After the shock waves from that bombshell interview, deeper questions have emerged over the implications for the monarchy – and an Australian republic.
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Among the flurry of British headlines that greeted Oprah Winfreys TV interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last month, one stood out: WHAT HAVE THEY DONE? It was splashed across the front of the Daily Mail, the tabloid newspaper of choice for middle England, and had the air of Nanny, standing hands on hips surveying a mess of broken toys in the nursery. Meanwhile, the child whod wreaked havoc in a fit of temper had run away to hide, appalled and feeling sick.
Winfreys incendiary interview with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, was a bombshell that had blown up the British royal family, according to the story. But what about Prince Harry, accomplice bomb thrower, so recently the nations favourite royal? The headline might just as easily have read: WHAT HAVE I DONE?
That broadcast has holed him below the water, says Robert Lacey, employing a naval metaphor. Lacey is an adviser on the Netflix series The Crown, and his 2020 book Battle of Brothers documents the estrangement between Harry and his older sibling, Prince William. Harry is due to return to the UK in June for the 100th birthday of his grandfather, Prince Philip, and for the unveiling of a statue of his mother, Princess Diana, the following month. His minders must be very worried, observes Lacey, because the real danger is that he will be booed. He has as much chance of being cheered in the streets as Prince Andrew.
The Times columnist Janice Turner agreed: His bridges are ashes now, she wrote days before the much publicised interview was broadcast. The tragedy is you can imagine Prince Harry in Britain, raising morale during the pandemic; helping soldiers deliver vaccines and charming ICU nurses.
He has as much chance of being cheered in the streets as Prince Andrew.
Harry and Markle moved to Canada and then to the US with their baby son Archie early last year. I ask royal biographer Penny Junor, author of books on Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Harry and William, what she thinks Harry will do there. God knows, she says. Make podcasts is that a real job? Hes a soldier at heart, a doer. He started the Invictus Games, accompanied wounded soldiers to the North Pole, founded the Sentebale childrens charity [which operates in three African countries] none of these sorts of things could have happened if he hadnt been HRH.
No longer HRH but still committed to a life of service, Harry set up with his wife the Archewell organisation, whose mission statement offers creative activations driving systemic cultural change, one act of compassion at a time. Its not-for-profit foundation will support organisations such as the Centre for Humane Technology, aimed at creating safer online communities, and the Loveland Foundation, which provides mental health resources to black women and girls. Archewell has also teamed up with Netflix to make documentaries and childrens programming, and signed a deal with Spotify to make podcasts spotlighting diverse perspectives. The first, and so far only one, was made in December 2020 to herald the new year, featuring a number of celebrities including Elton John and a cameo appearance by young Archie.
In past weeks Harry has landed not one but two new jobs: as chief impact officer at BetterUp, an eight-year-old coaching and counselling business based in San Francisco, and with the Commission on Information Disorder, a new offshoot of Americas not-for-profit Aspen Institute set up to investigate fake news. The commission will undertake a six-month study into the state of information and misinformation in the US.
In the move to California, Penny Junor believes Harry has swapped his wifes predicament for his own: She left family, career, friends, took on a new job and was isolated and unhappy. He rescued her as he saw it and now hes gone away from everything himself, out there living a life that is entirely alien to him. I feel very sad and cross about what hes done.
When Good Weekend spoke to Junor in 2018 on the eve of Prince Harry and Meghan Markles marriage, she, like so many others, was full of optimism. They are a great double act and the public will love them, she said at the time. And so they did, moved by the evidently loved-up couple, applauding the magnificent black gospel Kingdom Choir singing Stand by Me at the wedding, admiring the quiet composure of Markles mother, Doria Ragland. Meghans background makes her absolutely relevant to British society, said Junor then, which is full of mixed-race people.
For historian David Olusoga, professor of public history at the University of Manchester and author of the 2016 book Black and British: A Forgotten History, the wedding of Harry and Markle is linked to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. In both cases, he wrote last month in The Guardian, Britain projected to the world an image of itself as a confident, modern country; one that was effortlessly global and at ease with multiculturalism, with its ancient institutions adapting to changing times.
But, he concluded, the truth is that the task of living up to the imageof a land with a black princess and a mixed-race child in the line of royal succession, was simply too difficult. It would have involved controlling our out-of-control press and replacing platitudeswith hard self-reflection.
In October 2019, a cross-party group of more than 70 female MPs sent a letter of solidarity to the Duchess of Sussex, commiserating with her over the outdated colonialist overtones in British media stories. The overture gained little traction following the continuous flow of snarky commentary: Markles rich and exotic DNA would thicken the Windsors watery, thin blue blood; Markle couldnt keep her hands off her baby bump (Williams wife Kate, by contrast, cradled hers tenderly); Markle put her baby at risk by wearing stilettos; and, from the Daily Mail, was her taste for avocado fuelling drought and murder?
Meghan crystallised a lot of misogynistic feeling, says the redoubtable feminist writer Joan Smith, author of the 1989 book Misogynies: Reflections on Myths and Malice. When Harry and Markle announced their engagement in November 2017, Smith predicted trouble: I didnt think the royal family would like this starry woman who spoke out, had expectations and didnt look like anyone they were used to. You normally hear little from the royal women; I dont know what Kates voice sounds like.
Writing in The New York Review in December 2017, Smith warned: Without even trying, Markle may find herself upstaging her new relatives in ways that are bound to ruffle feathers in a family obsessed with status and protocol.What followed shocked people, thinks Smith: Young people particularly had got used to seeing the royals in magazines as celebrities rather than distant figureheads, a legacy of Princess Dianas time and the family liked bits of it, but then Markle came along and eclipsed all of them. The treatment of her exposed the harsh punishment that follows if someone doesnt toe the line.
When the Sussexes plans to leave the UK were revealed, says Smith, Markle was branded a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating her man as Wallis Simpson was supposed to have done with Edward VIII. Nobody can know what goes on in a marriage, yet the royal family invites all these fantasies.
Meghan Markles claim of racism to Oprah Winfrey made global headlines.Credit:Getty Images
As March winds blew across the UK and Harrys 99-year-old grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, lay in his hospital bed with a heart condition, Markle sat on an elegant garden terrace under the Californian sunshine and told Oprah Winfrey just how awful her life had been in England. When she said that a member of the royal family had raised concerns about the likely skin colour of her baby, it was like a tiny hand grenade lobbed into the conversation. Tiny but explosive: although there is doubt about who said exactly what and when, the racist charge was firmly in play.
The monarchy will survive in Britain but the damage has been done abroad.
Kenneth Olisa, the 69-year-old first black Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, urged caution: Before we leap to the conclusion that this was a vulgar racist question, he told BBC radio, we should recognise that we know neither the context nor the intent behind the supposed inquiry.
That is not the question, says Jessica Morgan, a 28-year-old British writer who, like Markle, identifies as biracial, when I call her for comment. We should believe her [Markle] because that is how she experienced it. She spoke her truth. Racism in the UK is institutional and structural; the system the royal family was born into is racist.
Since the interview, the Queen has called in lawyers to investigate claims of bullying against Markle. Meanwhile, the Palace is said to be reviewing its policies on the representation of minorities. This is a step in the right direction, says Robert Lacey, and the monarchy will survive in Britain but the damage has been done abroad. The weird historical hangover of the monarchy in Australia has, paradoxically, been sabotaged by [Markle], this 21st-century woman with her, in my view, totally misleading intervention about racism.
Prince Charles, as heir to the throne, and his wife Camilla could be a catalyst for a republic rethink in Australia.Credit:Getty Images
Since Australias republican referendum was lost in 1999, former prime minister and former Australian Republican Movement chair Malcolm Turnbull has said the time to reconsider the monarchy would be at the end of the Queens reign. That is the time for us to say, Okay, weve passed that watershed and do we really want to have whoever happens to be head of state, the king or queen of the UK, automatically our head of state? he told the ABC in March.
A poll in January this year showed support among Australians for a republic at a low ebb: 34 per cent compared with 40 per cent in favour of retaining the monarchy. Robert Lacey suspects this is bound to change: The Prince of Wales will make a dutiful monarch for Britain when the time comes, he says, but with the best will in the world, when it comes to Australia, why King Charles III? People want to look at their head of state and see themselves: an elderly Charles and Camilla cannot possibly stand for the hopes and beliefs and aspirations that Australians want to see reflected. Like most people they would probably prefer William to be king but that wont change the system: he is just as committed to seeing that Charles has his brief time in the sun.
An elderly Charles and Camilla cannot possibly stand for the hopes and aspirations that Australians want to see reflected.
In 2010, the eminent British historian and journalist Max Hastings said that Charles would be a danger to the monarchy if allowed to ascend the throne. Writing in The Sunday Times last month, his view had softened but he warned: His [Charless] lifelong grievance is that he yearns to do things, some of them admirable, especially on climate change, while his duty as heir to the throne and thereafter as monarch requires him to be merely decorative.
As king, Hastings added, Charles would need to heed the counsel of good advisers: Petulance is a dangerous weakness in a sovereign. Poor old Charles, mocked for his boiled egg fetish, portrayed as weak and peevish in The Crown and now accused by his younger son of cutting off financial support and refusing his phone calls.
Kate Middleton during her visit to the Sarah Everard memorial.Credit:Getty Images
Meanwhile, Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, have emerged from the so-called crisis of the Oprah interview pretty much unscathed. While Markles complaint that her mental health problems were ignored has reverberated with the woke generation, William continues to gain brownie points for his efforts to break the stigma around depression and anxiety, particularly among young men.
Dull, dutiful and diligent they may well be, but the Cambridges have parlayed their role successfully so far, modernising without frightening the horses. Last month, Kate made an unannounced visit to Clapham Common in south London to join a vigil held in tribute to a young woman, Sarah Everard, who in March was found dead in a bag in woodlands south-east of London (a police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder). Anonymous in black pants and a plain brown jacket and not wearing a mask, the Duchess walked quietly around looking at the flowers and messages and laying her own bunch of daffodils.
This is exactly the style that British people approve, says Robert Lacey, noting that it was in marked contrast to Meghan and Harrys visit to the Los Angeles National Cemetery for Remembrance Sunday, which was recorded by a celebrity photographer. And so the Sussexes continue with their carefully curated lives: following the soft-focus shots of pregnant Meghan, head on Harrys lap under the apple tree, we can look forward to the photo ops of their baby daughter and an expected message from the Queen, saying shes delighted by the new arrival.
After the acres of newsprint devoted to the tête-à-tête with Winfrey, watched by nearly 50 million people around the world, some wonder if, in time, it will be seen as a storm in a teacup. The Windsors have survived much greater challenges than an Oprah interview, wrote Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Edward VIII abdicated and Diana ended up dead, the latter generating a wave of fury that engulfed the streets rather than Twitter. Royalty, he noted, provides a rolling soap operarifts and scandal are not a bug; theyre a feature.
So not much joy there for the British republican movement, Republic, whose membership is in the low 1000s. Monarchy is a nonsense, wrote Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, because it demands we pay homage to people whose claim on our respect derives solely from their heredity. Yet I believe it will continue to suit the British people to defy the logic of republicanism, to preserve and cherish the admittedly anachronistic institution that has served us so well.
When I ask Jessica Morgan, supporter of Markle and critic of racist Britain, if she favours a British republic, she surprises me with her answer. Actually I am a fan of the monarchy; the history we have built in Britain is important and we shouldnt change it. It can work towards being more progressive.
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