So that’s that. We can finally let go of the hope that Harry and Meghan will wake up one morning and decide to return to dear old Blighty to do any kind of actual Royal toil.
Sure, Meghan has claimed that the Sussexes ‘will always be Royalty’ but her actions say something very different. By shelling out £11 million on a cosy little estate in Santa Barbara, by embracing US electoral politics and by implicitly sanctioning a book that shames her in-laws, Meghan has irreversibly deserted an institution that to her has no purpose or even existence beyond service to Queen and country.
We probably shouldn’t blame her, or at least not her alone. Theoretically, and against the odds, the Sussexes’ novel plan for the future might just have worked, just. But, as so often with the drama that surrounds the modern Royal Family, when it comes to the big scenes, too few of the leading players can make the jump from good intentions to good, effective, real-life actions. Unwittingly, Meghan may have sent a message to the Windsors that it’s time to break their suicidal habits while they still can.
When the Sussex experiment is properly investigated – as it should be, by a conscientious Palace management – then deep-rooted complacency, conceit and confusion will surely all be found among the culprits. Complacency is endemic in the British Royal machine. Not that its dedicated, educated, liberal-minded servants don’t work hard or efficiently – they obviously do – but it has a fatal capacity for moral inertia when one of its big names is in trouble.
We can finally let go of the hope that Harry and Meghan will wake up one morning and decide to return to dear old Blighty to do any kind of actual Royal toil
Think of Prince Andrew, now twisting on rope paid out over years by a Palace elite that failed to take early preventive action. Think of Princess Diana, cast adrift by her husband’s adultery and left to swim or sink by her own efforts. Now think of Team Sussex, a geyser of naive energy that nobody dared curb for fear of getting scalded.
As for conceit… in Royal circles it’s as ubiquitous as red carpet. In the age of Twitter and individually curated Windsor websites, it may be the easiest Royal sin to fall into. Centuries of deference have hampered the uphill task all Royal people face of distinguishing between their genuine talents and the superpowers wished upon them by friends, paid sycophants and a mercurial media. But that sliver of self- awareness is their lifeline, a critical 21st Century Royal survival skill.
By co-operating – even tacitly –with authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, Harry and Meghan revealed once and for all the depth of their own conceit. Why else allow such invasion of their own privacy and, damningly, the privacy of other family members?
The book’s real significance is what it tells us about the Sussexes’ view of themselves
Criticism of Finding Freedom is easy to find and much of it is justified. However, the book’s real significance is what it tells us about the Sussexes’ view of themselves. That it’s also a glutinous vision of excess, indulgence and self-regard – shot through with a sour ribbon of passive aggression – is irrelevant. If you want to understand how Harry and Meghan perceive the world and their importance to its future, this book is essential reading. Ploughing through it is like chugging a full carton of Ben & Jerry’s. You know it’s bad for you but you can’t stop.
Its depressing materialism and greeting-card philosophies might distract from the garbled Americanisms, or that it reads as if it had been proof-read on a Friday afternoon by a bored intern. Just reflect, however: any Royal person can commit this sort of self-harming self-exposure, but most do not. If you ever read this book, you’ll understand why. Harry’s mother tried it, and suffered the consequences. Already the Sussexes are denying their complicity, as if anybody would be fooled by the authors’ wide-eyed protestations that they received little direct help. It would be understandable if Harry and Meghan now regretted the book, particularly as they apply for membership of the West Coast elite. For the moment, the Sussexes are exciting novelties – a real dook and duchess! – but have they got what it takes to thrive in such mercenary new surroundings? Though Meghan’s screen character Rachel Zane might demur, Suits doesn’t really cut it among the A-list allies they will need to recruit, befriend and endlessly cultivate.
Then there is the blatant contradiction at the heart of the Sussexes’ drive to advocate fashionable causes. As former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter put it: ‘It is hard for the couple to lecture people about the state of the planet when they’re flying in private planes, living in a 14-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion and living off the state.’
Since that humbling verdict, Harry and Meghan’s mission has continued to evolve into something that blurs the contradiction implicit in being a rich and titled social justice warrior, recently summarised by one interviewer as ‘using privilege for change’. They have also moved to a more modest establishment, mustering only nine bedrooms, though the bathroom count is up from 12 to 16. It is, allegedly, a terrific investment but, for a couple so willing to share the intimacies of their private lives with Scobie and Durand, Harry and Meghan are strangely reticent on matters of finance. You might think they would maintain a decent silence, at least until the cost of Frogmore Cottage is reimbursed to the taxpayer.
And here we reach confusion. British Royal neutrality in anything political is legendary, obligatory and rooted in self-interest. The Windsors’ constitutional raison d’etre is as a force of continuity, a focus of national unity hovering high above the cesspit of party politics. Lose that lofty incorruptibility and soon the peasantry will be asking why their taxes go towards keeping this privileged family in such astonishing luxury. And why it is obligatory to regard them as super-enlightened in everything from town planning to elephant migration. It’s a delicate contract, one which the benign mass of the British public are happy to honour. Usually.
Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales from 1988 to 1996
Until, that is, a disturbingly confident, independent incomer such as Meghan makes us ask what really holds up the magnificent, tottering facade of the monarchy. Granted, she may be labouring under a few delusions about her own importance and might secretly be playing a longer game for American audiences. Perhaps she had wearied of her husband being number six in a mouldy hierarchical anachronism and high-tailed it back to her native California in a miff of hurt feelings and scented candles, taking an heir to the throne along with her (don’t worry, we have plenty more).
Her parting gift to the people who paid for her wedding and her marital home was to say that she ‘would never set foot in anything Royal again’. There are plenty who’d like to hold her to this promise.
Yet the wise will also contemplate a bleak Windsor future in which dire Royal finances, a scandal-hit Prince Andrew, a controversial future Queen and a looming change of reign may together conspire to make the Sussexes’ flight to the Golden State look positively prescient.
We might have lost Meghan and Harry to the higher calling of American identity politics and the pursuit of social justice. We might mock their propagandists Scobie and Durand and scoff at the weird, infantilised world of Finding Freedom. We may even snigger at what anyone might get up to in all those Santa Barbara bathrooms.
But, if we honestly think the Markle interlude has nothing to teach the British and their monarchy, be in no doubt, the last laugh will be on us. Remember the inertia that has so damaged the Crown in the recent past. Think of the bright-eyed, mixed-race commoner who came and saw… and ran away. It’s just possible, if they heed the warning, that Harry and Meghan may be just the shock the Windsors needed.
- Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales from 1988 to 1996. His book, The Meghan Factor, is available from Amazon.