Oprah Winfrey asking the questions of Meghan and Harry; but it was Harry and Meghan who were asking the questions about the monarchy.

No doubt the institution will survive, for the time being – it’s been shown to be very resilient, and has been through worse in the past; distressing as the revelations are. A Bill is not about to be presented to Parliament that would swiftly lead to the installation of President Boris Johnson and First Lady Carrie Symonds.

Despite some bad patches, the British monarchy has always depended on its ability to adapt and reform itself. However, it seems it has lost its touch recently.

After the Oprah interview, the hereditary principle doesn’t feel quite as immutable as it did. If it really is true that the Prince of Wales and The Duke of Cambridge are “trapped” in the institution by accident of birth, as the Sussexes claim; why do we persist with such a nonsense?

Prince Charles doesn’t always look like he’s really enjoying himself, and you suspect Prince William would be much happier living in a small mansion in Norfolk being an ambulance helicopter pilot. More seriously, the strains of the role imposed on some lead to misery. Meghan isn’t the first to have suicidal thoughts – and we now know how much Diana self-harmed during her unhappy marriage to Charles.

It is all deeply personal stuff, this, but the problem the British constitution has – and therefore the nation, republicans and royalists alike – is that the constitution and the mental health of one particular family are so inextricably linked. The distinction between the Crown as the embodiment of the state, and the human beings associated with it, is not as clear as we would all wish.

Things, one suspects, are not going to get better. Inevitably, there are Meghan supporters and Palace supporters, like a football match; and it is just as sectarian and divisive. The last time the monarchy went through such a crisis, it was between the Charles and Diana “tribes” after she died in 1997. It was Diana, after all, who asked whether Charles was right for “the top job”, and whether it might be better to skip to William. But that’s not the way the thing works, once you start “choosing” – because choosing has to be democratic.

This current bundle of combustible mutual grievances is being unloaded onto a country that is already a bonfire of mutual cultural incomprehensions. As such, it can easily evolve into an argument between nascent Republicans versus Royalists, just like Leavers v Remainers turned the UK into two nations.

This could, in other words, become a new front in Britain’s ever more vicious culture wars. The monarchy, so far from being a consensual and unifying force, becomes, instead, another bogus test of patriotism – respecting “our history”, and the like. Never mind that we had an English republic in the seventeenth century (though not a benevolent one): allegiance to the monarchy as an immutable tradition is easily, or deliberately, confused with allegiance to Britain.

Criticising the way the Palace is run becomes absurdly tantamount to insulting the Queen ­– and, thus, some form of treason. You can see how it can be just as toxic as the battle of the statues, the songs at the Proms, the Tory cabinet ministers who try to appropriate the Union flag, and, of course, Brexit. Obviously, it plays out with even more force in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Bad as the Oprah interview is for the royal family, the future for the monarchy rests with what happens after Elizabeth II. She will be a hard act to follow, because of the respect and the affection she commands.

More Commonwealth nations will decide to choose their own heads of state, and people in Britain may well ask why we have a head of state that no one elected. It reminds me of the old joke Tony Benn used to tell: imagine settling into the big chair at the dentist’s, ready for your fillings, and making some small talk. You ask them where they studied dentistry, and the dentist replies: “Oh, I didn’t study any dentistry, but my father was a dentist, and his father and his father before him. So don’t worry. Open wide!”

If the house of Windsor cannot run its own affairs – if it cannot unite the nation, if it is regarded with distrust or indifference by sections of the population, and if it cannot change – then sooner or later, it will just drift further into irrelevance.

Meghan joining the firm was a hopeful moment; one that was supposed to fix the problem of the royal family getting “out of date”. It could have been symbolic of an institution that can move with the times, reinvent itself and retain support. Turns out, it wasn’t.

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