If recent US experience with Trump is a guide, some of Britain’s most powerful institutions will refuse to commit to self-reflection after a row over racism in the royal family
In Alfonso Cuarón 2006 film Children of Men, the hero of the story is a depressive alcoholic called on by chance to save humanity from a mysterious disease that has rendered humanity infertile. The year is 2027. No baby has been born since 2009. The human species will be gone before the end of the century.
London has descended into a prototypical kind of post-apocalyptic doomscape. Heavily armed police at every corner ask for papers, and refugees’ from everywhere else in the world are packed into a squalid, crowded coastal prison-city, where they await deportation. Signs everywhere remind Londoners to turn in ‘’illegals.’’ Avoiding fertility tests is illegal. The government distributes suicide pills and antidepressants.
The reluctant hero, Theo, is tasked with getting transit papers for an undocumented refugee from Africa and goes to his well-connected cousin Nigel for help. On the way there, he passes through the Admiralty Arch and the gardens near Buckingham Palace. Comfort, luxury and privilege persist unfazed. Zebras and camels stride like halcyon hallucinations across the lawn. A uniformed cavalry guard rides in formation to nowhere, guarding nothing. A brass band plays on to an elegant audience.
He continues on to the heavily guarded Ark of the Arts, which his cousin Nigel oversees, keeping safe the masterpieces of Europe amid constant catastrophe. The ark has the massive royal stamp of the Crown on it, presumably under the reign of an ageing King Charles.
Even in a world where no one can give birth, this version of a British dystopia imagines the resilience of the hereditary monarchy in a world that’s just waiting around to die.
If Children of Men doesn’t sound that far off from the real world of 2021 then you must’ve been keeping up with the news. And if you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ve probably heard about the interview Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Sussex, also known as Prince Harry and his American wife Meaghan Markle, have done with American media titan and veteran interviewer Oprah Winfrey. Markle herself was an actor on the US television show Suits before marrying Harry. The long and short of it is that Markle, who is Black, says she was bullied by the royal family.
Specifically, one of its members (not the Queen or her husband Prince Philip, Oprah clarified later) had concerns about her son Archie’s skin colour. Neither Harry nor Markle would say who. Fear of the prying eyes of the British media, obsessed with scoops about the royals, led to her in-laws keeping her a virtual hostage in the palace for months. Amid intense mistreatment from a circling press corps, she told Oprah she contemplated suicide.
“I just didn’t see a solution. I would sit up at night, and I was just, like, I don’t understand how all of this is being churned out,” she said. “I realized that it was all happening just because I was breathing. I was really ashamed to say it at the time and ashamed to have to admit it to Harry, especially, because I know how much loss he’s suffered. But I knew that if I didn’t say it, that I would do it. I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.”
On Tuesday, the palace issued a statement responding to the interview. It does not confirm Markle’s account, nor does it go anywhere near an apology, more of a ‘’sorry you felt that way’’ rather than a nostra culpa.
“The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan,’’ it read. ‘’The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.”
Not a racist family
Prince Harry’s brother Prince William, addressing the press on Thursday, was more blunt.
“Is the royal family a racist family, sir?” a reporter asked the Duke of Cambridge as he toured a school reopening after coronavirus closure.
"We are very much not a racist family," the Duke of Cambridge replied, adding that he had not yet spoken with his younger brother since the interview, but would do soon.
Among the first things one learns in reporting is to avoid the ‘’yes or no’’ question. It’s too easy to swat away. In America, this is sometimes called a ‘’softball question.’’ Although softballs lobbed at speed can sting, this was not one of those.
The real scoop would have been if William had said ‘’Some of us are racist, yes. Not sure who, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did know.’’ But it’s a safe bet he’s not going to say that.
The good news is it’s not too late. At the duke’s next appearance, intrepid members of the British press can ask follow up questions that aren’t featherbedded pitches by probing the House of Windsor’s views on other issues in political philosophy, all using the same ‘’yes or no’’ format.
For example, is the royal family, in fact, an egalitarian family, a neo-reactionary family or an anarcho-syndicalist commune family, where each member takes turns to act as a sort of executive-officer-for-the-week? On these matters, surely, the people have a right to know.
There’s no reason to doubt William’s response on the issue of racism was a sincere one, but it’s difficult for him to undo the damage of years of frothing tabloid stories and sadistic social media abuse about a member of the royal family.
Since her marriage to Harry in 2018, the general chatter from the conservative British press was that Markle was ungrateful for the privilege of being a royal, arrogant and unfit for purpose in the family. Later, a greater shame came to the Palace when Harry and Markle left the UK entirely for the US, the infamous Megxit.
A deal with the streaming site Netflix seemed to confirm the suspicions of royal watchers that the two were simply cashing in on their titles, and not prepared to do the heavy lifting of waving at an adoring throng of commoners.
‘’The reason this isn’t a mere royal nonstory is because it’s ultimately about race and gender and touches on a number of very real contemporary anxieties around fairness, equality and institutional bigotry…’’ writes Patrick Freyne in the Irish Times.
‘’Harry and Meghan are ultimately going to win. Despite the tabloid frenzy, this was never the story of an ungrateful pauper being elevated by the monarchy. This was about the potential union of two great houses, the Windsors and Californian Celebrity. Only one of those things has a future, and it’s the one with the Netflix deal.’’
The reaction from the British tabloids to the interview has been, as Americans might say, unhinged. Columnist Rod Liddle, writing in The Sun, declared that the interview was nothing short of a plot by the duke and duchess to do ‘’as much damage as possible to the Royal Family,’’ the headline bellowed.
‘’I have no time for either of them and, truth be told,’’ Liddle wrote. ‘’Nor do I think Meghan got rough treatment because she’s of mixed race. We may have been unkindly towards her because she is a self-obsessed American. Colour didn’t come into it.’’
The piece doesn’t spare Harry, saying, in a bizarre refusal for self-reflection, that ‘’there is an irony in a bloke like Harry moaning about colonialism when he was in Afghanistan with our Armed Forces.’’
Liddle continues: ‘’I’m mildly in favour of the monarchy only because it reaches back so far into history — and a country should always revere its history, no matter what the woke nutters insist. But the monarchy should always be about duty, service and reserve.’’
Liddle, however, is wrong. The top priority for the palace is not reverence for history as much as a concern for the future, and the durability of the monarchy itself. It needs an attentive, if not fawning, press to try to guarantee that.
British commentator and former co-host of the ITV breakfast programme, Good Morning Britain, host Piers Morgan said so himself, hours before resigning. A consistent defender of the palace’s dignity and righteousness amid Megxit, Morgan left the show on Tuesday after public pressure following dismissive statements he made about Markle’s mental health. Morgan said it all in just two sentences.
‘’If the media doesn’t promote the monarchy, the monarchy slowly dies out. Monarchies have died out all over Europe,’’ Morgan revealed.
Mathew Lawrence, British political analyst and the co-author of a forthcoming book on
the climate crisis, Planet on Fire, told TRT World that it’s unlikely the interview will result in any lasting self-reflection about the sociological consequences of the monarchy itself on the British people. In large part, it’s because of what he called a ‘’symbiotic’’ relationship between the Crown and British media, a relationship the interview laid bare.
‘’The media get good copy from the monarchy and the monarchy treat it like a useful tool to boost their public relations campaigning,’’ he said. ‘’You have got that fairly like damaging incestuous relationship there that is not healthy for democracy or freedom of the press. There’s the royal family as an institution and then also the British media. Both stand accused of racism and classism. The media has used racial framing and racialised around Meghan.’’
The problem now for both the tabloid media and the royal family is that Markle has said they colluded to tarnish her image, and the implication that the tarnishing was done in furtherance of promoting the monarchy, as Morgan described. With both institutions discredited by the interview, there’s nowhere for either side to turn for absolution.
The aftermath of the debacle will resemble the reaction to the tenure of former US President Donald Trump in the US, Lawrence says. His chaotic, malignant presidency exposed deep fissures in American society over race and class. But it was also a product of those societal divisions and institutions. These are issues that would be easier to write off as a departure from a more righteous norm, rather than emblematic of deeper failures that offered a chance to see the violence inherent in the system.
‘’There are some liberal elites in the US who are saying Trump is an aberration. That’s a fiction. There’s some of the same storytelling in the UK that’s going on in the US,’’ Lawrence said. ‘’In the UK, it doesn’t seem that it’s going to become a time to address and repair harms. It does not feel like it’s going to be a moment to address racial inequality. It’s not going to be an educational moment.’’
The aftermath of the debacle
Part of Harry and Meghan’s offence to the UK’s conservative establishment is deciding that the American media landscape was more hospitable than the British one. And they’ve got a point. They’ll have the free speech protections of the First Amendment, and the relative anonymity of being two noted individuals in a city, Los Angeles, where there are thousands of such ‘’power couples.’’ Unfortunately, however, they’ve decamped to a country where conservatives will treat them little better than British conservatives have.
‘’So essentially Harry and Meghan have joined Woke-o Haram and want to cancel the Royal Family for not being woke,’’ was right-wing radio talker Erick Erickson’s hot Twitter take.
Youthful curmudgeon and libertarian vlogger Ben Shapiro tweeted a sarcastic reference to the king against whose army American revolutionaries fought: ‘’We told you not to screw with us, George III. And now we've unleashed our most dangerous resource: B-rate TV actresses wielding wokeness.’’
The good news for Harry and Meghan is that the American conservative outrage machine is fickle, and will forget this all happened in about a week. They’ll move on to something else. Contrast that to the British press, which has been obsessed with the comings-and-goings of royals since before the United States even existed.
The bad news is that they are now in a country where a celebrity tried to rule by divine right, and did nothing to dispel the notion that he was, in fact, appointed by God. Unlike the royal family, Trump didn’t care if people thought he was racist. He insisted he was the least racist person, and that his insistence was proof enough. His extremely online adult sons, silicon avatars for his perpetual campaign presidency, also insisted his father’s racism was an invention of the woke liberal phonies, and so forth.
The worst news is for the royal family itself, which is trying to find its place in the post-Trump Anglosphere. Now, they will have to try to differentiate themselves from the crassness of Trump, one of the most crass celebrocrats ever to speak English into a microphone.
The Oprah interview managed to push them closer to Trumpism and farther from grace than they ever thought possible. The unsolicited support from American conservatives like Shapiro and Erickson, whose names they don’t even know and don’t want to know, isn’t helping them dispel that dreadful guilt-by-association across the English speaking Internet.
The challenge for the British royal family since the invention of the television has been to distinguish itself from other English-speaking celebrities, to assert an essential nobility and purpose lacking in the purposeless vanity and pettiness of Hollywood.
But that distinction has proven harder and harder to maintain as the panopticon of social media has turned everyone into a nano-celebrity, destined for 15 seconds of fame or infamy, and made the affairs of the royal family harder and harder to distinguish from the sordid affairs any other family, and above all more difficult to hide.
There’s little chance the monarchy will ‘’die out’’ as Morgan fears, just like there’s little chance that Trump will stop sending out emails asking for money. The vast majority of the British public supports the institution. It may represent the pinnacle of an impenetrable pyramid of class hierarchy, but some people are into that sort of thing, just like some people send Trump cash to bully the liberal nerds. There’s no accounting for taste.
Lawrence did note, however, that polls show British youth tend to have more sympathy for Harry and Meghan than their older counterparts. But even if the monarchy ceased to exist, and a republic established in its place, the weight of the aristocratic establishment would still hold great sway over society..
‘’There are bigger issues around wealth and power,’’ he said.
How can one stay calm and carry on in a world where a minuscule fraction of humanity is born into lives of plenty while a far larger fraction starve before they learn how to speak? There might be a way, but never confuse it for a permanent remedy. It’s more like a headache pill, a paracetamol or aspirin.
After he’s done negotiating transit papers, Theo, the hero in Children of Men, asks his cousin what the point is in preserving art for a future that won’t happen. In a century, there won’t be anyone alive to appreciate what’s inside the ark.
‘’You know what it is, Theo?’’ Nigel replies. ‘’I just don't think about it.’’