The long read: Royalty loyalty

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview jolted one of Britain’s most enduring institutions, but the royal family has withstood worse crises over the centuries.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 18 Mar 2021, 8:04 PM

Britain’s royal family is one of its most visible symbols of ‘soft power’, recognised globally over the centuries for its traditions, spectacular weddings, pomp and pageantry, as well as controversies. Monarchy has long been on the decline around the world, along with the rise of republicanism, but Queen Elizabeth remains the head of state of 16 countries and the head of the Commonwealth. In the United Kingdom, the royal family routinely evokes a range of opinions: respect, ridicule, rudeness, indifference. Similar has been the reaction to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s explosive interview to Oprah Winfrey earlier this month.

Rarely has someone from the inside spoken in such terms about the royal family — described pejoratively by the couple as ‘the firm’.

Prince Harry is the ultimate palace insider, who along with his wife, dared to lift the veil from its working and showed it as being dysfunctional. The family’s charm and enigma is preserved when its working remains largely shielded from the public. Of all the remarks made in the interview, two were radioactive and particularly singed the royal establishment: about racism, reflected in Meghan’s remarks that there were conversations about the colour of their son Archie’s skin before he was born; and that she had become suicidal and her efforts to seek help for mental health were ignored in the royal household.

Britain has come a long way on racism, with a plethora of laws to clamp down on it, but the sensitive issue remains on top of public agenda, often highlighted by the news media. Mental health is also high in public discourse, prompting funding of millions of pounds to the National Health Service to deal with it in recent years.

The interview led to crisis talks in Buckingham Palace, and after two days a short, 60-word statement was issued on behalf of the queen: “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.”

The interview may have made the head that wears the crown uneasy, but the statement was classic communication from the royal family: pushing back a bit, not giving away much, but also reaffirming familial ties with the couple. Royal-watchers pored over the statement and endlessly analysed it for insight between the lines, particularly the bit about “some recollections may vary”, which is believed to refer to Meghan’s remarks about concerns raised about the colour of Archie’s skin. The only other reaction from the royal family came a few days later from Prince William, who insisted that “we’re very much not a racist family”.

Soon after the interview was aired, many were quick to point out that the royal family had presided over racism and encouraged slavery during centuries of colonialism. Others recalled that when Prince Harry married Meghan — of mixed race from the United States — it was an opportunity for the royal family to reinvent itself and present a modern face to the Commonwealth and the world, but when the couple left the royal household and moved to the US, it was seen as an opportunity missed. Republicans, who have long been campaigning to end the monarchy revelled in the royal family’s discomfort, insisting that the interview and its contents added to the reasons why the UK should have an elected head of state instead of one whose sole claim is bloodline.

Says Wales-based academic Peter Broks: “I don’t think that loyalty to the royal family has weakened. To be honest, I don’t think it (the interview) has changed much of anything at all. We are now a week after the interview and the world has already moved on. I think what the interview did do was expose the racism within the family. It was always known to be there (by many at least — just remember all those embarrassing comments from Prince Philip). The racism is even more exposed in the media coverage of Meghan, as I think she referred to in the interview. One has only to look at the differing coverage of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. I think that has continued in the response to the interview. And no, I don’t think it will increase demands for a republic”.

For all the controversies and the representation as a stoic and cold person in the series The Crown, Queen Elizabeth remains highly respected in Britain, which was reflected in opinion polls after the interview. Britons appear split on generational lines: overall, the Queen and the royal family still enjoy more sympathy and affection than Prince Harry and Meghan, but younger Britons believe the couple has been treated unfairly. On the fairness question, those over 50, and particularly those above 65, insist that the couple has been treated fairly. The Queen’s public appearances and remarks remain hugely popular and influential; for example, her remark at the height of the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence asking people to “think very carefully about the future”, her Christmas message broadcast across the UK and the Commonwealth that draws a large audience, or her remarks on the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccination. At nearly 95, she represents stability and continuity, linking the present with a past that includes dismantling of the British Empire and World War II. Since her coronation in 1952, as the head of state, she appointed 14 British prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

Royal-watching is an industry, with many red-top tabloids feeding off real and not-so-real bits of information about the family. Britons of every generation remember their ‘royal rows’ splashed by the news media: the grandparents remember the constitutional crisis over King Edward’s abdication in 1936 when he proposed marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson; others remember the romance between Princess Margaret and Royal Air Force officer Peter Townsend in the 1950s; and more recently, the troubled saga between the triumvirate of Prince Charles, Diana, and Camilla Parker-Bowles that ended in Diana’s death in Paris in 1997. The interview by Prince Harry and Meghan will be long remembered by the younger generation that is plugged into a global ecumene more closely through the Internet than their parents or grandparents.

Peter Jack Williams, 24, a Bristol-based videographer and video editor, says: “The interview shone a light on what happens behind the scenes. It helped me form a more rounded opinion of the situation. It could be questioned whether the backlash to the interview would’ve been as significant if it were a mixed-race man talking about problems in the monarchy. Me and my family aren’t royalists in any way, but then since it has all come up now, the interview has changed my perception of the royal family, showing them as individuals being separate from the institution. That is, if we are taking Meghan and Harry’s word as the truth. But it must be questioned why the media find Meghan so untrustworthy. It’s like: because she’s famous in the public eye, it’s almost as though she can’t have emotions.

Though the truth of what Meghan said can be debated, it is believable, because if you’re so constantly hounded by the media — in a negative light — for just existing, of course you’d have suicidal thoughts”.

There are also suggestions that the royal family is perceived differently in the four constituents of the UK: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Adds Broks: “I don’t think the interview will have changed anything but might have reinforced the differences between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Be careful if you talk about ‘British’ or ‘UK’ loyalty. England and Northern Ireland may be more loyal, but there is probably less support in Scotland and Wales.”

Britain’s royal family stands out at the international level for another reason: after World War II, most kings and queens in European countries retreated to the background, aware of their irrelevance amidst stronger impulses of democracy and republicanism. Few know the names of the royal families of Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Norway. In contrast, almost every member of the British royal family has a high profile in public.

Those with long memories blame the interview and current discomfort in Buckingham Palace to a decision made in 1969, when the queen is said to have given in to pressure from her husband Prince Philip and her former private secretary William Heseltine to modernise the monarchy by inviting cameras into royal residences and present the young royals to the world as ‘ordinary’ individuals who would later take on royal duties. Since then, almost every member of the royal family has been the subject of close attention not only in Britain but also abroad. Some believe that revelations of family dysfunction are also part of a rolling soap opera that does do not really undermine the monarchy, but explain its enduring appeal.

Columnist Simon Jenkins noted in The Guardian: “No other European royal family took Britain’s monarchical route to A-list celebrity. This path was not only unnecessary, it was high-risk… A racing certainty was that as each heavily publicised child stepped forward into adulthood, the searchlights would come on and the public glare descend. A photograph, a gossip, a nudge, kiss or cuddle is now instant front-page news. None of this had anything to do with the roles and duties of the monarch, let alone with government… (The) policy was to harness the potency of celebrity to enhance the constitutional status of monarchy. The policy was a bad mistake.”

Then there are those who have long campaigned to abolish the monarchy, putting forward several reasons for doing so, including the claim that the royal family does not represent value-for-money. It is a different matter that public support for the monarchy remains high in every opinion poll conducted since the early 1990s, while that for republicanism has remained stuck around 20 per cent. Campaign group Republic has been vigorously pushing to see the monarchy abolished and the Queen replaced with an elected, democratic head of state. In place of the Queen, it wants someone chosen by the people, not running the government but representing the nation independently of politicians. According to the group, the monarchy is wrong in principle, bad for British politics and falls well short of the standards the people should expect of public institutions. Holding aloft the flag for republicanism, the group promptly reacted to the interview, calling for an open, honest debate on the future of the monarchy.

Terming the interview’s revelations as amounting to ‘royal racism’, Republic criticised the Queen’s response. Graham Smith, its spokesman, said: “A lot of people in the UK will not remember the countless accusations of racism directed at numerous members of the royal family. From Prince Philip’s so-called gaffes and the Queen Mother’s offensive language to stories of outbursts by Princess Michael of Kent, there is good reason to believe that racist attitudes are not uncommon within the royal family. Any debate about royals and racism needs to be honest and open, yet instead we get defensive denialism and more gaslighting of Meghan Markle.”

He added: “The monarchy is politics, not a glorified Kardashian soap opera. If these accusations were directed at a politician, if a politician responded with the same contempt for the public as the Queen’s message, this would be playing out very differently. Royalty has a toxic impact on British public life, as otherwise sensible people do mental gymnastics to defend royals for no reason other than they are royals. That has to stop. The clearest and simplest answer to a racist monarchy is the abolition of the monarchy. Instead we get a public debate that attempts to accommodate and explain away racism so the monarchy itself isn’t threatened. The Queen’s response to Meghan Markle’s complaints has done significant damage to the fight against racism, and the recent drive to promote mental health.”

As the Queen’s statement said, the claims made in the interview had been “taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately”, but it is unlikely that any such private investigation would be made public. But one immediate casualty of the row has been Ian Murray, director of the Society of Editors, who initially refuted Meghan’s allegation about the British press that “from the beginning of our relationship, they were so attacking and incited so much racism”. He issued a statement titled ‘UK media not bigoted’, claiming that there is no such racism, which sparked a welter of protests from several journalists and others, including some in the society’s board, forcing him to resign. The society later declared that Murray’s statement “did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”. The interview and Murray’s resignation reinforced the uneasy relationship in contemporary Britain between members of the royal family and the British news media, particularly the red-top tabloids and the paparazzi that were in much focus in the days, months and years before Diana’s death in 1997.

Putting the intersecting themes of media, racism and monarchy in perspective, historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian: “For a monarchy that places much of its case for relevance on its role at the centre of the Commonwealth — 2.4 billion mostly black and brown people — their inability to embrace and later defend Markle represents a breathtaking ability to fumble a reputational windfall. A near slapstick level of PR ineptitude. The tabloids, unable to wean themselves off their addictions to casual racism and instinctive misogyny, were just as blundering. One reason the royals and the tabloids were unable to grasp the opportunities was that this would have required them to look squarely to the future but, like so many British institutions, they are trapped in a fantasy version of Britain’s past.”

What changes, if any, take place as a consequence of the interview remains to be seen, as its ripples continue to make headlines daily, but it will long rank as one of the major rows that hit Britain’s hallowed royal establishment.

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London)

More news from Opinion