The almighty row about Harry and Meghan isn’t just about the behaviour of the junior prince and his American bride. Bigger, harder to define feelings are afoot — and I don’t mean racism, or snobbery, or misogyny, none of which is really driving this disaster (despite desperate attempts to suggest otherwise.)
The Royals traditionally function as ciphers: representations in human form of entire world views that are otherwise hard to talk about. As Henry VIII represented the break from Rome, and Victoria represented Empire, they put a face on the big ideas of the age, and people line up behind them. In this clash, things are no different.
Today, we are told, in a drawing room at Sandringham, a showdown is taking place between Meghan, the unhappy American princess dialling in from Canada, and the 93-year-old Queen — mediated by their various princes. It would be hard to find two more suitable representatives than these two women of the clashing philosophies that, in different ways, have dominated British and European politics for the past decade. Tradition versus progress, duty versus self-actualisation, community versus commerce, nation versus globalisation.
There are hints of this in the opinion polling splashed all over the weekend papers. No matter which version you look at (YouGov, JL Partners, Deltapoll have all had a go), each ‘Megxit’ survey reveals the same central tension in public attitudes. A majority of people support the decision of Harry and Meghan to go their own way and overwhelmingly think they should be allowed to do it; but at the same time there is a noticeable harshness in the punitive sanctions which the public think they should receive. The couple should be stripped of their titles, their home, their military honours, barred from receiving financial support even from Prince Charles, and left even without police protection.
There’s a degree of sympathy for them, but also the audible bolting of the door behind them.
On one level, the British public have become liberals with amazing completeness in just over a generation. From the ‘Red Wall’ in the North to affluent London, from young to old, we have accepted and grown fond of a world of individual rights, self-realisation and freedom from judgment. By the logic of this world-view, there can be no doubt: of course the Sussexes must be free to do as they please and shake off the constraints of their elders. Who would stand in the way of a young family’s search for happiness?
But on another level, there is a growing fear that this same logic, in its relentless ratchet towards ‘progress’, will inadvertently destroy the things we hold most dear. It’s an uneven conflict because where the liberal world view is coherent, defensible and ostensibly virtuous, many of the things it threatens are hard to defend in the same terms. This mismatch makes people defensive and angry, as the Sussexes are now discovering.
In this competition of world views, the monarchy is highly vulnerable. In yesterday’s poll, even millennials are still clearly in favour of keeping the monarchy, and boomers even more resoundingly so. But there can be no logical liberal argument either for raising up an arbitrary family through birth, or for denying their individual rights once they’re there (denying them a political vote is already a breach of their human rights). If the monarchy has to justify itself in this way of thinking, it will eventually fall.
Meghan was initially welcomed with open arms by the British public, and her Hollywood backstory and mixed-race background brought something new to an institution people like to see gradually evolve. But she has recently come to represent precisely the combination of woke politics and global corporate power that a majority of British voters are trying to find ways to resist — instead of modernising a beloved old elite, she now seems to be dragging her husband into the hated new elite, and it feels dangerous.
Her slick new website, the trademarking of ‘Sussex Royal’, like a golf course, complete with corporate monogram and merchandise rights, is upsetting to people, not only because it is naff, but because it looks horribly convincing as a business proposition. As one commentator wrote (in a piece defending the couple entitled ‘Harry and Meghan will outgrow the Queen’) “no celebrity couple on earth better embodies the zeitgeist of our age… they will be billionaires before the 2030s”.
The Sussexes are already drawing up their battle lines. Via their surrogate Tom Bradby, they are threatening a “full, no holds barred” interview that would “tarnish the royal family’s international standing” by accusing the Palace of being racist and sexist. If there is to be a showdown between big business and hyper-liberal politics on one side and a creaky, beloved but illogical, centuries-old national institution on the other, Meghan and Harry will start with the advantage.
But just as the monarchy becomes the new battleground, there’s an absence of any cogent defence of it. The voices critical of Meghan and Harry, such as Piers Morgan’s, have framed the whole thing in personal terms: Meghan and Harry are selfish freeloaders and have been personally offensive to the Queen. Spoilt brats being rude to grandma, is the critique.
But accepting that we should choose sides based on their behaviour as individuals already surrenders too much ground. Monarchy can’t be defended in these terms — no matter how impeccably behaved, the merits of individual Royals can never be fairly deserving, and so eventually that argument will lose.
If there is to be any hope for, if we must, Team Queen over Team Meghan, it must start by flat-out rejecting the relevance of liberal individualism in this context. The royals are not interesting as individuals, they are not there on merit, they must not mistake themselves for celebrities. The monarchy is there to symbolise the continuity of the nation within a family. The less we know about them as individuals the better.
The institution, meanwhile, cannot be judged on its internal logic but on the success of the constitution it makes possible. By effectively relegating politicians to second-tier managers and reminding us that the country is much more than its government, it ultimately gives people reassurance that tomorrow will be recognisably like today. It has given Britain an atmosphere of gentle progress and freedom, almost uniquely in Europe, for hundreds of years; it has saved us from the excesses of American-style politics while acting as a necessary drag on the intellectual fashions of the day.
This is as practically valuable to the UK in 2020 as it ever was, even as it flies against liberal logic. If the monarchy is a key component of our national atmosphere of stability, and that stability literally makes people across the world want to live here and businesses want to be based here, what is happening today at Sandringham matters. It’s a battle of philosophies, and Her Maj needs better back up than this.