I never had much use for the queen.
Maybe it’s the Irish in me. As Winston Churchill said: “We’ve always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.”
Or maybe it’s the American in me. We did go to an awful lot of trouble to break away from that corgi-and-gin-loving racket 244 years ago.
At some visceral level, though, America must regret being torn away from the royal family. How else to explain our enduring fascination with dynasties? Having spent my career covering four dysfunctional political dynasties, I rebel more than ever at the idea that biology entitles you to authority.
The ghost of Diana gone rogue animates the fractured fairy tale of Meghan and Harry, and their intemperate attempt to upend centuries of starchy rules and break away from the Firm.
Princess Di’s dangerous tango with the tabloids left Harry with no taste to play that game again, especially with streaks of racism against Markle added to the mix. He recently confessed that every click or flash of a camera brought memories of his mother’s death racing back into his mind.
I covered Diana’s first trip as the Princess of Wales to America in 1985. She seemed happy then, in that year before Charles resumed his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. She and the prince shared amused eye contact, winks and teasing remarks.
Nancy Reagan planned an evening of candlelit dancing at the White House worthy of a 24-year-old Cinderella in a midnight blue velvet gown. Mrs. Reagan arranged for the Marine Band to play “Night Fever” as John Travolta spun a euphoric Diana around the floor. (“She’s a great little mover,” he said afterward.)
I wondered how Prince Charles would deal with a young wife with so much star power, absorbing so much attention. We were all mesmerized when she tucked her chin down in that shy pose and cast that modest yet saucy look up at us.
The answer was: He did not deal with it well. Twelve years later, when the unimaginable tragedy hit, the royal ice cubes were furious at the expectation that they should emote for the woman who had publicly ripped the monarchy as a bloodless, soulless gang and christened herself the Prisoner of Wales.
The Firm was out of its depth then, and it is again now. How can the queen and Prince Philip and Prince Charles possibly understand the desire of Meghan and Harry to rebrand as a Goopish lifestyle enterprise? The news that they have applied to trademark hundreds of items, from socks to hoodies, under the “Sussex Royal” logo makes Wallis Simpson’s exile in the Bahamas, spent matching the color on the walls to her face powder, seem positively monastic.
Can you really call yourself “financially independent” when all you’re doing is cashing in on the royal name?
Given the state of the world and the implosion of the British Empire — with Scots once more contemplating an off ramp, Irish unity in play, Australia on fire and Boris Johnson tricking the queen into suspending Parliament in a Brexit ploy — it is hard to feel sorry for the Duchess of Sussex complaining that her diamonds are heavy. The pathos for Markle, trapped in a designer cage, goes only so far.
It’s easy for royals to come to North America, where they are lavishly embraced as celebrities without all those pesky restrictions about class and role. (See “The Crown” episode about a wild, imbibing Princess Margaret charming L.B.J.)
Still, I think Meghan Markle should have wielded her wokeness where it is most needed — in Buckingham Palace. She could have channeled the Obamas, who did a magnificent job of rising above racist taunts and working within the institution to imprint a new image of racial possibility in America.
Markle had already successfully brought a refreshing dose of semi-radical chic to the royal family. Her visits to a mosque that housed Londoners displaced by the Grenfell Tower fire led to her putting out a 2018 cookbook, the proceeds of which went to the victims.
At its best, the monarchy has been able to lift up people, as it did during the blitz in World War II.
I saw that ability to alchemize emotions and opinions when I covered the queen on her visit to Ireland in 2011, the first by a British monarch in a century. It was impossible not to be impressed watching her speak Gaelic and offering regret about how Britain had made Ireland suffer, bowing her head at the scene of Bloody Sunday and the Garden of Remembrance, the sacred ground for slain Irish patriots.
The Irish started out skeptical, but by the end of her visit, many were calling her “Betty” on Twitter.
The queen of England holds out the idea that she and her family should have some sort of vestigial moral authority. But with the Prince Andrew imbroglio in the seraglio of Jeffrey Epstein, and with Harry’s run for the Hollywood Hills, it is clear that many in her family are not interested in moral authority.
The collapse of the authority of the British monarchy mirrors the collapse of authorities generally, scarred by years of
- scandals about clergymen abusing children,
- athletes beating up girlfriends and
- university officials accepting bribes.
And yet, even if the royals’ role in the culture is now akin to the Kardashians, it wasn’t cool for Meghan and Harry to pants the 93-year-old queen, defy her instructions, dump their Megxit plan on Instagram and intensify the sad split between the brothers. (If ever there was a time for some dry gin. …)
What’s the rush to give up real influence to be an Instagram influencer? Besides, who unfollows their own grandmother?
It’s the racism.
The British press has succeeded in its apparent project of hounding Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, out of Britain. The part it perhaps didn’t bargain for, however, is the loss of Prince Harry — a much loved Royal and a key part of the family’s global brand — along with her.
In a statement released this week, the couple said they want to “carve out a progressive new role” within the royal family and will “step back as ‘senior’ members, and work to become financially independent.”
If the media paid more attention to Britain’s communities of color, perhaps it would find the announcement far less surprising. With a new prime minister whose track record includes overtly racist statements, some of which would make even Donald Trump blush, a Brexit project linked to native nationalism and a desire to rid Britain of large numbers of immigrants, and an ever thickening loom of imperial nostalgia, many of us are also thinking about moving.
From the very first headline about her being
the racist treatment of Meghan has been impossible to ignore. Princess Michael of Kent wore an overtly racist brooch in the duchess’s company. A BBC host compared the couple’s newborn baby to a chimpanzee. Then there was the sublimely ludicrous suggestion that Meghan’s avocado consumption is responsible for mass murder, while her charity cookbook was portrayed as somehow helping terrorists.
Those who claim frequent attacks against the duchess have nothing to do with her race have a hard time explaining these attempts to link her with particularly racialized forms of crime — terrorism and gang activity — as well as the fact that she has been most venomously attacked for acts that attracted praise when other royals did them. Her decision to guest-edit British Vogue, for example, was roundly condemned by large parts of the British media, in stark contrast to Prince Charles’s two-time guest editorship of Country Life magazine, Prince Harry’s of a BBC program and Kate Middleton’s at Huffington Post, all of which were quietly praised at the time.
Her treatment has proved what many of us have always known: No matter how beautiful you are, whom you marry, what palaces you occupy, charities you support, how faithful you are, how much money you accumulate or what good deeds you perform, in this society racism will still follow you.
In Britain’s rigid class society, there is still a deep correlation between privilege and race. The relatively few people of color — and even fewer if you count only those who have African heritage — who rise to prominent success and prosperity in Britain are often told we should be “grateful” or told to leave if we don’t like it here.
The legacy of Britain’s history of empire — a global construct based on a doctrine of white supremacy — its pioneering role in the slave trade and ideologies of racism that enabled it, and policies of recruiting people from the Caribbean and Africa into low-paid work and then discriminating against them in education and housing, is with us today: The scandal surrounding the wrongful deportation of black British people in recent
Meghan’s decision to join the family that is the symbolic heart of the establishment responsible for this troubled history was perplexing to many black British people, as we wondered whether she fully appreciated the institution she had entered.
Both she and Harry appear to have gained crystal clear vision as to their reality. It’s no wonder the couple want to leave and — as the coded statement that they want to raise their son Archie “with the space to focus on the next chapter” seems to suggest — protect him from the bile to which they’ve been exposed.
The British press, having attacked the couple continuously, now reacts with shock at this move. But the clues have been there for some time for anyone willing to read them.
There was the decision not to give Archie a title from birth — something that is expected among royal children of this rank but which Meghan and Harry appear to have chosen to avoid. Then there were the rumors last spring that they might relocate to a country in southern Africa.
In recent months, the couple have begun bypassing official royal channels and communicating with the press directly — most notably when the Duchess said in a television documentary that she found adjusting to royal life “hard,” and Harry revealed that the tragic experience of the death of his mother, Princess Diana, made him want to “protect” his wife and family.
All were signs that the couple would not abide by royal business as usual, to the extent that even announcing this decision to step down from their roles as senior royals appears to have taken Buckingham Palace by surprise.
I am not at all surprised. This was the bitter shadow of their sunny May 2018 wedding. How many of us suspected — hoping but doubting we were wrong — that what would really initiate Meghan into her new role as a Briton with African heritage would be her experience of British racism. And ironically, by taking matters into their own hands, Harry and Meghan’s act of leaving — two fingers up at the racism of the British establishment — might be the most meaningful act of royal leadership I’m ever likely to see.
‘Last Week Tonight’ host John Oliver gives Meghan Markle a fair warning ahead of the upcoming Royal Wedding.