The monarchy: so what are they for?

When Harry and Meghan took on ‘the firm’ in front of 50 million
viewers, it put the spotlight on the future of the royal family. Will it change with the times or fade under a future Charles III?

Last week’s incendiary Oprah Winfrey interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex amounted to the most revelatory royal appearance since Princess Diana’s infamous Panorama interview 25 years ago. If it provided a welcome break in the tedium of lockdown for the public at large, it has also rattled Buckingham Palace and raised issues about the monarchy that could yet build into a serious crisis for the royal family.

Chief among these is a question of modernising values. Even her most voluble detractors would admit that Meghan Markle brought a much-needed flavour of the 21st century to the Windsors. She spoke of inclusivity and diversity and, while she may not have been a nail technician from a Bradford council estate, she was avowedly not an identikit posh blonde from the home counties.

But how can an institution based and run on the hereditary principle, one that has luxuriated in great privilege and enforced social distance, accommodate the concepts, let alone the practices, of inclusivity and diversity?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their television interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their television interview with Oprah Winfrey. Photograph: Joe Pugliese/AP

This is the question facing all those who call for its reform. The answer, in our age of optics optimisation, seems to be that no one seriously expects the monarchy to be more egalitarian. They just want it to look that way. Meghan looked the part. A biracial Hollywood actress, she symbolised something new and under-represented, and the royal family is first and foremost a symbolic entity.

The breakdown in the relationship between the Sussexes and “the firm” may have more to do with personal animosities and a clash of cultures – stuffy royalty versus image-controlled celebrity, rigid team ethic against attention-grabbing individualism – than ideological differences. Yet it has dealt a damaging blow to the Windsors’ already limited youth appeal.

“If you’re thinking about it from the perspective of the younger generation,” says the literary critic Leo Robson, “the one person they’ve taken to who they think espouses ideas like their own is Meghan Markle. And she’s exiled from the royal family and is now essentially enemy number one.”

Monarchy works as a kind of fiction – the conceit is that in some way a single family represents a nation by standing above it – insofar as it requires us to suspend disbelief. So it makes sense to seek the opinion of the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer. The 35-year-old Robson rejects the idea of a clear-cut generational divide, noting that with the departure of the millennial’s favourite, “there is only one beloved member of the royal family and she’s 94 years old”.

Robson highlights the fact that both Meghan and Harry were careful to exclude the Queen from any suggestion of wrongdoing, much less racism, in their joint condemnation of the royal set-up. Her Majesty has now reigned for 69 years, longer than any other monarch in British history. And she’s arguably more popular than she’s ever been, consistently disarming even the most republican-minded critics. A poll last year found that two-thirds of Britons want to maintain the royal family.

Perhaps the Queen’s greatest strength is the sense of permanence she brings to the job, adapting just enough to appear unchanging. Timeless she may be; immortal she’s not. Thus any grievances about the institution she heads are bound to surface when she dies.

“The monarchy will have to reinvent itself in some way,” says historian Estelle Paranque from the New College of the Humanities. “It’s their greatest challenge. If they fail to do so it will lead to the end of the monarchy as people will only respect institutions that are inclusive.”

Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II: ‘There is only one beloved member of the royal family and she’s 94 years old.’ Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Inevitably, any gripes will first fall at the feet of her successor, her eldest son, Charles. Now 72, he’s been the Prince of Wales for over 50 years, a man whose future has been coming for so long, it’s very nearly behind him. Unfortunately, the wait hasn’t endeared him to his subjects-to-be. An odd mixture of pampered habits and new-age beliefs, he’s never captured the public imagination. From his ill-starred, rather cynical marriage to Diana Spencer to his clumsy interventions in public debate, he’s often looked uncomfortable in the role: overburdened by duty, undistinguished by character.

A recent YouGov survey found that more Britons want Charles’s son to succeed the Queen than want Charles himself to do so – a lack of public confidence that is decidedly more pronounced among the young. The Prince of Wales’s youth credentials took a further blow when his son Harry fingered him for not taking his calls – the kind of parental failing that is viewed nowadays as a contravention of human rights rather than an act of weary exasperation.

In any case, it’s not clear how a man who is said to have his shoelaces ironed and his toothpaste squeezed by his valet, someone who travels with his own toilet seat and is a stickler for protocol, can hope to modernise an institution whose fustiness he in many ways embodies.

The royal biographer Robert Lacey argues that the job of the monarch is to represent common values, and he believes that the Queen was ahead of her time in championing equality and diversity around the Commonwealth. He also thinks that Charles will do the same.

“It’s not his public image,” he concedes, “but I think that’s unfair to Charles because he stands for all the right things – the left and liberal things.”

The royals, featuring a recently engaged Harry and Meghan, after a Christmas Day church service in Sandringham, 2017
The royals, featuring a recently engaged Harry and Meghan, after a Christmas Day church service in Sandringham, 2017. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

It’s debatable whether the landlord whose giant Duchy of Cornwall real estate portfolio has prevented residents from buying their homes is much of a lefty, but Lacey is on to something when he suggests that Charles could face a much larger challenge than domestic unpopularity. A consultant on the Netflix drama The Crown, Lacey says there is growing dissatisfaction with the heir apparent in a number of Commonwealth countries.

“It’s a fragile and anomalous situation to have as their actual head of state this relic of British history,” he says. “It will be relatively safe and easy to discard the monarchy but remain within the Commonwealth, and adopt something like the Irish system of an elected head of state. I can see a lot of Commonwealth countries opting for that system when the Queen’s gone.”

It’s often overlooked, at least in Britain, that many Commonwealth countries retain the British monarch as their head of state, among them Australia, Canada, Jamaica and New Zealand. While republicanism is the dog that refuses to bark at home, the standing of the monarchy would be conspicuously diminished should those countries dispense with King Charles III’s services.

That might be a progressive step in the grand scheme of things, ending a colonial legacy and marking a new and less grandiloquent era of monarchy. The problem is the British monarchy prides itself on its history and reach, which in turn informs its pomp and pageantry. Charles likes to talk about human scale and localism but he probably doesn’t want to be known as the king on whom Australia and Canada turned their backs.

Whenever the future of the royal family becomes a topic of public discourse, the first recommendation is usually that it could do with downscaling. And indeed some of the royals themselves, most obviously Prince Andrew, appear to have been unconsciously engaged in the campaign to reduce the size of the royal household by acting in such a way that necessitates their removal from public duties.

From downscaling, it’s a short hop and skip to mentioning the “Scandinavian model”, the radical practice of royals living as semi-normal citizens. Paranque is far from convinced. “The British monarchy is the biggest monarchy in Europe,” she says. “The Tudors still sell books and are the subjects of films. It’s a big business. You don’t have that with Scandinavia.”

Lacey agrees. “The British monarchy is far, far more expensive than the Scandinavian monarchies, but when you do a calculation for value for money, Britain does better. Whatever you say about them, they play an enormous role in British charitable life. The promise of getting a knighthood from the Queen is a massive boost to philanthropy.”

The Queen walks past the Commonwealth flags in St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle, to mark Commonwealth day.
The Queen walks past the Commonwealth flags in St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle, to mark Commonwealth day earlier this month. Photograph: Steve Parsons/AP

And also to political corruption, but that’s another matter. The point is, for many centuries royalty could cite divine right as justification for its existence. When that began to fade, deference remained strong. Nowadays its authority derives, and suffers, from a host of functions, from the mundanely ceremonial to the arcanely constitutional.

But perhaps its most vital, or engaging, role is the one it least likes or wants: that of a live-action soap opera. You only have to look atthe viewing figures for the Oprah interview to recognise the appeal of familial discord as a communal event.

The irony of Harry speaking about a desire for privacy in an interview watched by an estimated 50 million people around the world was lost on few observers, but he was at his most sympathetic when he spoke of having felt “trapped”. And nor was he wrong about the co-dependent but stifling embrace in which the royal family and the tabloid press are locked. It is, after all, the death grip to which he attributes his mother’s tragically curtailed life.

Where Harry loses perspective is in his conviction, widely shared among his family, that they should be left alone to get on with doing good works. That might be a job description for future royals – extremely well-paid charity workers and public handshakers. But it’s an unrealistic ambition while the family are presented (let’s not forget the fawning tone adopted by many in the media) as the pinnacle of British society. As long as we maintain that we’re a meritocracy, the gap between the royals’ behaviour and position will remain under critical scrutiny.

As the hold of duty grows weaker with each succeeding generation, that contract becomes increasingly unattractive to the royals, even as the privileges retain their allure – perhaps the most troubling aspect of Meghan and Harry’s attack on the royal family was the couple’s complaint that their son Archie wasn’t allowed a princely part within it.

The great hope for monarchists, of course, is Harry’s brother. They secretly wish for a brief interregnum of Charles III, followed by the rejuvenating promise of William V. His apparent ease with the burden of his birthright stands in marked contrast to his father, who has said that the gradual realisation that he would one day be king was a “ghastly, inexorable” experience.

Although William may have what it takes to handle life within the gilded cage, that doesn’t make the institution any less psychologically punishing. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but it might be the rest of us who will ultimately deem the weight of this anachronistic spectacle as unsupportable.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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