The UK Royal Family public battle

Unless you just woke up, after the style of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, or you just arrived from another planet, you will probably have seen the latest round in the very-public public relations battle being waged between Prince Harry and his wife, and what seems, superficially, to be the whole of the rest of the British Royal Family.

The latest round in the battle occurred when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey, THE doyen of UK chat show interviewers. During the interview, they listed a number of events that have happened, and itemized a collection of complaints against the Royal Family.

Predictably (after all, why else would they have given the interview, and why else would it have been broadcast?) the content of the interview has aroused strong reactions, of all types.

The UK tabloids, who have a Faustian bargain with the Royal Family (more of that in a minute) have, predictably, chosen to side with the UK end of the family, and paint Harry and Meghan as hypocritical back-stabbers.

I have read numerous reactions online. My initial conclusion is that how you view the interview depends to a large extent on how you view families and how you think they should operate.

I have deep ambivalence about families. They are great when they function well, but, as most of us know, there is nothing as messy and mentally lethal as a family rupture. When people in families fall out, it is often not only terminal, but all manner of primitive emotions are activated, and then family members are unable to stop themselves from doing and saying Dumb Stuff. Like divorces, family ruptures can trigger appallingly bad behavior.

The rupture in the Royal Family between Harry and his sibling, and what seems (superficially) like the whole of the rest of the family, has clear roots and causes. Harry’s mother Princess Diana was badly served by the Royal Family as her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrated, and, if truth be known, it was almost certainly a form of arranged marriage, with Charles apparently wanting to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, but being told that she had “a history” (she was married, with a string of affairs already), and therefore being steered towards marrying a chaste virgin who would, presumably, be content to do The Royal Thing and be obedient, and produce the required heir to the throne. We know most of the rest. Diana soon became dissatisfied with her obedient nodding-dog life, and began to assert herself. This did not play well with the “Do Your Duty” mindset.

Ultimately, Diana and Charles were divorced, and Charles is now back with Camilla Parker-Bowles, which is probably who he should have been married to all along. Diana, meanwhile, had ended up in an invidious position, as the focus of tabloid curiosity, being followed everywhere, her every move reported on with prurient glee by the UK tabloids and gossip magazines. We know how her life ended, in the crash in Paris. What was not so obvious was that her driver at the time was trying to shake off paparazzi in following cars, which might have had something to do with the car crashing on what is a dangerous stretch of road. I have driven that exact road, and it is not a good road to drive, especially at night.

Harry, not in line to inherit the throne, but being smart, would have known all about the “nothing to do” syndrome that infects lesser royals, which has in the past led to feckless male royals engaging in all manner of scandalous behavior. He certainly knew all about how corrosive tabloid attention was to his mother. So while William could bask in the security of knowing that one day he will be King, Harry had to build a purposeful life. That included joining the army, rising to the rank of Captain and doing 2 combat tours. It also led him to chafe against many of the restrictions that his public royal position imposed.

One thing that seems to be almost universal among people who have met Harry in person is that they like him. To them, he is genuine, thoughtful and personable, with no airs and graces. That would have put him into a different orbit than most of the other royals immediately. Worthy though Prince Charles may be, struggling himself to lead a useful life while his mother continues to rule, nobody has ever described him the same way that people who meet Harry describe him.

The Royal Family is all about duty, a crushing sense of obligation and tradition that means that Prince Charles, for example, has had no agency in most of his life. It was mapped out for him before he was born. Little wonder that the history of the Royal Family in England is replete with affairs, juvenile behavior and a fair few scandals that have mostly been kept hidden from public view. If the rest of your life is mapped out, drinking and shagging suddenly look a lot more exciting.

The new generation of royal family members are increasingly marrying commoners. This is because of a simple reality; there are fewer and fewer eligible aristocratic or royal partners out there. At one time, the European royal families married amongst each other almost as a rule. That has more or less ended.

We also have to remember that what is now called The House Of Windsor is not its original name. It was, in the day of Queen Victoria, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The Royal Family, on the patriarchal side, was German. King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany were cousins. The family name was changed in a hurry to Windsor in World War I for obvious reasons. The roots of the Royal Family are Prussian-German. This probably contributed to a lot of royal admiration for Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II. The obvious liking of King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor for Hitler in the pre-war years proved so embarrassing that when World War II broke out, the British government had him and his new American wife shipped off to the Bahamas, where he spent the war in the entirely ceremonial post of Governor-General.

One can imagine that when it became clear that Harry wanted to marry Meghan Markle, an American actress, that members of the Royal Family sat there thinking “uh oh, here we go again”. A royal prince marrying an American actress? Alarm!

What is clear is that, just as the Duke of Windsor ended up largely estranged from the rest of the Royal Family after marrying Wallis Simpson, living in Paris for the rest of his life, Harry is now largely estranged from the Royal Family after marrying Meghan Markle. Clearly, being an object of public curiosity 24×7 is not what either of them had in mind, or feel they can tolerate. Harry did not want that mode of operation because of what happened to his mother. Meghan did not want it either. Their move to Canada and then the USA was obviously a “get me out of here” move. Their retirement from being working royal family members was also clearly a refusal to Play The Game. It cost them most of their royal income, and it seems that they are now living off of Harry’s trust fund left to him by his mother.

The legal actions by Meghan against the UK tabloids, which she keeps winning, were also an unmistakeable message to the UK tabloid press that they were not going to control her or Harry, and that she was prepared to wield the stick of libel law against them if they did not behave.

The Royal Family’s relationship with the UK tabloids is a complicated Faustian bargain. At one point, the relationship was deeply antagonistic, with Prince Charles routinely snapping at tabloid reporters and wishing their editors a miserable Christmas, among other quips. However, these days, there is a sort-of-understanding that the bedrock of reflexive support for the Royal Family is largely comprised of tabloid readers. (I think this is true; most people I know in my circles in the UK are agnostic about the Royal Family, and many professional people would not be upset if the Royal Family in its current form was abolished).

The era where the Royal Family enjoyed uncritical public support is long gone. The death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother broke the link for good, but other aspects of Royal behavior, with the 24×7 intrusive news cycle, have become public knowledge, revealing the soft underbelly of a dysfunctional family crushed by duty and increasingly dominated by people way past State retirement age. The Royal divorce rate is appalling, and the hugely debatable behavior of Prince Andrew has thrown a shadow over the family.

The Royal Family’s reaction has been predictable. In classic stiff-upper-lip UK family mode, they are expecting that everybody should keep quiet in public, and sort things out behind closed doors. The problem with that approach is that the media will dig and dig for anything that can be used to drive public commentary. So now we have the Faustian bargain in place, with the Royal Family leaking snippets to the tabloids to keep them interested, give them stuff to print and speculate on, and also to promulgate the “party line”. There is an entire industry in the UK devoted to royal-watching, generating hundreds of jobs. It is a big business for the media. A beast that must be fed.

The “party line” in this context is that Harry is a naif, captured by an American bitch. It is a classic story line, and in the grand tradition of tabloid journalism, whether it is factual is irrelevant. One of the classic UK tabloid rules is that one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Having observed the way in which the UK narrative about their move to the USA was being shaped by the tabloid relationship, I suspect that Harry and Meghan decided that they had to put their side of the story in the public domain. Hence the Oprah interview.

In family management terms, the Oprah interview was never going to have a positive outcome. I am sure that Harry and Meghan knew that, but I suspect that at this point in time, they don’t care enough, given their exile, to let it influence their actions.

Who do I believe? I don’t think that you can believe either side’s version of events and take it at face value. I suspect that selective memory is playing a part in the explanation of events on both sides.

How will all of this play out? To use the old English phrase, buggered if I know. The Royal Family can, if they really want to, just forget all about Harry and continue to manage the brand with the on-deck royals. However, that has its own risks. If other people associated with the late Jeffrey Epstein (perhaps with family names like Maxwell) end up revealing more information about what really happened at parties involving a certain Royal Family member, the Royal Family may suddenly start to wish that they had Harry and Meghan onside instead of in exile. The current generation of Royals are no more publicly exciting than the last generation. With the exception of the Duke of Sussex.

 

 

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