New royal couple a refreshing reflection of modern Britain
The last time a member of the British royal family married an American divorcee it ended in a constitutional crisis and eventually in a king’s abdication. With Prince Harry and the American actress Meghan Markle tying the knot this weekend, her nationality, ethnicity and personal life became a source of curiosity and gossip, but were never controversial in a constitutional sense. Back in 1936, even without social media, the scandal of King Edward VIII courting and then marrying Wallis Simpson, a socialite who was divorced from her first husband and was pursuing the divorce of her second, faced an uncompromising resistance from the British establishment, including from the government itself and other quarters of society, for legal, political, religious and moral reasons. For the small-minded aristocracy of the 1930s, it was unthinkable for a woman with such a background to become a respectable queen consort.
Fast-forward eight decades, and there are still bastions of national chauvinism in British society who turn up their noses at the new couple in the royal family, but the vast majority see them as a reflection of modern Britain. They are delighted to see a prince, who lost his mother at an early age, find happiness. Prince Harry is ingrained in the collective memory as the small boy walking behind his mother’s coffin as her funeral procession wound towards Westminster Abbey as what seemed like the entire world watched on live TV. Since then, Britons have seen him come of age and consider him one of the more personable and hard-working royals.
Admittedly, Prince Harry is not likely to be a king, as he is “only” sixth in line to throne, but the attitude of British society, of embracing his decision to marry a woman of African-American heritage who is also a divorcee, is testament to a mature constitutional monarchy that since its low points in the 1990s, when its members seemed to become detached from the realities of the times, has reinvented itself. This is especially evident with the two younger princes, William and Harry, whom many Britons and others can relate to. For many, this royal wedding is like a fairy tale, a sort of “When Buckingham Palace Met Hollywood.” More important, it is a reflection of the true legacy of the young princes’ late mother, Princess Diana — that of inclusivity, a notion that was foreign to the royal family before she joined it.
Princess Diana captured the changing mood, not only of a UK that was becoming increasingly more diverse and globalized. Prince Harry’s service in the military, his readiness to speak openly about mental health and his founding of the Invictus Games for injured armed services personnel, now contributes to bringing the Windsors closer in touch with ordinary people.
Being from overseas, with an African-American background and having a modest but colorful history, Meghan Markle symbolizes the slow, but very welcome evolution of the British monarchy, a much-needed one if it hopes to survive the 21st century.
Europe has had ambivalent relations with its monarchs and aristocrats since the late 18th century, when gradually the absolute monarchies that ruled the political scene gave way to either republics or constitutional monarchies. With the latter, royal families lost much of their power, but in return they gained legitimacy, became symbols of the state and have served as uniting figures. Many people see them as representing continuity. Moreover, in comparison to elected politicians, the British identify themselves more with the royals than with those whom they elect to represent them. In various UK surveys, on average three-quarters of respondents have expressed their support for retaining the monarchy, and only less than one-fifth of them have preferred a republic. Interestingly enough, their support for the monarchy combines their view that it has an important role to play in present and future Britain, along with a deep sense of respect and affection for the queen. At 92, when her contemporaries are long retired, the longest-reigning monarch in British history enjoys the confidence of the vast majority of her British subjects who would like her to sit on the throne for as long as she can.
In planning this weekend’s wedding, much effort was put into presenting the occasion as one that is in touch with the new realities of modern Britain. Giving the wedding in St George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle a more common touch, more than 2,500 people, chosen from a broad range of backgrounds and ages, “including young people who have shown strong leadership, and those who have served their communities,” were invited to the castle grounds to celebrate the couple’s special day.
The cynics would say that it is all a ploy by the royal PR machine to make them look caring and in touch. Yet such recognition of the need to at least leave an impression of being in tune with the rest of the society, and especially a cross section of it, was a departure from past practices and traditions.
Inescapable for Western constitutional monarchies is the fact that ingrained in their ethos is the notion of social mobility that apparently enables everyone to climb up the socioeconomic ladder according to their ability and suitability. Yet there is only one job that you are born into, and it is the one of becoming the monarch or else another one of the royal family. If you are not born into it, the only entry point is by invite – by marriage. This time the invitee represented something that might not be to everyone’s liking, mainly for reasons of snobbery. But being from overseas, with an African-American background and having a modest but colorful history, Meghan Markle symbolizes the slow, but very welcome evolution of the British monarchy, a much-needed one if it hopes to survive the 21st century.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg