Kate Middleton aces test Meghan Markle failed

OPINION:

Future Queen, mother, charity roller disco organiser and part-time accessories buyer: the Duchess of Cambridge has worn many hats during her 39 years (and not all of them $2,100 Philip Treacy numbers either). This week she added a new spiffy string to her bow by officially getting into the publishing game.

Next month will see the launch of a photography book called Hold Still: A Portrait of Our Nation in 2020, featuring 100 powerful and moving images from the innovative photography project of the same name which Kate conceived of last year.

Though the title will only be released on May 7, the first anniversary of Hold Still’s launch, the book sold out online within only four hours, meaning it is either already an unqualified success or Carole Middleton got a tad excited.

All of which is lovely and impressive and makes for particularly jolly news as the royal family faces its second Easter apart. However as the UK inches towards the end of lockdown, the new book’s release raises a bigger question: How will history remember the royal family during the pandemic?

Because, peer a little closer, with the benefit of a modicum of hindsight, and a picture emerges of a duke and duchess who stepped up … and another duo who did not.

Let’s go back to March, 2020: On March 11, the World Health Organisation declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic; on the 17th Buckingham Palace cancelled public royal events; on the 25th, it was revealed that Prince Charles had tested positive for the virus before two days later on the 27th it was reported that Harry and Meghan had zipped across the border from their borrowed home in Canada to relocate to Los Angeles.

That month, the world fell apart and we all scrambled to make sense of this scourge and our rapidly shrinking worlds as borders slammed shut, schools closed in the UK and the US and supermarket shelves were stripped bare.

For the royal family, this was uncharted territory, their signature brand of handshaking and official visiting no longer possible — or really useful — in this brave new world. For the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex this new, dark paradigm was both a challenge and an opportunity to make their mark.

By the time masks became de rigueur and we were hoarding loo paper, Harry and Meghan were no longer working members of the royal family, but surely as two people driven to make a difference, a crisis such as this should have seen them eager to jump in and lend a hand.

There were early pointers to this effect.

On April 16, Harry and Meghan were photographed delivering meals as part of Project Angel Food, putting the compassion and caring they have sought to establish as the hallmarks of their brand into action.

The same month, both the Duke and Duchess of Sussex took part in video calls with UK organisations they are closely associated with (WellChild for him, Hubb Community Kitchen for her) to discuss those groups’ responses to the pandemic along with them pledging the $176,000 profit from their wedding broadcast to a charity helping funding hungry kids during the pandemic.

Come May, to mark their son Archie’s first birthday, they released an adorable video of the duchess reading a book to the bub, to support a Save the Children coronavirus fund.

However, in the months that followed, as spring gave way to summer and the number of infections and deaths continued to climb, the couple’s public outings took on a different hue, focusing largely on the issues they have long championed, namely gender equality, female empowerment and mental health.

Instead, by and large, the Sussexes’ 2020 was defined by regular squalls of controversy and the issue of money. In August, it was revealed they had come up with dosh to buy a $21 million mansion in a celebrity enclave, in September the New York Times broke the news of their “megawatt” Netflix deal and in December it was revealed they had signed on to join Spotify’s stable of high-priced stars.

The combined, estimated worth of their boardroom derring-do: $194 million. Just before Christmas, and thanks to the couple’s neighbour Oprah Winfrey’s promotion on Instagram, it was announced that Meghan had invested in Clevr Blends, a vegan latte brand.

Contrast that with what William and Kate were getting up to back in Blighty, namely undertaking an interminable number of video calls with frontline workers from throughout the Commonwealth and trying to cheer up a beleaguered, suffering nation.

Time and again, together or individually, they popped up on video screens from their suitably inoffensive living room in Norfolk, listening to everyone from Australian nurses to London Ambos share their experiences. The question of how much knackered medicos want to spend time making polite conversation with nodding HRHs via Zoom aside, at least the duo had a crack at making a concerted, regular effort.

Now sure, none of the Cambridges’ work was particularly dazzling or mould-breaking (Hold Still aside) but what will be remembered in the years to come is that when the UK was suffering, the Cambridges, day after day, turned up (remotely of course) for their country.

(Before we go erecting statues in their honour, keep in mind that in July, Kate only notched up three official engagements and William eight.)

They did their boring, moderately hardworking best to rise to the challenge that the pandemic presented. And while that only bolstered their approval in the UK, it did not seem like notching up a few PR wins was what drove them.

What is notable about all of this, aside from the couple’s seemingly never-ending supply of innocuous sweaters, is that a significant portion of all this work, passed by totally unnoticed and applauded by the press and the public.

William and Kate appeared at a total of 210 engagements last year, a very significant portion of which were related to the pandemic and the virus’ impact on the UK and the Commonwealth — and most of which failed to garner more than a fleeting mention at the most.

This is the dreary part of royal life that The Crown somehow skipped over, the hours and hours of meeting and greeting and listening with zero expectation of any fanfare or kudos.

Can the same be said for Harry and Meghan?

In 2020 they were far from idle and hungrily pursued important causes — but causes that seemed more aligned with their fledgling US brand than to do with the pandemic.

What is puzzling is that presented with a historical moment such as this that Harry and Meghan did not do more; that their zeal for philanthropy and for helping others did not translate into some sort of thrilling, big-picture project or powerful grassroots campaign.

Because, looking back, what did they achieve of lasting substantial note during this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime disaster?

History is written by the victors, or so the saying goes. In 2020, history was written by those who turned up.

Daniela Elder is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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