Can you untangle monarchy from madness? In an age of apparent equality it makes no sense to have a queen who is the conduit to a god most people now deny. In an age of human rights the contortions that the royal family must endure – the lack of privacy, the global attention – are ludicrous. And yet we go on with it, more as entertainment than the fulfilment of a spiritual need.
On Sunday, in the ITV documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, the Duke of Sussex told friendly journalist Tom Bradby of his misery at the negative coverage he and Meghan receive.
Harry is suing various tabloid newspapers for breach of privacy and alleged telephone-hacking. Using Africa as a backdrop – gruesome and tin-eared, but what in his life has allowed him to develop empathy? – he spoke of their misery at the intrusion.
Harry has suffered from monarchy, and has spoken about the trauma before. “I thought I was out of the woods,” he said. “But suddenly it all came back. And now I have a family to protect, so everything that she [Diana] went through, and what happened to her is incredibly raw, every single day. And that’s not me being paranoid. That’s just me not wanting a repeat of the past”.
Then he said: “I think being part of this family, in this role, in this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash it takes me straight back so in that respect it’s the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best”. It was shocking, but so were the sanctimonious responses that Harry should be silent, and grateful for the expensive kitchens – to be a vessel.
The system demands that royals be treated as demigods but what happens when one of those demigods allows itself to be seen as human, with needs which are not served by being royal but are instead maimed by it? Usually, a crisis.
Edward VIII abdicated using the excuse that he was not allowed to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée. Any perceptive reader would understand that Edward chose Wallis so he could escape; but royalty is not allowed to be that honest – a sacrifice is a sacrifice, and who wants to hear the sobbing at the altar? Princess Diana told of her unhappiness, brought monarchy to another crisis, and we know how it ended. We laid the flowers.
Now Harry will not be silent, and this must be the cause of the apparent rift between him and William. By seeking to shed light on monarchy, and how it maims, he is imperilling his brother’s throne. We know that the Windsors are ruthless. That is why they are still here.
I wonder if Harry’s course is similar to that of his great-great uncle King Edward; if, unconsciously, he married a woman who did not understand monarchy and so, in not understanding – or tolerating it – would free him? Meghan, like Diana, obviously believed in the fairy tale; she had either forgotten, or never known, that fairy tales are brutal.
Harry has broken the convention that royalty does not say how it feels. He has shattered the bargain that, in return for obsessive attention – I will not call it privilege, because it isn’t – you submit to be feasted on, in every aspect of your life. The only possible way to survive is to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing – to be the vessel – but Harry cannot do this. Catherine Middleton, born into the middle class, can; it is as if, as an outsider who watched monarchy, she knew the market.
The non-royal Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon could do it too. Diana couldn’t, and she did not live in the age of Twitter and Instagram, and a surfeit of news accelerating every trend. Nor can Harry, trying to recover from the death of his mother, after which he has coerced into walking behind her coffin, presumably to protect his father’s reputation.
The duchess, meanwhile, said she was not living but existing, that she is not “okay”. Her British friends had told her not to marry Harry “because the British tabloids will destroy your life’’. She then said: “I never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair.”
I found this touching, because it was never going to be fair. Are you fair to that which you consume? The media does not hate Meghan, nor does it love her – it is simply indifferent. They are material to be consumed, which is why a tabloid will have pieces both for and against them within pages of each other. This piece, of course, is part of the consumption.
I would liberate Britain from this dirty bargain, which infantilises the public, succours the class system, fills newspapers with junk and ruins the object of its obsession. I think Harry is right to sue, but it will not serve him. You cannot make monarchy rational, or safe for its victims; you cannot amend it, or make it kind.
It was always brutal, but this is an age of infinite cruelty and dehumanisation. It was sad to see them so bewildered, for they do not understand the bargain they have made. Harry is demanding to be allowed to be human, and, for monarchy, that is crisis. I wonder if, when he speaks of continuing his mother’s work, this is what he really means.