There is a line in Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III which is so good that the makers of The Crown lifted it — without attribution — in their most recent season. The heir to the throne, waiting for Parliament to declare him regent, says that to be Prince of Wales is not a position: “It is a predicament.”
Whether or not that is the case for the current Prince of Wales, it is certainly true for the Sussexes, who have just announced that they are going to step back from public duties in order to become “financially independent”.
Even the most devout republican will recognise that there is something worse than the now-defunct Civil List; something undisguisably worse than members of the Royal Family receiving public subsidy. It is the predicament of Royal privilege.
Such is the cruelty of public life, that people born into a position of undeniable privilege are rewarded — or revenged — by being placed into an impossible situation. If a prince or princess is carrying out public duties, but also having the occasional moment of private enjoyment, they will be lambasted by the press for freeloading and gallivanting on the public’s dime. If they decide to relieve the strains on the public coffers by accepting the largesse of some wealthy individuals, then the same press will attack said royal for freeloading on someone else’s dime, and being caught up with sleazy or shallow celebrity characters.
There is a way out, of course, one demonstrated by Her Majesty the Queen throughout her public life, which has been to doggedly and dutifully carry out an unceasing round of obligations for so many years that in her tenth decade of service, no reasonable person could begrudge her the occasional day off.
But the head of the family is at an advantage. That role is well defined. It is the other royals — especially the “minor royals” — who find themselves in the worst situation. True, there are people — almost everybody else on earth if it comes to that — who are in a materially worse position. But in terms of being born into a difficult role, being born a non-monarch in the royal family must count as among the most impossible to carry out.
In the 1990s, when the Civil List was whittled down, we were given an inkling of how the Sussex situation might play out. Members of the Royal Family, such as the Michaels of Kent, were suddenly expected to strike out on their own; forced to sell their home while the press enjoyed ogling at their embarrassment. When the Michaels had an attic sale, they were attacked for cheapening themselves and the Royal Family by auctioning their possessions. They then attempted to make money through various forms of consultancy and authorship, but every way they turned they were accused of using their position to “cash in”. What else were they to do, though? What other commodity — other than royalty — did they have?
The story was replayed by Prince Edward — the Queen’s youngest son — when he attempted to make his own way in the world. He made an inauspicious start with It’s a Royal Knockout — a maiden voyage so disastrous that it would have made The Hindenburg’s designers whistle and mutter “cor”. Both Edward and his wife went into business: she into PR (her profession before marriage), he into TV. But his company, Ardent Productions, was mainly in demand for programmes to do with the Royal Family. Presumably because of the unique access it was assumed the company would enjoy.
Edward’s was a noble effort, in its way. But before long, the inevitable occurred. In September 2001, Ardent Productions was caught attempting to film Prince William during his first year of university at St Andrew’s. The not-normally-shy British press had agreed to step back during Prince William’s student days; so it was with some glee that they revealed the cameras which had attempted to invade the student Prince’s privacy belonged to his uncle. By the time Ardent folded, in 2010, few attempted to disguise their delight at Edward’s failure. But amid the schadenfreude, the question of what royals not likely to succeed to the throne should actually do with their lives was left unanswered.
Prince Andrew provided an answer of sorts. He acted as a kind of UK trade envoy, sent to parts of the globe unwise enough to believe that the second son of the reigning monarch had a position of influence. The Prince enjoyed some of the trappings of the celebrity world in which he moved, and took advantage of the largesse of a number of wealthy people who appeared to want to live in the orbit of a minor royal. But as his own recent self-removal — also described as ‘stepping back’ — from public duties has demonstrated, the Prince Andrew precedent may not everywhere be deemed an entire success.
And now the Sussexes. Of course, the criticisms have already come. Meghan Markle, having fallen out with her own family, appears to have successfully helped Prince Harry to fall out with his. The fact that no member of the Royal Family was alerted to their decision in advance shows a remarkable degree of contempt for royal protocol. The fact that the Sussex’s statement describes supporting “Her Majesty the Queen” as though she is some brand with which they are happy to remain in alignment does not help. But if all this could have been foreseen, it is as nothing compared to the ease with which one can predict what comes next.
The Duke and Duchess are now used to being fawned over and sought out by the Beckham-Elton-Corden brand of celebrity: people who are delighted to have a member of the Royal Family in the vicinity. The Sussexes will presumably continue to enjoy holidaying at their homes, accepting their hospitality and generally free-loading. All of which is comparatively harmless.
It is in the area of trying to become financially independent — even though, given Harry’s wealth, they have no real need of doing so — that all the embarrassments will come. It may be that there are some advertising deals that the Sussexes will be able to strike for the next couple of decades.
Perhaps Meghan will be able — like Sarah Ferguson — to come up with a children’s book. Or a diet programme. Perhaps she will be able to flog this and other products in America under their “Sussex Royal” brand until such a time as the interviewers realise that the thing that she is there to talk about (her product) is not quite what they and their viewers want to hear about: which is always and only the Royal Family.
True, they might be able to settle on one of the more 21st-century ways of cashing in. The Obamas have shown some leadership in this regard, with a Netflix deal giving them millions of dollars in return for the pretence that television production is what they always really wanted to be involved in. The Duchess, at least, has some experience in this world. But if the programmes are unconnected with royalty, people will be disappointed. And if they are connected with royalty, then the backlash will be furious.
Having come to fame because of their position, they have now decided to divorce themselves from that position and cast out on their own. One wishes them well of course: they are a young, attractive and often well-meaning couple. But if the Sussexes think that the world they are leaving behind is cold, they can have no conception of the arctic towards which they are now headed.