Well. We’re 10 days out from the Cambridges’ Pakistan tour and quite a bit has happened, none of it good. Before we dive in, apologies if you stumbled upon a partially-written post on the Richard III series over the weekend. I had high hopes for having it completed, but last week got away from me and I forgot to change its publication date on the back end of the site. So, cringe. Hopefully by next weekend we’ll be back on it.
As for our current Royal Family, they’ve really been giving the Plantagenets a run for their money of late. The biggest missile to launch was the broadcast of a documentary covering the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s tour of Africa, of which the biggest takeaways have nothing to do with their work and everything to do with their role within the BRF.
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: the timing of this doc was unfortunate. It not only stepped on the last days of the Cambridges’ Pakistan tour, but it also buried a documentary released by the Prince of Wales’s team covering his work in the duchy of Cornwall. There’s been a lot of sniping over the past year about the various households conflicting with one another, and I’ve usually thought it was petty, but this is one occasion where I think it was definitely mishandled.
In that same vein I think I’ve also cut the Sussexes a lot of slack, giving all parties the benefit of the doubt that there were some growing pains with a new marriage and baby, as well as a new household formation. I’ve disagreed with how specific situations were handled, but also made a point of saying so much of the hysteria and hand-wringing swirling about them was over-the-top. This is not one of those times. They messed up, full-stop.
To recap, Harry acknowledged that he and his brother weren’t getting along. We’ve basically known this, but confirmation makes it clear that things are likely as bad as they were reported. He also shared that his mental health issues, first shared in 2017, have returned, and that the presence of photographers and press keep his mother’s death an open wound that he still manages.
Meghan, for her part, rocked the boat by saying that not many people have asked her how she’s handled the last year, that she isn’t in fact coping well, and that while she tried to maintain a “stiff upper lip,” that’s no way to live life. She referenced her vulnerability while pregnant and caring for a newborn, alluding to the impact of recent negative press.
Here’s the thing: I have no problem with candor from members of the BRF. In fact, I think that moments in which the royals personalize their work and core issues can be extremely effective. Harry sharing his past mental health struggles in 2017, for example, reinforced that the royals believe in the tenets of their Heads Together campaign. Kate’s reveal that she found her first months of motherhood challenging and isolating strengthened her ability to be an advocate for maternal mental health. And so on.
But Harry and Meghan weren’t being strategic or constructive. They were complaining. They were attempting to drive sympathy. And they – consciously or not – set themselves in opposition to the rest of the Royal Family by painting a picture that they are its latest victims.
In fact, their documentary not only overshadowed the impressive work they carried out during their Africa tour, but that of Charles, William, and Kate. Unintentional though it may have been, its impact has been akin to that of a public temper tantrum, and their points – some of which are valid – have been lost by letting themselves be directed by emotion, which they are apparently incapable of keeping in check.
The cherry on top of the sundae was the reaction of an anonymous “senior palace official,” who described the situation to CNN with:
“The source reacted to the many headlines, telling CNN that Prince Harry has never shied away from talking about his own mental health — and the importance of mental fitness and well-being.
“The source continued that Prince Harry gave a candid and honest answer to ITV reporter Tom Bradby in the course of the documentary.
“They added that any sibling or person seeing that would of course be concerned, but said the tabloids and the briefings by so-called ‘palace insiders and friends’ are classic examples of anti-Prince Harry and Meghan hysteria.
“The source added that the institution around the British royal family is full of people afraid of and inexperienced at how to best help harness and deploy the value of the royal couple who, they said, have single-handedly modernized the monarchy.”
This has been roundly rebuked by the Palace, as well it should be. If there is anyone in the Sussexes’ camp who truly believes they are responsible for the only efforts to modernize or keep relevant the monarchy, then they should be fired, because they clearly don’t understand the landscape in which they are working.
I’ve seen a few comparison between this documentary and Diana, Princess of Wales’s 1995 Panorama interview in which she claimed the crown should skip Charles for William, but I think that’s a bit much. Diana’s interview challenged the basic fabric of the succession when she was still one future king’s wife and another’s mother. This Sussex storm isn’t on the same level, but that’s kind of the point – Harry and Meghan will never be king and queen, so their existential question is now whether they are ready to buckle down and be supportive of the Queen, Charles, and William, or whether they truly intend to spin off into their own non-royal orbit.
They are valuable players. They are popular. They are particularly effective in reaching and resonating with younger generations. Those are powerful tools for the monarchy to have in its arsenal, and not ones with which many of its members are equipped. So, yes, Harry and Meghan have some leverage, but at the end of the day this sniping back and forth is a small hiccup in the overall unfolding of the monarchy’s progress. Their job is public service and its function is grounded in a sense of duty that is, generally speaking, fairly foreign to more recent generations (of which I am a member). It’s going to be difficult, and there’s going to be a fair bit of a sacrifice, but that’s the deal.
Part of where I lose sympathy with Harry and Meghan is that they don’t seem to have taken steps to actually make any of this easier for themselves. The Queen and Charles have been on their side, but the couple skipped Balmoral this past summer where issues like this are litigated and resolved. Whether Kate and Meghan have anything in common is debatable, but I have a hard time picturing Kate withholding advice on how to navigate this space if asked. William and Harry were once uniquely close, and it’s equally hard to imagine William not wanting to be supportive of his brother’s new family if given the opportunity.
The latest advisement is that Harry and Meghan will take six weeks off starting in mid-November, during which time they will travel to the United States for an extended holiday. The motivation behind this is that the couple are burnt out, and that may well be true, but also begs the question of whether time was well spent during parental leave focused on the clothing line, Vogue issue, and other engagements instead of taking that space to hunker down.
It’s also a choice that makes Harry’s recent media statement all the stranger since he blamed the press’s negative attitude in large part as a reaction to Meghan’s absence. Taking a six-week holiday is certainly not going to fix that dynamic.
So, what do the Sussexes want? By all appearances, they seem to be ricocheting haphazardly in reaction to the news cycle. It does lend credence to the various theories that the couple will eventually leave the BRF’s fold and become private citizens. Harry, unlike the Queen’s younger children, is independently wealthy and could very well do just that. I don’t think that’s what anyone else wants, and as of right now, I’m not inclined to say that nuclear step is likely, but their current trajectory unfortunately doesn’t exclude it as an option.
At some point Harry and Meghan need to start helping themselves. Even more, they need to recognize that no matter how deeply they feel they’ve been wronged, they aren’t in fact victims here. Finally, I will leave you with a choice quote from Tom Sykes over at the Daily Beast on the subject (the entire article is worth a read):
“I thought it would be fair,” Meghan said. “And that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile.”
Fair? What gave you that idea Meghan? The murder of the princes in the tower? The beheading of Anne Boleyn as a witch? The vast unfathomable wealth of you, your children, and your children’s children? Surely Meghan had seen, or had knowledge of, the long and vexed relationship between the royals and the British media.