Trust ‘The Firm’ to keep the flag flying: DOMINIC SANDBROOK says surely there’s only so long Prince Harry and Meghan Markle can trade on their pique
For the oldest and most venerable institution in Britain, this has been a truly terrible week.
When the news broke that Harry and Meghan had given an interview to Oprah Winfrey, Buckingham Palace insiders must have feared the worst.
Few, though, could have imagined quite how ghastly the fallout would be.
For days, the House of Windsor has seen its name dragged through the mud on TV screens across the world.
Quite separate from the personal agonies of a family torn apart, our Queen and her closest relatives have been tarred as callous, antediluvian racists, with foreign columnists lining up to sneer at Britain and its Royal Family.
Oceans of newspaper ink have been spilled on the nuances of the Sussexes’ interview, so I don’t propose to rake over the gory details again.
Yet for anybody interested in our nation’s past, present and future, this week’s spectacle raises many questions. What will it all mean? Is this really a watershed in our relationship with our Royal Family?
Does it represent the moment things turned irredeemably sour, the beginning of the end? And where on earth does the monarchy go from here?
For days, the House of Windsor (pictured: The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2016) has seen its name dragged through the mud on TV screens across the world
When the news broke that Harry and Meghan had given an interview to Oprah Winfrey (pictured: Harry and Meghan in the interview), Buckingham Palace insiders must have feared the worst
Let’s start with the obvious. There’s no doubt that Meghan and Oprah’s love-in dealt the Firm a severe blow.
The Mail’s YouGov poll, after the interview was aired, found that almost every royal has seen a drop in their popularity.
One in three believes Meghan has been the victim of racism, and half of respondents believe the Royal Family came off badly from the interview.
And although republicanism is still a minority interest, its support has risen to 29 per cent.
So is this the moment when the decline of authority, the death of deference, the rise of ‘wokeness’ and the inexorable progress of what I see as the Americanisation of British culture fatally erode the loyalties of old?
That idea strikes me as implausible, not to say entirely unwelcome. But let’s indulge it for a moment.
In our lifetimes, historic institutions have taken a battering. Public trust in the police, the BBC, the Church of England and other bodies has plummeted — not always undeservedly.
Even before the Oprah nightmare reached our screens, young Britons were less instinctively supportive of the monarchy.
Three months ago, according to another YouGov poll, just a third of those aged 18 to 24 believed the Queen played an important role as head of state.
Since Monday, the generation gap has yawned still wider. Among the same age group in the Mail’s poll, 48 per cent backed Meghan and Harry, while only 15 per cent sided with the senior royals.
Almost two-thirds of youngsters thought the Californian exiles had been treated unfairly.
All this reveals a wider story. Only if you’ve been living under a rock can you have failed to notice that many young Britons are suspicious of tradition, intolerant of inherited privilege and obsessed — to the point of derangement, some of us might say — with race, gender and identity politics.
So it’s easy to sketch a future scenario in which this week really does mark the beginning of the end.
Imagine if the next few weeks bring more accusations from the Sussexes, themselves or via ‘friends’ carefully briefed by the former Ms Markle.
According to a new YouGov poll, one in three believes Meghan (pictured with Prince Harry in 2018) has been the victim of racism, and half of respondents believe the Royal Family came off badly from the interview
What if the hunt for the supposed ‘racist’ produces a senior name? What if there are more claims of even more scandalous goings-on in the Palace?
At some point in, say, the late 2020s, the Queen leaves the stage — a moment few of us care to imagine, but sadly inevitable all the same — and Charles is proclaimed King, but there are demands for a national referendum on the monarchy.
The government of the day bows to the will of the people. Enthused by an aggressive social-media campaign, pumped up by wild claims on Facebook and Twitter, encouraged by the likes of The Guardian and the BBC, young people turn out in massive numbers.
And at the last minute, there is a dramatic swing towards abolition.
The next day, as Charles and Camilla pack their bags, the British Republic is born. On the California coast, the stars of Netflix’s latest reality show (Spreading Compassion With Meghan And Harry) exchange a smirk of satisfaction.
That’s the future according to the republican fantasists, anyway. And some elements of this scenario do contain a minuscule grain of sense.
The monarchy does need to work harder to woo young people, and the little republican lobby is never going to vanish entirely. And, yes, the accession of King Charles will be a delicate moment.
But this republican fantasy is all so improbable, isn’t it?
After all, the monarchy has already weathered what I consider to be far worse storms.
Although the Harry and Meghan imbroglio may seem an embarrassing low point, is it really worse than Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995, when she admitted to affairs and questioned Charles’s suitability to be King?
Or the emotional furore surrounding her death two years later when, for a moment, large parts of the population seemed to turn against the Queen?
Is it worse than the Abdication Crisis of 1936? Worse than the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson’s flirtation with the Nazis?
Worse than the massive public backlash against the widowed, reclusive Victoria in the 1870s, when thousands of people joined republican rallies in Central London?
Worse than the George IV’s shambolic 1821 coronation, when armed soldiers barred his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, from entering Westminster Abbey?
Worse than her funeral three weeks later, when protesters and soldiers fought a pitched battle, and at least two demonstrators were killed?
Of course not. Embarrassing as the past week has been, a bit of perspective is required. Not only have we been here before, most of us have seen it coming for years.
It was blindingly obvious within months of her marriage that Meghan could barely stand life in Britain.
It was also a shock to nobody that she didn’t go quietly. Sooner or later there was always going to be a tell-all U.S. interview, with Prince Harry cast as the stammering captive in a hostage video.
To some extent, all this was ‘priced in’, as financial experts put it. We knew it was coming.
I have no doubt a lot of the republican loudmouths queuing up to have their say on TV this week have been practising their shocked faces for months.
And perhaps this explains one of this week’s most heartening features — the remarkable resilience of support for the Royal Family.
For despite the pearl-clutching of the rent-a-quotes, most Britons admire the Queen, support the monarchy and (by a narrow margin) support the senior royals rather than the self- banished exiles.
Indeed, even after the monarchy’s worst week for more than two decades, support for a republic remains becalmed on less than 30 per cent, up by only 4 per cent since the turn of the year.
Senior royals such as the Queen, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge remain far, far more popular than any politician.
Senior royals such as the Queen, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge (pictured this week) remain far, far more popular than any politician
And millions, I suspect, will have quietly cheered when they heard William’s robust response on Thursday to a reporter who asked if the Royal Family was racist.
Measured words in palace statements are all very well. But William said precisely what we needed to hear, and he didn’t bother to conceal his anger at his brother’s self-pitying solipsism.
Looking ahead, then, it’s hard to see a future without the Royal Family. How would the republican transition actually happen?
When the Queen exits the stage, Charles will immediately become King. Succession is instantaneous.
For the royal story to come to a close, one of Britain’s major parties — presumably Labour — would have to win an election on a republican platform, promising a national plebiscite.
But that isn’t remotely likely. Not even Jeremy Corbyn went to the country promising a republic, for the obvious reason that millions of his own working-class voters would reject it.
Whatever Hollywood celebrities and breakfast-TV weathermen think of Harry and Meghan’s performance, therefore, the royal ship will sail on.
Both the Queen and Prince Charles have seen this all before. They know that if they keep calm and carry on, the squalls will eventually fade into history.
In the long run I think they still have every reason for optimism.
The pandemic has shown the senior royals at their best, from the Queen’s moving address last spring, when she quoted the late Dame Vera Lynn, as well as her recent message urging us to get vaccinated, to William and Kate delivering food parcels, volunteering on crisis helplines and drumming up support for nurses and teachers.
Princes Harry and William together in 2018 to watch a flypast to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force
The summer of 2022 will bring the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, marking the 70th anniversary of her accession with a special four-day bank holiday weekend.
Assuming that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it will surely be a party to remember, reinforcing the bond between Crown and people.
The royal soap opera will continue, of course. Harry and Meghan aren’t going to disappear.
But to pursue the TV analogy, it is the Firm that commands all the most promising storylines.
In 2026, God willing, the Queen will turn 100. Her son and heir, Charles, seems more comfortable in his 70s than ever before.
Her grandson, William, is approaching his 40s, and will surely take the throne as a popular, settled husband and father.
As George, Charlotte and Louis grow up, there may be plenty of high jinks to come. But against this background, this is one show that seems unlikely to lose its magic.
That’s not to deny that the brand could do with some tweaks, as Prince Charles has reportedly argued for years.
The Windsors depend on some £86 million in taxpayers’ money — tiny compared with most departmental budgets, but it could always be smaller.
In an age when privilege has become a dirty word, the Firm could work harder to cut its costs. We British expect a sprinkling of stardust — no bicycling Scandinavians or dull Dutchmen, thank you — but we don’t need their privilege rammed down our throats.
Above all, they can never stress enough the virtues of humility, responsibility and love of country, which the Queen has embodied since her accession.
As long as they stick to that formula, there’s no reason why a lean, slimmed-down monarchy, dedicated to service rather than self, shouldn’t sail into the 2030s and 2040s in pretty good health.
Contrast that, though, with the outlook for the Sussexes.
Where do they go from here? There’s only one interview they can give to Oprah Winfrey — and we’ve seen it. They have shot their bolt, discharged their ultimate weapon. Now what?
For all their gushing talk of spreading love, compassion and kindness in their podcasts and documentaries, it hardly strikes me as a durable business model.
Even their admirers found Harry and Meghan’s recent podcast excruciatingly syrupy and lacking in substance.
As for their brand, well, the all-important royal seal of approval is gone for ever.
For all the talk of deals with Netflix et al, they will be yesterday’s news before they know it. Hollywood is not exactly renowned for its long memory.
So let’s imagine the position in, say, a quarter of a century’s time.
In the year 2046, William will probably be king, Kate at his side, leading a popular, slimmed-down, united Royal Family.
George, Prince of Wales, will be 32, perhaps with young children of his own. Charlotte will be 30, Louis 27.
But what of Harry and Meghan, who will be in their mid-60s? Still on the U.S. West Coast? Still churning out the Archewell podcasts?
Surely not still hawking their sob stories around the breakfast shows, complaining that Archie was cheated of his birthright by a vindictive, ‘racist’ Royal Family.
And what, I wonder, will people think in 2046, when they look back on the scandal of the past week?
Will they see it as a watershed in the history of Britain’s relationship with its monarchy, the moment when everything changed?
Or will they see it as merely one furore among so many others: just another brief, eye-catching hullaballoo?
Well, here’s my answer. I think the truth is both more mundane and more reassuring. I don’t think they will remember it at all.
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