Two hours that rocked the UK’s ship of state
Will the Queen be “Elizabeth the last”? Britain has plunged into its most serious debate about the purpose, rights and future of the monarchy since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.
Exactly 1,135 years to build up; two hours to bring down. That was how the history of the British monarchy looked after Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Sunday night. The accusations made by Harry and Meghan could hardly have been more damaging, ranging as they did from mental cruelty to racism.
Meghan claimed that at one point she had felt suicidal, but had been told that she could not seek treatment because it would make the Royal Family look bad. She said that there were “conversations” within the royal household before her son Archie was born about how dark his skin would be.
She also said that the Duchess of Cambridge had reduced her to tears in an argument about the dresses for flower girls at her wedding.
Harry complained that his family had never spoken out against Meghan’s treatment by the tabloid press. He said that he felt let down by his father, the Prince of Wales, and that for some time after he and Meghan stepped back from royal duties, Prince Charles had stopped taking his calls.
In all the hours of commentary and yards of print this morning, there is wide agreement that the British monarchy has to face some deeply challenging charges.
To help distil the issues, we summarise them here; and, for each, we provide a short balancing commentary before weighing up the overall case at the end.
Charge No 1 The Royal Family is cruel. Only 24 years ago, Princess Diana was cold-shouldered by “The Firm” and then hounded to her death aged 36 by a hostile media. Her son, 12 at the time, is now married to a woman of 39 who feels let down by the family and traumatised by the media. Isn’t it obvious that the parallels were dangerously close?
Commentary: If it is true that Meghan felt suicidal and was refused help for it, that is appalling. The fact that Prince Philip’s mother spent two years in a mental hospital should make the family hyper-aware of such problems. But there is a strong tradition in the British upper classes of toughing things out without complaining, and even the most kind-hearted may be slow to respond to personal problems because of that.
Charge No 2 The institution is not fit for purpose and is a huge waste of public money. The Royal Family costs taxpayers over £80m a year and employs hundreds of people, including some of the most senior advisors in the UK. How could they make such a huge pig’s ear of Megxit?
Commentary: To have so many people looking after a few individuals does seem extravagant and unwieldy, and a recipe for damaging power struggles. On the other hand, members of the Royal Family carry out a huge number of public duties, and the cost amounts to less than £1.50 for every person in the UK.
Charge No 3 The toxic tabloid press that causes so much negativity in Britain is dependent on an unsavoury deal with the monarchy to whip up public support. The Palace feeds its journalistic lackeys with flattering stories. It also feeds poison about its enemies, including Meghan in recent days.
Commentary: Since several members of the Royal Family have shown open hostility to the press, it would be thoroughly hypocritical of them to try to manipulate it for their own purposes. The tabloids, however, are far from dependent on them: they have plenty of other things to write about, and would not hesitate to put the Palace in a bad light if they dug up a scandalous story.
Charge No 4 The structure of the British monarchy promotes snobbery, elitism, pettiness, insularity and outdated approaches to gender, race and power. To create real change we need an elected head of state.
Commentary: The fact that the monarchy is thoroughly steeped in tradition elicits admiration from some and hostility from others. To have an elected head of state would ensure thorough change. But equally, the Royal Family provides stability, while other countries have enormous problems stemming from presidents who are corrupt and cling to power.
So, will this Queen be “Elizabeth the last”?
Some say, yes. Harry and Meghan’s allegations are devastating, showing the Royal Family to be completely out of touch with a population that cares enormously about fairness, mental health and racism. The world is facing huge changes in the wake of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, and there is every chance that Britain’s monarchy will be abolished.
Others say, no: the Royal Family has faced worse crises than this one and always survived. There are two sides to every story, and we have only heard Meghan and Harry’s so far: many people will accept their version of events, but many others will not. If, as Meghan said, she did no research on the family before joining it, she has herself to blame for taking on a role she did not understand. Others still say that the monarchy will survive, but in a very different form. It is unlikely to change in the Queen’s lifetime, but Prince Charles must recognise that things cannot continue as they are. If and when he succeeds to the throne, he is bound to make far-reaching changes, and Prince William is sure to support him.
- The royal family is not expected to respond in detail to Harry and Meghan’s allegations. Would that be a mistake?
- If Britain were to abolish the monarchy, what would be the best way to choose a president?
- Imagine that you have a chance to interview Harry and Meghan. Make a list of 10 questions you would ask them.
- Write a one-act radio play consisting of a telephone conversation between Harry and his brother after the interview.
Some People Say...
“The British monarchy: an old and apparently very venerable institution which is in fact very nimble on its feet.”Robert Lacey (1944 – ), British historian
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that, despite Harry’s references to Princess Diana being hunted by the tabloids, the real parallel here is with King Edward VIII. Like Harry, he fell in love with an American divorcee and felt obliged to give up his royal position as a result. After abdicating he spent the rest of his life in exile, cut off from his family and with no real purpose – and many fear that the same fate awaits Harry.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether Meghan felt herself primarily in conflict with actual members of the royal family or with the wider Palace structure. Royal households are traditionally full of rival factions, and it may be that her troubles stemmed from courtiers who saw her as a threat to their influence and helped create a toxic atmosphere. In the interview she emphasises her good relationship with the Queen and refrains from criticising individual members of the family.
- 1,135 years
- Alfred the Great is generally considered to have been the first monarch of all England, from around 886. Queen Anne became the first monarch of the Kingdom of Great Britain after the union of England and Scotland in 1707.
- The Firm
- The Royal Family’s nickname for themselves. It is also the title of a bestselling thriller by John Grisham, about a corrupt law firm.
- Prince Philip’s mother
- Princess Alice was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Philip was a child.
- Public duties
- In 2019-20 members of the Royal Family undertook almost 3,200 public engagements and hosted over 139,00 guests at royal residences.
- A servant who does menial tasks or runs errands for somebody else.
- Recent days
- Meghan has been accused of bullying staff, and criticised for wearing earrings given to her by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is accused of ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- Harry and William are both known to blame the press for their mother’s death, and Princess Anne is famously short-tempered with reporters.
- Ignorance of or lack of interest in cultures, ideas or peoples outside one’s own experience.
- The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was given a three-year jail sentence for corruption last week.