Congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement. The majority of the country will wish them every happiness, though any monarchist who has seen Miss Markle’s mind-blowingly awful speech to the UN may worry.
Monarchy must move with the times, we’re often told, and perhaps Miss Markle – with her sleb instincts, feminist grandstanding, and motivational memes – will prove to be the modernising agent that the House of Windsor needs. But does the public really want a modern, PR-orientated monarchy? Or do we love the monarchy precisely because it is not part of celebrity culture?
Earlier this year, I wrote a Spectator cover piece about the way in which the younger royals are moving the British monarchy towards PR-world and reality TV. I’m not sure the transition will do them good in the long run. Here it is below:
It’s a summer of change for the House of Windsor — out with the old, in with the young. The Duke of Edinburgh has just announced that he is standing down. The Queen carries on, but she’s 91, and now the younger members of the royal family are expected to step up. For an institution that supposedly represents stability, a period of transition inevitably brings dangers. How will Princes William and Harry and the photogenic Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge cope?
The early signs are not altogether promising. Nobody these days expects the royal family to heed Walter Bagehot’s famous warning that they should not ‘let in daylight upon magic’; that is, preserve the dignity of the monarchy by shrouding themselves in mystery. The junior royals, however, seem to be moving to the opposite extreme, which is embarrassing. If it’s not Prince Harry smooching his celebrity girlfriend Meghan Markle at a polo match — ‘Their first public snog!’ screamed the papers — it’s Prince William suing a French magazine for £1.3 million because it published pictures of his wife topless, weeks after he was filmed ‘dad dancing’ in a Swiss nightclub.
Freddy Gray and Bryony Gordon discuss the young royals’ mental health advocacy:
Later this month the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister, Pippa, will have a big society wedding, and the newspapers and online gossip sites are salivating. We’ve learned, for instance, that Meghan Markle will attend — despite the ‘no ring, no bring’ policy applied to other guests. Roger Federer will be also there, apparently, because Pippa likes tennis.
It won’t do to be snobbish. Pippa isn’t a royal; she can marry in whatever manner she chooses. The middle-class Middletons are widely credited for having been a steadying influence on the Windsors.
The younger royals are just too interested in the cringe-inducing world of celebrity and in the popularisation of their own image. At times, it’s hard to tell the difference between the real-life entertainment provided by the princes and those ‘structured-reality’ shows such as Made in Chelsea or The Only Way is Essex, in which fake people act out real and trivial events which become drawn-out sagas. Pippa is in fact marrying the brother of a Made in Chelsea star, which adds to this strange sense of a slow fusion of monarchy and showbiz.
Miss Markle is a well-known actress, too. There’s no harm in that, of course: Grace Kelly became a successful princess. Meghan, however, is a chronic virtue-signaller who makes Sarah, Duchess of York, look like a paragon of humility. She is a ‘UN women’s advocate for political participation and leadership’ and posts videos of herself singing on Instagram, as well as endless selfies and motivational slogan memes (‘In a society that profits from self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act’). The tabloids have had no trouble in finding people to be mean about Markle, not least the half–sister who said that she was a ‘shallow social climber’. This led Prince Harry to issue a fierce rebuke of the offensive media.
Yet the younger royals have been acting up in a way not quite seen before. Look at their Heads Together (‘#oktosay’) campaign — Made in Windsor: the Charity Special. In order to raise money and awareness about mental health, the princes have performed in videos and given several interviews in which they waffle vaguely about their own brain issues along with lots of celebrities. In one video, Prince William, in his office in Kensington Palace, conducts a video conversation on his computer with the singer Lady Gaga in her kitchen in Holly-wood. It’s meant to look natural, but fails lamentably. Everybody knows there are camera crews on both sides of the conversation. William and Lady Gaga speak in platitudes about ‘normalising’ mental illness, and the advantages of talking through problems, even though neither of them appears to listen much to what the other is saying. ‘I feel like we are not hiding any more, we are starting to talk, and that’s what we need to do’ says Lady Gaga, sounding gaga.
‘Absolutely,’ responds Prince William, blithely. ‘It’s the same as physical health. Everybody has mental health and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.’
In another video, Kate, Wills and Harry sit on a bench talking about their issues as if they were just three normal privileged people sitting on a bench talking about their issues. The conversation is so repetitive it makes the listener go mad, which rather defies the point.
Heads Together has been widely hailed a great success, largely because it triggered an avalanche of publicity. People love hearing famous people discuss their woes, nobody wants to pooh-pooh charity, and mental health is all the rage — everybody is talking about how nobody is talking about it. The campaign has encouraged thousands of others to out themselves as fellow sufferers of anxiety and depression. The royals have been applauded, moreover, for using social media to reach a more youthful audience. We are told that they are reinventing the concept of monarchy for the digital age, and so on. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s an open secret that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are none too comfortable with all the emoting and the sleb mingling. (I’m also told that the Duchess of Cornwall is less than impressed that Catherine sunbathed in the nude, even if she was on a private estate.) The Queen has reportedly told her grandchildren to pipe down: ‘Soul-baring isn’t what Buckingham Palace is looking for,’ one royal source told the Sunday Times last week.
The Queen knows that she is hugely popular precisely because she does not blather on about what is going on in her head. When Prince Philip stood down last week, the whole country saluted his contribution to British life. He is well-liked because he only opened his mouth when he had something massively inappropriate to say. Rather than make a parade of sensitivity, he made rude jokes to cover up the whole awkwardness of being royal.
Prince Philip is said to be handing over most of his royal duties to Prince Edward, who appears to have learned the hard way that royals should not bask in the showbiz limelight. In 1987, Prince Edward was behind It’s a Royal Knockout, the TV gameshow in which the younger royals wore medieval fancy dress and humiliated themselves alongside various celebrities. It was a success in that it raised £1.5 million for various good causes — a lot of money back then. But it was a public relations disaster.
The late royal correspondent James Whitaker said that it marked the beginning of a grim phase for the monarchy, which saw public opinion turn sharply against all Windsors: ‘That was the start of the high-profile thing that started everyone thinking, “Who are these appalling people?”’
Today’s junior royals wouldn’t do anything so gauche: the Palace, their private secretaries and ferocious PR men would never let them. Yet perhaps they haven’t quite understood what It’s a Royal Knockout taught the previous generation: that the British people don’t want the royals to be too familiar. We find it off-putting when monarchy drifts towards entertainment, even if it is for charity.
Along with their advisers, Kate, Wills and Harry appear to think that their job is to rebrand the monarchy in the 21st century, as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh did in the 20th — to make it ever more accessible and democratic. They want to have it both ways with the media — to guard their privacy and advertise their feelings. They want to tell the world about their intimate sufferings, but they don’t want the world intruding in their lives.
Jason Knauf, their head of communications, sends out fierce warnings that the press should stay out of royal affairs, but these statements are themselves PR stunts. Last November, Mr Knauf issued a public statement to express Prince Harry’s disgust at the press’s hounding of Miss Markle; he could have just asked editors to leave the poor girl alone. Instead, his media blast went on and on, pompously berating the hacks for the ‘racial undertones of comment pieces’ —Miss Markle is mixed race — as well as for ‘the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments’.
If this move was meant to silence online trolls, it was clearly a futile exercise. But if its real purpose was to induce empathy and generate lots of headlines in Harry’s favour, it worked a treat. Slavish royal correspondents reported that valiant Harry had ‘tried to develop a thick skin’ about the incursions into his private life, but drew the line when it came to his sweetheart. Diddums.
Princes William and Harry are much more like their father and mother than their grandmother and grandfather in the expression of their feelings. It was the Prince of Wales who started the royal habit of whining to the press about the press, and of explaining how very hard it is to live under the burden of great privilege. Princess Diana spoke on television about her depression, her bulimia, and the troubles of her heart.
Diana inspired love and loathing. Prince Charles has always tended to rub people up the wrong way because he often sounds so vain. ‘My entire life has been so far motivated by a desire to heal,’ he once said. ‘To heal the dismembered landscape and the poisoned soul.’ The younger princes are not so grandiose in their speech, but is their modus operandi all that different? On their Heads Together tour, the princes kept insisting that the campaign was ‘not about us’. It is about them, though, isn’t it? They may be using their own painful experiences, such as the loss of their mother, to try to help others who are in anguish, and that’s kind. But they are also promoting themselves, and that grates.
The play Charles III, broadcast this week on television, portrays the next king as a meddlesome monarch who loses his crown by interfering too much in politics. This scenario reflects a longstanding fear among monarchists that the Prince of Wales will undo all his mother’s good work because he cannot keep his mouth shut.
Prince William and Prince Harry are widely reckoned to be more popular than their father. But if they keep fishing for empathy and dabbling in celebrity culture, the public will grow weary of them. In 30 years’ time, royal historians might look back at the Heads Together campaign, at the eager association with pop stars, and the blooming romance between Prince Harry and Miss Markle, and ask: was this the moment when it all started to go wrong?