British society should be scrutinized, not Harry and Meghan
When the story of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wish to lead normal lives and become financially independent broke, it reminded me of my early, and almost only, personal encounter with a royal from the House of Windsor. I was a young student living in a rather shabby hall of residence when Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, who was the patron of that international accommodation setup, came to visit. Shortly before her visit — in a quaint central London square — all of a sudden a massive cleaning operation began: New carpets were installed and a lick of paint was applied to the corridors and halls the princess was expected to see, to make them look fit for a visit from royalty. It then became clear to me that the royals don’t see the real world, but the world we would like them to see or think they would like to see.
The visit itself mainly consisted of students lining up to shake the royal glove-encased hand, which made me wonder if this was the kind of thing people referred to as the “job” of a “working royal.” Apparently yes. While we were all postgraduate students from across the globe, preparing ourselves to contribute to our societies and economies on a range of subjects, the “work” of a British royal largely involves formal visits, ceremonies and polite speeches (many of them written by their staff), which do not add up to what most of us would regard as a proper job. Let alone that they are sponsored by the public with very limited scrutiny or accountability. Yet there is a tacit agreement between the populace and the royals that, as long as they continue to satisfy a fascination with the European monarchies that once ruled their countries and their empires, then they may retain their status and privileges. However, it has been quite a while since the nations of Europe became republics, even if they retain some nominal kings and queens, and the “job description” of those “constitutional” monarchs is rather loose.
One can hardly view the figurehead support for organizations, institutions and even charities, as commendable as that may be, as doing a real job in a modern society. For all intents and purposes, in a world obsessed with celebrities, most of the European royals — and the British ones in particular — are celebrities of a kind who provide an element of glamor and whom people like to rub shoulders with. Sometimes they can be vehicles for promoting good causes and, to a certain extent, the monarchy also symbolizes continuity and a connection with the past. Nevertheless, in a modern, democratic society, a role that is inherited by birth defies that very notion. For a country suffering from chronic underspending in its basic services, a fairy-tale extended monarchy that possesses vast amounts of inherited wealth and is further substantially supported by public money is an anachronism.
In this context, the request by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, or Harry and Meghan as they are better known, to unchain themselves from being professional royals and embark on an independent life, personally and financially, should receive a big cheer all around the United Kingdom. After all, they didn’t question either the legitimacy or the viability of the British monarchy, even though the response from the Queen and her Buckingham Palace retinue, and the emergency meetings that followed, was testimony to the siege mentality of the British royal family, which would appear to be doubting its long-term viability. Harry and Meghan might have put the role of the monarchy under the microscope, but not under threat.
At the end of the day, the Sussex’s (semi-) declaration of independence is, first and foremost, a human and human rights question, which should be respected with no qualms. Regardless of their heritage, they are a young family that has the right to lead as normal a life as any other and, if they can’t do it in the UK because of unrealistic expectations, exacerbated and fueled by unscrupulous tabloid media outlets scavenging on gossip and intrusions, they should be allowed to start a new life elsewhere. The lack of sympathy shown by segments of the media and the British public over their pleas for privacy and to be able to live some semblance of a normal life among members of their own family is more a reflection of British society than what some see as abandoning their duty to Queen and country. This is not the 1930s, and it doesn’t remotely resemble the abdication of Edward VIII back then. Being sixth in line to the throne, the possibility of Prince Harry becoming king is almost non-existent; hence, Harry and Meghan’s decision to embark on a new path hardly merits the hysteria it has invoked.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to embark on a new path hardly merits the hysteria it has invoked.
Ironically, events revolving around the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision for once united the Queen and some other members of her family with the world of sensationalist journalism. The former see no exit clause from duty if one is born into the royal family, and the latter refuses to give up on a goose that lays the golden eggs of headlines and stories that sell newspapers. Neither can adjust to the idea of a constitutional, even symbolic, monarchy, which would enable its members to lead normal lives in a modern society.
This fairy tale of a prince and a Hollywood star was bound to be subjected to scrutiny, especially by those who didn’t appreciate from the outset that their coveted prince was marrying an American divorcee, especially a black one. In this case, it is not Harry and Meghan who should be under the microscope, but British society for the way it deals with its own biases and prejudices. A bit more compassion, support and respect for the privacy of a young couple who grew up in dysfunctional families — one of whom suffered the tremendous and traumatic loss of his mother at a very young age — would serve the country better. What might consequently emerge would be a new breed of royals who are independent, see their value as human beings as distinct from their accident of birth, are constructive members of society, and are still capable of living the kind of normal life most of us covet.
- 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