Monday 8 March 2021

An Inconvenient Rebellion

If you're looking for the hottest of takes about that interview, Ash Sarkar has more than delivered. On the comparisons between Harry/Meghan and Diana, on fleeing The Firm and finding a replacement, and the contrasting characters of the oligarchies in the UK and the United States you'll seldom find a better piece. Marxists don't normally do the Royals, and so it's a refreshing alternative to the lickspittle content, the fawning over the Queen, and the faux outrage from Piers Morgan and his ilk.

What the Oprah Winfrey interview has shown is how nothing has fundamentally changed since Diana's day. In happier times having William, Kate, and Harry roving around and continuing her patrician good works was excellent PR for the Royals. A youthful rebranding in which the young royals spoke (semi-) candidly about mental health, and made soft noises about climate change and racial prejudice was just the tonic. An update of a venerable institution for the 21st century. But Meghan and Harry's revelations about the bullying, the silencing, the lack of support, the policing of their movements by palace flunkies and, of course, the claim a senior royal made tut-tutting noises about their son's skin colour goes to show the royal makeover was woke wash. Under the hood thrummed the same old racism and ruthless regard for nothing but the continuance of the institution in the reverent style it had grown accustomed.

On the rare occasions this place has pronounced on royal affairs, we've visited the successful rebrand and, latterly, a certain indifference concerning their comings and goings. Indeed, to understand the popular perceptions of the royals and particularly the antipathy Harry and Meghan attract is partly located in their being royals of second rank. The institution as a whole, of course, is venerated because its eternal character offers a point of fixity in a vastly changed world, undoubtedly helped by the very long reign and very long life of the Queen herself. She did her bit during the war, oversaw the end of empire, post-war "socialism", the crises of the 70s, the dog-eat-dog of the 80s, and the irreverance of the 90s. Her time has seen off all challenges, from infidelity, divorce, untimely deaths, to fallings outs and the persistent stench of sexual abuse. There she is, stoically cutting ribbons and clutching her handbag. The nation's repository of good, old fashioned British values: duty, persistence, honour, sacrifice. The reason for her popularity, particularly among older people, is because they believe she instantiates all that is best about them.

How about the others? Charles's life in the public eye has foolishly courted controversy, not least over his opinions on architecture and, if you remember them, memos to ministers. Yet, despite not sharing Mummy's popularity he retains her sense of duty. Something William has also embraced and reinvented, and so the first and second in line to the throne command a certain respect. However, outside of the core spine of the royals the rest of the family are viewed differently. Margaret was seen as an old soak of little consequence. Anne a dutiful and workmanlike second rank royal who earns her crust. Andrew, well, and Edward, a soft-hearted luvvie not cut out for a martial life in the military or for much else. Harry for his part courted outrage as a young man as the press pursued his partiality to wine, women, and song, let off when he tagged along with his brother and sister-in-law on high profile public engagements and did his bit for former servicemen and women, most notably with the Invictus Games. But then Hollywood came into his life in the shape of Meghan Markle, a mixed race woman with a previous life and an unscrupulous father happy to grift by association. As a commoner, an American, and a woman of colour, she was received by our repugnant press as a grasper and a gold digger, and therefore another mouth at the taxpayers' trough. As a second order royal with no line of succession to the throne beyond a series of unlikely accidents, this undoubtedly emboldened the press to harrass and treat them like any other celebrity. And, it seems, The Firm were happy with this arrangement. If Harry and Meghan are tabloid fodder, the core of the royalty are left alone - so no deep dive stories about William's infidelity to queer the pitch, or scrutiny of Charles's idiot opinions, or damage-by-association courtesy of Andrew's associations with Jeffrey Epstein.

What The Firm didn't plan for was Harry and Meghan's rebellion. As royals, they were economically dependent on carrying on as royals. And so when they announced their "retirement" as royals the palace moved with its customary ruthlessness to expunge them. No support, no allowance, no nothing. However, as Ash Sarkar rightly argues, they had options and could leverage their connections for a new life in America where British media scrutiny is less intense. as far as the core of mass royalism is concerned, running off and dishing the dirt just confirms what the press have said about them all along: they were unworthy royals. They weren't prepared to do the honourable thing and stick by their duty. They were flaky and wanted an easy life, just like how many older royalists view the young in general. The racism, the inhuman treatment, the claims of suicidal thoughts and mental health problems - convenient lies to justify their selfishness and lack of fortitude. Their departure nevertheless leaves The Firm with a problem as far as media management goes. Apart from periodic stories about the ex-royal couple, will the carnivorous press respect the first order pillar of royalty as we enter into the period we might euphemistically refer to as the "handover"? Given Charles's comparative lack of standing, re-establishing the Queen's hard won reverence was always going to be difficult, and becomes much harder if his peccadilloes are once again fodder for content-hungry editors. This, ultimately, is the significance of the estrangement of Harry and Meghan: the royals now have to do without their shit catchers.

It is tempting to treat the royals as an unexciting, glitzy soap opera. But we must remember The Firm are a core institution of the British state. While not meritorious, the family are emblematic of their being something special and/or other worldly of those constituting the British ruling class. An ancient institution, it is also the repository of the essential, timeless quality of the nation, and constitutionally is the guarantor against democracy if it gets, well, too democratic. If the Harry and Meghan saga makes its position harder to manage and altogether more vulnerable, then the interviews and its fallout is all to the good.

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Anonymous said...

"As a second order royal with no line of succession to the throne beyond a series of unlikely accidents [...]" - I've watched Shakespeare's Richard III: they won't be 'accidents'.

More seriously, I get the feeling that - much like at the death of Diana - there is no groundswell of republicanism, or at least nowhere for it to go. No party leader is going to push for it, especially after the monstering that Corbyn got for not watching the Queen's Xmas message (maybe Starmer wears flag underpants for just the occasion). Today's Guardian editorial tentatively raises the issue, but then the same paper ran a liveblog of the wedding. The soap opera is what 'we' do instead of a debate about either a smaller, more limited monarchy or republicanism.

David Lindsay said...

The Firm only permitted this marriage because it assumed that any children would have been dapple. If they had also had Royal Family faces, then they would have been saddled as soon as they could walk.

All the usual suspects are coming on air and into print. Being an Opera Correspondent means knowing everyone in the world of opera, and being a Cricket Correspondent means knowing everyone in the world of cricket. But being a Royal Correspondent means pretending to know all about the most intimate lives of people whom one may have stalked for decades, but whom one has rarely or never met. I always laugh when the likes of Penny Junor are speculating wildly outside weddings and funerals. If they were what they pretended to be, then they would be in the church.

Jenny said...

The link to the Ash Sarkar article gives something different and less interesting