In the Queen’s Christmas message, she observed that 2019 had “felt quite bumpy” at times. Her implication was that a new year could well bring happier, more stable times. Unfortunately for Her Majesty, it isn’t how 2020 is panning out.
The pseudo abdication of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from the Royal Family, just in time for the early evening TV news yesterday, will come as a bitter personal blow to the Queen. It also presents the monarchy with a problem that may come to dwarf even the terrible ongoing publicity about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the late Jeffrey Epstein.
Harry and Meghan’s announcement came, we are told, despite the Queen not having been given prior notice of their intentions. It presents Her Majesty with a truly unenviable choice. If she allows the Sussexes to keep their royal titles then everything they say or do in their new, freewheeling and globetrotting ventures will reflect directly upon how the monarchy is perceived.
This isn’t great news for Prince Charles, the ever-patient heir to the throne. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be particularly acutely affected too. Today is the Duchess’s birthday. But this isn’t the first time Harry and Meghan have upstaged their fellow royal. The couple’s notorious ITV interview with Tom Bradby, in which Harry admitted he and his brother were on ‘different paths’, came smack in the middle of an overseas tour by William and Kate, playing havoc with a carefully prepared royal media grid.
As a grandmother, the Queen will know this is simply not fair on William as he prepares himself for his royal destiny. As a daughter, she will remember witnessing the difficulties posed by the impossibly glamorous Duke and Duchess of Windsor for her own father. And she will remember hearing, too, her mother’s determination to freeze them out for the sake of the King.
So the option doesn’t really exist for Her Majesty to follow the path of not taking sides or of hoping it will all blow over. Her primary allegiance is to the Crown and to her subjects. So she has far less scope than most of us to indulge immaturity or impulsiveness among younger family members.
Margaret Thatcher famously said of Cabinet reshuffles that a prime minister had to know how to “carve the joint”. For a monarch, this observation must at times apply not to the greasy pole climbers of politics, but to family members.
The Queen will no doubt seek to fashion a stable compromise solution with Harry and his wife. But if they are unwilling to acknowledge their places in a strictly hierarchical institution to which they owe unflinching loyalty, then a very tough decision beckons.
With Andrew far from out of the woods over the Epstein affair, the potential for squalls in 2020 is at least as high as it was during 2019.
The Duke of Edinburgh is now 98 and the Queen is 93. It is a terrible shame that, as she approaches her Platinum Jubilee in 2022 – a moment surely intended for pure celebration of a monumental personal achievement – it is now likely Her Majesty’s life will be dogged by family woes.
One hopes she finds comfort in knowing things could be much worse. In terms of the direct line of succession, the monarchy is particularly well placed. Charles seems a much less tortured soul than he did as a younger man and is clearly ready for the top job. William and Kate are a magnificent success. They have dealt with the demands of their positions with almost faultless grace and maturity.
The photograph released at Christmas of Her Majesty with Princes Charles, William and George conveyed a powerful truth: that while the extended royal family is very large, the core royal family is small. And there seems to be no weak link in the chain.
The Queen herself can reflect too that she is almost universally revered, being held in high regard even by convinced republicans. She has set a wonderful example of public service and maintained the esteem of the monarchy in a democratic age. Despite her own difficulties with expressing emotion in public, I think it fair to say she is generally even loved by her subjects, who have come to appreciate a true heart.
Were other mid-ranking royals in possession of even a fraction of her wisdom and humility then storm clouds would not be overhead at all. The Queen will get the job done. But it is intensely sad to see her family members put her in such a difficult position.