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5 April, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

Washing dirty linen in public

What will be the consequences for the British monarchy of the scandal surrounding the confessions of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry

The explosive comments about the British royal family made in a television interview by Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, the Queen’s grandson, have reverberated around the world, causing scandal and anguish in America, in Britain and especially within the royal family. They have led to angry questions about racism and snobbery, have been deeply damaging to the aged and long-reigning Queen, divided public opinion and again called into question the whole institution of monarchy in Britain.

   In a broadcast lasting almost two hours and watched by millions in America and Britain, Meghan told Oprah Winfrey, one of the top interviewers in the US, that she felt isolated and lonely living in Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s residence. She said she felt restricted and constricted, was not allowed to see her friends whenever she wanted, was given no guidance on how to behave and, most devastatingly, was not offered any help when she needed counselling and therapy. She admitted to Winfrey that at times she felt suicidal.

  She also said that before her son Archie was born, one of the royal family – though not the Queen or her husband Prince Philip – asked Prince Harry what colour their child would be. Being herself half black and half white, she saw this as a deeply insensitive and racist remark. She also appeared to link this with the decision by officials at Buckingham Palace not to give her son the title of “Prince”, suggesting this might be because he would not be fully white. And she said that Palace officials threatened to cut off all police protection and security for her and her son when they left England and settled in California.

  The resulting furore has polarised both Britain and America. Younger people in Britain were outraged at what they saw as racism in the royal family and largely sympathised with Meghan. They also accused Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son, of insensitivity after Harry admitted that on several occasions his father had refused to accept his phone calls from overseas. Few criticised the Queen herself – who is now 94 and widely respected – but most said the institution of monarchy was outdated and had to be changed.

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Attitudes were very different among older Britons. They were outraged at what they saw as the self-seeking attempt at publicity by Meghan. They saw her as naïve and scheming and said that she had made no effort to fit into the royal family or adapt to the role she had chosen to accept on her marriage. They said the interview did not force her explain why she had such poor relations with her own father, why she did not ask a doctor for help when she was depressed and why she had chosen to make such a forthright attack on the royal family at a time when Prince Philip, who is 99, is in hospital with heart problems. Some television commentators even called her a liar, which in turn led to a storm of protest and accusations that criticism of her was motivated mainly by racism.

  Buckingham Palace issued a brief statement on behalf of the Queen saying that the issues raised in the interview, especially those of race, were “concerning.” But she insisted these would be addressed in private. Without denying any of Meghan’s accusations, she pointedly said “some recollections may vary”, but the issues would be taken very seriously. And she emphasised that both Meghan and Harry would always be “much loved family members”.

  The clear tactic of the royal family is to try to play down the divisions as much as possible. Only a few days after the interview, the Queen, who has been sheltering almost out of sight at Windsor Castle during the pandemic, took part on an internet call to mark British science week in a discussion of the expedition to Mars, and appeared lively and spirited and made several jokes. No other members of the family have commented on the interview, and have tried to give the impression that it is “business as usual”.

  But is it? Can the monarchy remain unscathed by accusations of racism at a time when Black Lives Matter and heightened sensitivities about racial issues are dominating all public discussion? At issue is whether it is in itself “racist” to speculate on the skin colour of a child who is born to parents of different races. Many Britons, including those who are themselves married to someone not of their own colour, said Meghan’s sensitivities were exaggerated.  They said most people would be curious to know whether a child of a mixed marriage would look more like the mother or the father. Prince William, Harry’s elder brother, flatly denied any racism in the royal family.

   The other question, however, is whether the protocol of the monarchy is so rigid that it cannot accept outsiders. Meghan is not the only person to find it hard to adapt. Princess Diana, Prince Charles’s first wife, had a very unhappy time and found royal life almost intolerable. There was a long and sad public estrangement from Charles, who was still seeing his former girlfriend Camilla. The resulting scandals and revelations did immense damage to the royal family’s image. Even before that, another outsider – Sarah Ferguson, who married Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son – had a spectacular split from the family when she was photographed with another lover and got divorced from Andrew. And back in the 1930s, the royal family was rocked by the abdication in 1936 of King Edward VIII, who was king for less than a year but insisted on marrying a twice-divorced American woman, against the wishes of the British government and contrary to the prevailing morality at that time. His brother took over as King George VI.

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Some of these earlier splits and scandals were far more acrimonious and serious that the present row. But what is different today is the question of what members of the royal family are expected and allowed to do. Can they lead their own lives and hold jobs? Can they speak out on political issues? Can they enjoy the normal freedoms of ordinary citizens? The Queen has never voiced any political opinion and remains totally neutral, as head of state. By contrast, her son Charles has made clear that when he becomes king he wants to continue speaking out on issues he cares about – the environment, climate change, architecture and opportunities for young people. So far there is no real momentum to abolish the monarchy. The Queen has been on the throne for 69 years, longer than any monarch in more than 1,000 years, and is very popular. But Prince Charles is far less popular and a republican movement may grow after her death. It is certain that many former British colonies that still recognise the Queen as head of state, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, would swiftly abolish the monarchy in their countries and become republics after her death.

  The image of the royal family has certainly been dented in America. Partly this is because Meghan is an American, and her complaints about an uncaring and narrow-minded British establishment have therefore found widespread support. Partly also Americans do not share the still widespread British view that emotions are better kept private rather than being aired on television. “Celebrities” in the US actually keep their position by constantly airing their feelings – much as Meghan did. The American love for the British monarchy, which proved a lucrative tourist attraction, could quickly turn sour.

  The general feeling is that the Meghan interview has made it more difficult for her and Prince Harry to be reconciled with the rest of his family, and that a return from their self-imposed exile in California is now unlikely. And for most people, that is the saddest outcome and the reason why they wish that Meghan had not spoken out in the way she did. 

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