As speculation about the Sussexes continues to dominate press headlines, it is hard not to get sucked up in the unfolding drama of Prince Harry and Meghan’s plans to take a step back from royal life.
Last week, the couple announced their intention to work towards their own financial independence and relinquish their roles as ‘senior’ members of the royal family, ultimately splitting their time between the UK and North America. The choice the couple has made is unprecedented; never before have any senior royals sought an arrangement such as this. The only comparison that former Buckingham Palace press officer Dickie Arbiter could make was to Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, when the then King stepped down from the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. But that comparison doesn’t quite work. Edward VIII became an exile, unable to return to Britain; Harry and Meghan do not seek a blunt separation from the crown, but something of a ‘part-time’ position in the royal family.
It seems that some sort of arrangement has now been reached, with the Queen agreeing a ‘period of transition’ for the pair to split their time between Canada and the UK. The details of how this will work are unclear.
What is clear is that for several prominent media commentators, this split is the news they have been waiting for with something like vindictive glee.
For pundits like Piers Morgan, the Sussexes’ decision is definitive proof of Meghan’s poor character. Having spent considerable energy bashing the Duchess (and insisting on his totally spotless and totally non-racist motivations), Morgan last week launched a tirade at the couple, accusing them of selfishness, brattishness and all manner of unpleasant things. Morgan literally seethes in his column, furious at the ‘scheming’ ‘D-list actress wife’ that Harry has chosen, laying all the blame for the current situation at her door.
And of course, the debate rages: is the coverage of Meghan racist, xenophobic, sexist? Are the pundits unscrupulous? But amidst all these questions, a broader issue emerges.
In her column lamenting the Sussexes’ move, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine argues that neither of the pair seem to understand ‘the true nature of their role as royals’. Typically suspicious of Meghan, Vine is here more neutral, taking a softer tone towards both her and Harry.
Yet Vine has often been harsher, and this criticism of the Duchess as somehow not a true royal is familiar. After Meghan edited the September issue of Vogue, Vine’s column took the form of a ‘memo’ to her. In it, she sneered at the Duchess’s work, and argued that working on a fashion magazine - the nature of fashion being so transient - was not befitting of a royal, whose role ought to be about ‘tradition and duty’. She entitled her ‘memo’ ‘we Brits prefer true royalty to fashion royalty’.
Another piece by Vine looked at Meghan and Harry prior to their marriage and sniffed at Meghan’s behaviour, saying ‘there is something about the recent conduct of these young royals that smacks more of celebrity than royalty.’ Again, the suggestion creeps in that there is something inauthentic about Meghan and how her arrival on the scene has made the royal couple behave.
Of course Meghan’s race and nationality come into it. What could possibly make Piers Morgan mysteriously forget the recent disgrace of Prince Andrew to declare ‘I've seen some disgraceful royal antics in my time, but for pure arrogance, entitlement, greed, and wilful disrespect, nothing has ever quite matched the behaviour of the 'Duke and Duchess of Sussex.'?
But race and nationality alone are not the whole story. It is how these things make Meghan different and show the modernisation of a fundamentally traditional institution that gets these pundits riled up.
Because though the couple’s insistence on their wish to strive for financial independence has been a key part of their recent announcement, it is precisely Meghan’s ability to do things independently of the royal machinery that Vine so abhors. Yes, the royal brand undoubtedly has helped her, but she is a woman who has lived much of her life away from the royal umbrella. She has achieved her own things, lived her own life. In editing the September Vogue, Markle showcased her desire to not simply be confined to royal duties - and for this Vine could not forgive her. What, after all, was an independent career woman doing wading her way into the bastion of archaism that is the monarchy?
This tug of war between old and new is precisely why Meghan has always been subject to vitriol from those columnists for whom the monarchy is a choice subject. She symbolises change and newness - something that many do not like to see in society, and especially not in an institution like the monarchy.
And yet, in striving to carve out modern roles as royals, Meghan and Harry are encountering a wholly modern set of issues. Because whilst the problematic media coverage so often insists on portraying the couple of having committed treason against tradition, modernity itself is assaulting them with unprecedented hurdles. Financial independence is one thing - but how to achieve this without a tokenising commercialisation of the Sussex brand? And while they may wish to fund their own lifestyles, Harry and Meghan will require a level of personal security that private finance might just not cover.
It is difficult to say what will happen next, but perhaps the furore over what has happened with the royal pair reveals one of the deepest rifts in British society today. The battles between tradition and modernity, steadfastness and change, the old and the new are playing out across several areas of British cultural and political life. In this pair, we see that conflict encapsulated. They are members of an ancient institution, and those that attack their behaviour do so because they wish to preserve the archaic strictures of royal life - and the vestiges of these that remain in society as a whole.