Can Meghan Markle modernise the Britain’s monarchy?

1
625

Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry will make her an A-list star. But her most important role, say Emma Duncan and Valentine Low, will be to bolster the royal family

During the first television interview that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry gave to the press in November 2017, they snuggled together on a sofa with wide smiles, like any loved-up couple. The American actor and British prince disclosed a few quotidian intimacies: they met on a blind date; he proposed to her while they were cooking a chicken; she immediately charmed his grandmother’s corgis, which bark relentlessly at him. How they behaved in the interview revealed more than what they said. Markle clasped Harry’s left hand proprietorially between hers. She appeared natural in front of the camera and spoke fluidly and buoyantly. He, justifiably chary of the press, mumbled and stuttered a bit. As she looked at the interviewer, he gazed at her. While she talked, he stroked her forefinger with his thumb. The balance of their relationship became apparent during the course of the conversation, and has been confirmed subsequently in their increasingly frequent public appearances around Britain. He watches her constantly, both in adoration and in search of approbation. Harry is the lover and she the loved.

On May 19th, the pair will wed at Windsor Castle. In doing so, Markle will not just cement her position as one of the most famous women in the world. She will also join an institution that holds an enduring global appeal and has survived against the odds into the democratic age – and which, as the 92-year-old Queen ages, is undergoing a destabilising transition.

As Walter Bagehot, author of “The English Constitution” (and The Economist’s most famous editor), wrote in 1867, “a princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind.” In that short sentence, he caught the essence of the royal family’s allure. More successfully than any other institution on the planet, the royals have combined medieval grandeur and constitutional significance with celebrity appeal. When they gain a new member, hundreds of thousands of people will line the route to enjoy that spectacle and hundreds of millions more will watch the extravaganza on TV. They will also be absorbed in that eternal, ubiquitous, source of joy: the union of two people, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death – or disillusion – them do part.

As Harry and Markle have toured Britain hand in hand, they have done a good job thus far of looking like ordinary people preparing to tie the knot. Their TV interview certainly presented a sharp contrast with Harry’s parents’ painfully awkward first presentation to the press, at which Diana looked intermittently flirtatious and miserable, and Charles made a terrible, revealing gaffe when asked whether they were in love: she said “of course”; he said “whatever ‘in love’ means”. Yet there is nothing very ordinary about Harry and Markle. Both have unusual – though quite different – backgrounds. Both have had the extraordinary experience of living life under the spotlight of fame: he as a prince, she as a now-famous actor. And both have struggled against society’s expectations of the roles they should play.

Markle was not born into celebrity; she had to fight for recognition at every step. Aware that success wasn’t guaranteed, she did a double major at university – hard work, and rare at the time – before starting out on the long haul of auditions and bit-parts that marks any aspirant’s first steps towards stardom or, more likely, obscurity. She served as a “briefcase girl” on “Deal or no Deal”, a TV show that involved guessing the amount of money contained in a series of cases. It was not a happy experience: “I would end up standing up there for ever in these terribly uncomfortable and inexpensive five-inch heels just waiting for someone to pick my number so I could go and sit down,” she told Esquire magazine in 2013. She got a big break – a major part in a TV show called “Fringe” – but the role was then cut from the series. “That was heartbreaking for her,” says Nick Collins, her agent for ten years. “There are people who shut down when that happens, and people who say ‘I can do it, I’m going to show them.’ Meghan is in the second group.” She approached all of her jobs, he says, with an intense seriousness. “With every audition, she was going to say every word as it was written on the page. She was a perfectionist.”

Joining the firm

Markle as Rachel Zane, with Donna (Sarah Rafferty) in TV show “Suits”

She may have recorded her feelings about her struggles in an anonymous blog called The Working Actress, which described experiences that seem to map Markle’s professional trajectory in a writing style that matches hers. “I’ve had to freeze my [acting] union membership, borrow money, work jobs that I hated, endure being treated like s**t on a set, kiss actors with smelly breath and cry for hours on end because I just didn’t think I could take it any more.” The Daily Mail claims she wrote the blog; Kensington Palace, the princes’ HQ, refuses to comment.

Markle’s break finally came in 2011 when she was cast as Rachel Zane, the main love interest in “Suits”, a legal drama set in New York City (she got married that year too, though she later divorced). She didn’t become a megastar, but she was doing exceedingly well, reportedly earning $50,000 an episode by the end of her contract in the show’s seventh series.

Her journey up the ladder was all the more impressive because of her ethnicity. Her mixed-race parentage had long set her apart from others. Now 36, she grew up in a mostly white neighbourhood at a time when being “biracial”, as she calls it, was still rare: in 1980 fewer than one white American man in 1,000 married a black woman. Her father did his best to make her situation feel comfortable. “When I was about seven”, she wrote in an article for Elle magazine in 2015, “I had been fawning over a boxed set of Barbie dolls. It was called the Heart Family and included a mom doll, a dad doll and two children. This perfect nuclear family was only sold in sets of white dolls or black dolls…On Christmas morning, swathed in glitter-flecked wrapping paper, there I found my Heart Family: a black mom doll, a white dad doll, and a child in each colour. My dad had taken the sets apart and customised my family.”

Even a careful parent couldn’t shield her from society’s response. Out with her mother, she saw people assuming the dark-skinned woman was her nanny and witnessed her mother being called a “nigger”. In English class at school, she didn’t know which box to tick when asked to complete a census survey. Her teacher told her to pick the one for Caucasian “because that’s how you look”; her father later told her, “If that happens again, you draw your own box.” Even in the world of entertainment, her race provoked abuse. When the “Suits” writers decided to give her a black father in the show, the comments on Twitter included “Ew, she’s black? I used to think she was hot.”

Vulnerable people in show business crack up or get out; those who survive, like Markle, do so by toughening up. Andrew Morton, the biographer of both Princess Diana and Markle, points out that vulnerability, an essential part of Diana’s charisma, is “not a word you’d ever use about Meghan”. She has been tempered by her struggles – but her fiancé’s have left him fragile.

Harry’s upbringing was a bizarre combination of privilege and horror. His parents’ unhappy marriage unravelled in a public soap opera that pre-dated the onslaught of reality television; it was played out before a collaborative media and greeted with the same combination of fascination and disgust as the celebrity gossip that is now a staple of British tabloid newspapers and clickbait websites. One of the most famous moments in modern British history was also Harry’s own personal tragedy: the death of his mother in 1997, when he was 12. He was allowed no privacy for mourning. Instead, he was required to walk with his brother for a mile behind her coffin, watched by the world. “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances,” he said in an interview last year. “I don’t think it would happen today.”

At 13 he was sent to Eton, a boarding school for clever children that he wouldn’t have got into if he hadn’t been royal. He had a horrible time and performed badly. His adolescence was blighted by the constant suspicion of betrayal: he was forced to doubt the loyalty of even his closest advisers because messages he and his brothers sent them kept turning up in the News of the World, a tabloid newspaper. It later emerged that their phones had been hacked.

When he did the things that young men normally do, like getting drunk, taking drugs and going to lap-dancing clubs, he made the front pages. When he did things that young men don’t normally do, like dressing up in Nazi uniform for a fancy-dress party or stripping off in front of a bunch of strangers in Las Vegas, he was forced to apologise to the nation. Hounded and humiliated by the press, he developed a visceral dislike of it.

The army, say those who know him, was the making of him. He became a helicopter pilot – a very good one, apparently – flying an Apache in combat in Afghanistan (Prince William, the safe brother, flew a methodical search-and-rescue aircraft). Back in civilian life, he set up a global contest for wounded servicemen, the Invictus Games, now in its fifth year.

The only way is Windsor

Princess Diana and young Harry, 1988

But Harry had not escaped his demons. He dealt with his mother’s death, he says, by “sticking my head in the sand…It was 20 years of not thinking about it, then two years of total chaos…I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions, when all sorts of grief and all sorts of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle.” After his brother and friends convinced him that he needed to tackle his feelings, he went into therapy. He now promotes “Heads Together”, an initiative to encourage uptight Brits to talk about mental-health problems.

Harry’s openness to others is one reason why he is the most popular royal in public polls. Unlike most of his family, he gets on instantly and easily with people, especially children. He cannot resist a joke. When asked at a serious event how he and his brother came up with the structure of the Royal Foundation, the umbrella organisation for their charitable endeavours, he said they conceived it “on the back of a fag packet”. In his charm, as well as his fragility, he is very like his mother.

If Harry needs a strong, supportive wife, then Markle may be just the woman for him. But wedding a Windsor is a little more complicated than that. She isn’t just marrying a man, she’s marrying an institution with a tumultuous past and an uncertain future. Part of her job will be to help sustain it.

In business since Egbert of Wessex became King of England in 827, the British monarchy has – aside from a brief hiatus in the mid-17th century – proved itself remarkably durable. But in the past 100 years, it has been rocked twice, both times by a marriage. The first was the abdication crisis of 1936 when Edward VIII renounced the throne to wed Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. The second was caused by the death of Diana in 1997.

After the princess’s fatal car crash, popular anger turned on her adulterous husband, Charles, who had never stopped loving his old flame Camilla Parker Bowles, and on the Queen, whose remoteness towards Diana in her lifetime seemed to be confirmed by her decision to stay cocooned at Balmoral, her Scottish castle. The Queen’s failure to grieve publicly contrasted with the mountains of flowers deposited by tearful strangers outside Kensington Palace and the million-or-so people who lined the streets to pay their respects to Diana’s funeral cortège. As the country’s stiff upper lip wobbled, so too did support for the monarchy. For the first time since the abdication crisis, the institution looked seriously shaky.

When two become one
Harry and Markle get engaged, November 2017

The monarchy took rapid steps to modernise in response. The Windsors avoided the European model, which saw Dutch royals tottering around on bicycles and a Swedish prince teaching his children how to take the metro. But it had initiated some change in the early 1990s under the auspices of “The Way Ahead Group”, led by the Earl of Airlie, a former investment banker turned Lord Chamberlain. The Queen agreed to pay tax, public subsidy of the royals became more transparent, and greater emphasis was put on public relations. Diana’s death accelerated that process. “It was the management of change through catastrophe,” says an insider. The Queen, shaken by the sudden shift in public mood towards her, determined never again to look so out of touch. It was not enough for the monarch simply to fulfil her constitutional duties – wining and dining her fellow heads of state, opening Parliament and such. She also needed to put more emphasis on having a strong and warm presence in the lives of her subjects as head of the nation.

Promoting a sense of national unity, identity and continuity was not an easy role for such an aloof family. There were some obvious adjustments to make – being sure that the Queen visited more state schools than private schools, for example. In the longer term, the royal family has increased the profile of its volunteering and charity work. The Queen has demonstrated an increased capacity for fun, even self-mockery. Earlier this year, she took her place on the front row of London Fashion Week. At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games – the most recent outbreak of enthusiastic national unity – she was filmed greeting Daniel Craig as James Bond in Buckingham Palace, and her body-double parachuted out of a helicopter. The scandals of the 1990s have not been repeated.

The difficult times now seem distant. The Queen’s apparent heartlessness towards her daughter-in-law is long forgotten. Her public platitudes, impenetrable expression and metronomic hand-waving are a source of amusement, but her appearances draw huge crowds and spread good cheer. Few can consciously remember a time before she sat on the throne: Truman and Churchill were in power when she was crowned; she has seen the nation through the loss of empire, a civil war in Northern Ireland, socialism, Thatcherism and everything in between. Politics today shines a flattering light on Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. At a time when Donald Trump is the world’s most conspicuous elected head of state, an apolitical, unifying figure looks appealing. When democracy throws up troubling results, the hereditary principle looks less absurd. When Brexit threatens Britain with uncertainty, the Queen provides a welcome sense of stability and continuity.

That cannot last. The Queen’s impending death is never directly referred to by courtiers – not even the word “transition” is used publicly – but the arrangements are in place. The code phrase “London Bridge is down” will spread the news throughout government before the official announcement has been made. bbc channels will merge to inform the nation of the news in a single broadcast. When her constant presence is gone, the nation will feel quite different. And an institution that has reinvented its relationship with the public within living memory will face a princely challenge.

Britain’s new king will be a man whom the nation has at times ridiculed and at others reviled. Though the monarchy retains wide support, Charles is considerably less popular than the Queen. Last year a YouGov poll found that he had a 4% net positive rating, and the Duchess of Cornwall, his wife, a 19% net negative rating. Net approval for the Queen, William and Harry, meanwhile, was in the high 60s or above; more than half of all those asked thought William would make the best monarch when the Queen dies (13% said Charles would).

The shadow Diana still casts partly explains why her sons are considerably more popular than their father. In the public mind, Charles is still damaged by Diana’s barely veiled claim in a television interview that he was cheating on her: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Her death condemned him for ever to the role of unfaithful husband to the nation’s beautiful young princess. The light from her halo, meanwhile, still envelops her sons, who are loved for her, and for the suffering her death caused them.

In the internal politics of the royal family, Charles is now in the ascendant, for, as next in line to the throne, he is the coming power. He long ago fought – and won – the battle with his parents to have Camilla Parker Bowles publicly acknowledged as his companion and then to marry her. Prince Philip (who has always had a prickly relationship with his son) has bowed out of public life and Charles is taking over some of the Queen’s duties. He stood in for her at the Remembrance Day service last year. She has done no long-haul travel for seven years, and is not expected to again.

The march of time

Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk behind Diana’s coffin at her funeral in 1997

Jostling within the family culminated last year in a power struggle between Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, Charles’s power base. He won. Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary for a decade, quit unexpectedly in July, apparently at Charles’s demand. According to an insider, “he ran out of road with the younger generation” (he now sits in the House of Lords). Quite why Charles lost patience with Geidt is not clear – some put it down to a meeting of the royal staff in May at which Geidt implicitly criticised Prince Charles’s pursuit of his own interests over royal duties. Whatever the reasons, the Queen acceded. Another long-standing senior aide resigned within weeks of Geidt’s departure.

Charles’s judgment, however, has not always brought glory on his family. There are countless tales of extreme entitlement. According to Tom Bower’s recent biography, when the prince travelled to Hong Kong he took with him an 18th-century dinner set to replace the governor’s inferior 19th-century offering, along with a set of bells with which to summon servants. And he has failed to keep one of the prime rules of modern royalty: stay away from politics. The Queen has never said anything interesting in public in her life – that is one reason she is so popular. The princes steer clear of difficult topics. The Duchess of Cambridge (as Kate Middleton is now called) is clearly modelling herself on her grandmother-in-law: her public statements raise blandness to an art form. Charles is the only one to flout this unwritten rule. He has long believed that, as heir to the throne, he is entitled to influence the course of national life. He has taken controversial positions – sometimes in the face of government policy – on questions of fox-hunting, alternative medicine, religion and architecture. That has made him enemies both among those who disagree with him on those particular issues, and also among those who believe that royals should not use their position to direct the government.

The day after the Queen’s death is announced, Charles will be proclaimed king, and will immediately have to make a difficult decision. By tradition, he will announce his queen on that day – but if he names the Duchess of Cornwall (as his former mistress is now known) it will be highly contentious. “If he pronounces Camilla queen,” says Robert Lacey, a royal historian, “it will haunt him and ruin his reign.” Lacey reckons that the plot of “Charles III”, a recent play in which Charles abdicates in favour of William, “could prove prophetic”.

Charles’s known flaws make the roles played by the supporting cast – his sons and their spouses – particularly significant. For somebody who is sixth in line to the throne (he moved from fifth when the Duchess of Cambridge’s third child was born) Harry will be unusually important, and he and his wife unusually visible. William and Harry still enjoy the sheen of youth (despite William’s receding hairline). As the royal family’s most valuable assets, they are already being strategically deployed. Harry has been made a “Commonwealth Youth Ambassador” to promote the network of former imperial possessions and other friendly countries created during the Queen’s reign; Markle – clearly a woman who knows how to get on top of a brief – mentions the Commonwealth at every opportunity. The question of how the Windsors’ latest recruit will perform as a royal is therefore of interest not just to the millions who follow the family’s fortunes. It will bear upon the future of the monarchy.

Adjusting to married life is difficult for any new spouse but – as Diana found, and Markle is no doubt discovering – adjusting to the royal household adds another level of complexity. “Planet Mars”, as an insider calls it, is effectively a feudal operation run by a 92-year-old. There is a hierarchy that determines who enters a room first and who sits where, at private as well as public events. The pecking order changes only with the sovereign’s blessing.

Despite the medieval pageantry, their world is in many ways shabbier than that to which Markle has grown accustomed as a successful actor. The £56,000 ball gown that she wore for her engagement photo-shoot from Ralph & Russo, a fashionable new haute couturier, was standard Hollywood fare. But it was out of place among the famously parsimonious royals, who can occasionally be seen with frayed shirt-cuffs and shiny-elbowed jackets. (For her engagement photo shoot, the Duchess of Cambridge wore a £159 dress from a high-street shop. After eight years dating William she was no doubt more attuned to the tribe’s mores than Markle.)

Occasional slips are inevitable, and Markle will learn fast, for she is clearly committed to the job. She has given up her acting career. She has shut down her website, The Tig, a curious combination of beauty tips and political homilies. She now appears on social media only through Kensington Palace’s official Twitter and Instagram feeds (the latter’s followers leapt from 3m to 4m thanks to her arrival). The Archbishop of Canterbury baptised her into the Church of England. On her post-engagement public outings, she beamed at everyone and charmed the crowds. She has avoided negative publicity to an impressive degree. Even her ex-husband – Trevor Engelson, a TV producer – has, along with other ex-boyfriends, remained loyally silent. The worst the newspapers have published are some disobliging comments from a half-sister miffed about not being invited to the wedding.

The hard part will come when the honeymoon ends. To be judged a success as a royal over the long run, she must contribute to the monarchy’s modern mission to promote national unity. An American television star doesn’t at first glance seem the ideal candidate for that. Yet Markle may be better equipped for the role than the family into which she is marrying. Were you to start from scratch and scour the country for a family to unify the nation, the Windsors would not be the obvious choice. They occupy a tiny, archaically upper-class niche. Their accents are the poshest in Britain, as are their pastimes – tramping across moors with guns under their arms shooting birds and deer while decrying the damage humanity has done to the animal kingdom. They dress their children in weird tweed jackets and smocks from the 1950s; they live in palaces; they do not work in offices or travel on buses and they have little knowledge of the normal grind of busy, working lives that their subjects endure and enjoy.

The Queen has managed to rise above her social oddness to become an object of affection for her subjects. But attitudes towards the upper classes have turned from respectful to hostile in the past 66 years, making it hard for her descendants to claim that they embody the nation’s spirit. Charles’s accent is from another era, and that of his sons, though more demotic, marks them out as products of the very top layer of the British private school system. But in an age as obsessed with authenticity as it is with egalitarianism, they would be laughed at if they pretended to be men of the people.

Their choices of spouse, then, were interestingly tricky. Given that prospective monarchs had previously married only royals or aristocrats, Kate Middleton, whose mother was once an air hostess, was regarded among royal insiders and observers as a radically downmarket selection by William and just the thing for a less deferential era. To most Britons, however, she is another rich girl with a posh voice. If Harry had gone for a Brit, he would most likely have chosen someone from that tribe, if only because boys of his class who don’t go to university tend to meet only public-school products brought up on big estates.

In marrying a foreigner, Harry has selected a wife who is entirely free of class markers – and one, moreover, whose life as a struggling professional is far closer to his compatriots’ than his has ever been. Though their union has provoked some racist comments, her ethnicity probably boosts the institution in the long run. Without her the royal family looks a little like a strange tribe that modernity has left behind; with her, it looks a bit more like the nation it aspires to unify.

But Markle’s political views may leave her open to criticism from those who expect their royals to smile and stay silent. She has been an active feminist since the age of 11, when she wrote to Procter & Gamble, an American multinational, to complain about an advert for a cleaning product which said that, “women are fighting greasy pots and pans”: under duress from that determined young girl, the company changed “women” to “people”. More recently she has worked in Rwanda on projects to liberate girls from spending hours collecting water rather than going to school, and in India on an effort to destigmatise menstruation. She has spoken up for feminism at the United Nations and other venues, and protested long before #MeToo about the number of scenes in “Suits” that required her to come out of a shower in a towel.

Her activism may allow her to reach parts of the population that her new in-laws can’t, but royals are prized by the government for their diplomatic services precisely because they can be relied on to offend nobody. Her enthusiasm for improving the lot of women will stand her in good stead in her charity work – pretty much the only thing she is allowed to do – but it has also led her to make unfettered statements, such as labelling Donald Trump a “misogynist” and speaking warmly of Paul Kagame, the brutal autocrat who runs Rwanda, on the grounds that he has a lot of women in his parliament. In her new position, such comments may cause international ructions.

Though she will be required to rein herself in, Markle will struggle to keep her mouth shut, because she is a natural controversialist. Amid the platitudes at a recent charity event she said, “You’ll often hear people say, ‘you’re helping women find their voices.’ I fundamentally disagree with that because women don’t need to find a voice; they have a voice…people need to be encouraged to listen.” The instinct to look for an opposing point of view against which to define one’s own is useful in a politician or a journalist, but royals don’t “fundamentally disagree” with people, at least in public. Even Charles has piped down as he has got closer to the throne.

Prince Charles wed his old flame Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005

For the royal family, new recruits are both essential and risky. They are essential because, as in any soap opera, the audience gets bored with the same people and demands new characters. But they can be problematic for many reasons. If they are unpopular – like Camilla, or Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson – that reputation rebounds on the whole family. If they are too popular – like Diana – they draw public affection away from the institution as a whole.

Markle will never be as popular as Diana, for she lacks the reckless fragility that made the princess so mesmerising and so dangerous. She may struggle, too, with the royalists’ natural constituency. The Daily Mail, the newspaper that most obviously speaks to and for the royalist faithful, is both fascinated by her and disdainful of her: it devoted 42 pages to her engagement, but sneers in its columns at her deplorable tendencies, such as hugging random strangers.

Yet, as the royal soap opera continues to unfold, Markle brings huge strengths that could help shore up the monarchy, especially among the young who tend to be indifferent to the institution. She has a background and an experience of life that should help bind the royal family to its subjects, and a genuine, unfakeable passion for the causes she espouses. If she is allowed to be herself – the small girl who stamped her foot at sexism 25 years ago – the British people are likely to grow even more affectionate towards her. That will be valuable to the monarchy, for it will need all the goodwill it can muster in the uncertain years ahead.

Emma Duncan is The Economist’s social policy editor and Valentine Low is the Times’ royal correspondent

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.