Sussexit 2020

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Well. Wednesday was a crazy day. If you missed the drama, then you can catch up here on the initial wave of reporting. Today, we’re going to touch on some odds and ends that didn’t make it into my initial post because of all the information coming out, as well as weigh in on some of the reactions and narratives beginning to build.

Let’s start with this morning. Today is the Duchess of Cambridge’s 38th birthday. The Royal Family and Clarence House (the Prince of Wales’s office) published social media posts marking the occasion, while Kensington Palace released a “new” photo of Kate. I say “new” because she’s wearing the same outfit she was in the family’s 2018 Christmas card, so I imagine this photo was taken at the same time. Naturally, paparazzi are camped out to catch the royals coming and going today in the hopes of following up on the Sussex news, so we were gifted the rare photo of Kate driving through Kensington Palace’s gates this morning, as well as Princess Eugenie (the Duke of Cambridge’s cousin, younger daughter of Prince Andrew, Duke of York).

Reportedly, she was at Buckingham Palace this morning, which may very well be Sussex-related (more on that below). There’s also apparently a party this evening at KP where senior royals are expected in addition to members of the Middleton family. I would imagine Harry and Meghan won’t make an appearance.

What did the Royal Family do today?

Summoned the cavalry. According to reporters briefed by Palace staff, the mood over at Buckingham Palace is grim. Senior royals – meaning Charles and William, if not Camilla and Kate – and their staffs spent the day in emergency talks. BP told reporters this evening that the Queen, Charles, and William have “directed their teams to work together at pace with Governments and the Sussex Household to find workable solutions.” It’s expected a resolution will be reached in days, not weeks.

They all have a rather difficult task ahead of them, because what Harry and Meghan presented as a done deal yesterday appears to be impossible. Thus, the two camps will have to negotiate, meaning either the Royal Family is going to be seen conceding to them, or the Sussexes will be forced to do an about-face. Either will be embarrassing and reflect poorly on both camps. We’ll get into that more.

The timeline 

Shortly after the Sussexes made their shock announcement, Buckingham Palace released its own statement that made clear nothing the Sussexes announced was final. This immediately prompted the question as to whether the Sussexes had gone rogue in the timing of their release. The answer is “yes.” They didn’t have anyone’s approval on either making a statement, or the actual content of said statement.

In the midst of all this, the Sussexes unleashed their new website, a slick new offering that includes a Q&A on the family’s new (albeit imaginary) way of life. Clearly written by PR folks, it attempts to gloss over questions re: funding, permission, and ability. Obviously this wasn’t written overnight, which means that the Sussexes had been building this for weeks, if not months, with zero buy-in from the Queen, Charles, or appropriate Palace staff.

Today reporters are attempting to put together a timeline of when and where Wednesday’s events began. The Palace has confirmed nothing, but one version of events laid out is that Harry contacted Charles while still in Canada. He even went so far as to share with him a written proposal. Charles responded that he was willing to work with him, but what he was laying out was extremely complicated and they would need to talk more when Harry returned to England.

Once Harry and Meghan returned, Harry attempted to schedule a meeting with the Queen, still at Sandringham for the Christmas holiday. She accepted, but said meeting was then “blocked” by Palace staff, who likely knew what he wanted to discuss and were hoping Charles would run interference. The Queen then told Harry that he needed to talk to Charles. All of this would have happened last week, and it’s likely that William was given a head’s up by Charles or staff around the same time. Harry was explicitly told by the Queen and Charles that he was forbidden from announcing anything in the meantime.

Omid Scobie, a reporter for Harpers Bazaar, who has proven himself to have an inside track to the Sussex camp, said today that it’s unfair to say the family was completely blindsided, and that these conversations started with numerous royal households much earlier. Even if true, I think the full scale of what Harry was proposing came later.

The timing of yesterday’s announcement was prompted by The Sun’s Tuesday article speculating whether the Sussexes were planning a move to Canada. It’s unclear who the source was, but he was described in the article as a “friend.” The Sussexes apparently decided to pre-empt further speculation by pulling the trigger on their news. They made their announcement first on Instagram, then followed up with a press release and their website. Charles and William were given a head’s up 10 minutes before they did so, phone calls that apparently left them enraged.

Scobie counters that the Sussexes felt backed into a corner – I would argue that in no way explains their subsequent actions. The Sun article suggested a possible residency or split time in Canada – there was nothing about financial independence or stepping back from royal life, which is quite frankly the actual news here. (I’m going to link to Scobie’s article, but I’m going to caution that I think this is borderline propaganda and not a wholly accurate look at the full landscape.)

The Sussexes & the Royal Family

We’ve known for a while now things weren’t sunny between William and Harry. Rumors of this started in the second half of 2018 and weren’t made better by their awkward behavior at Christmas that year, or at Easter in 2019 when they stayed in separate corners. We don’t know where things broke down, but one narrative is that William attempted to caution Harry over his relationship with Meghan in its early days, and that Harry has never forgiven him.

It’s not that simple. Harry and Meghan praised Kate in their engagement interview, specifically noting how welcoming she has been. William and Harry also appeared in good form throughout Harry’s engagement and wedding. William and Kate famously hosted Harry and Meghan at Anmer Hall during Christmas 2017, where they reportedly were very excited about the possibility of working together as a foursome under the umbrella of their Royal Foundation. An inkling of their plans could be seen in February 2018 when they hosted a forum touted as an “inaugural” event – instead, it would be the only. Rumors of a breakdown in relations started a few months later, followed by the Sussexes move from KP to Frogmore Cottage, and then the professional split of the Foundation.

Throughout all of this, there’s been less attention paid to Harry’s relationships with his father and grandmother. Indeed, Harry has long been believed to be closer to Charles than William is – a fact first noted by his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. She also said that William was “deep” like this father, while Harry was an “airhead” like her. To be clear, I don’t think Diana was an airhead, nor do I think she thought she was one – it was a self-deprecating, joking comment meant to imply, I think, that she and Harry were less serious than Charles and William, who can swing to the other side of spectrum.

Charles was also said to be a big fan of Meghan when she first appeared on the scene. He famously stepped up to walk her down the aisle when her father pulled out, and the couple delayed their honeymoon a couple days so that they could join Charles and Camilla at a garden party in May 2018 honoring Charles’s work in the lead up to his 70th birthday. The Queen signaled her support at numerous points, most famously by taking on a joint engagement with the new duchess just a month after her wedding. The unofficial word was that the Queen was impressed by Meghan’s work ethic.

Fast forward 18 months and now the background guidance from the Sussex camp is that they feel pushed out of the family, unwelcome, and as though not enough has been done to protect and support them. We really don’t know where things went wrong, save that it’s abundantly clear they did, and the fact Harry didn’t respect the explicit wishes of his grandmother and father is proof those relationships have been severely damaged. Harry stepping away from his role in any capacity obviously creates public and professional complications, but more poignantly, a man who once upon a time enjoyed close and loving relationships with his grandmother, father, and brother is now living on an emotional island. Everything else aside, it’s very sad.

Did the Royal Family protect Meghan enough?

I don’t think this answers the question as to why Harry is on the outs with his entire family in and of itself, but there’s another element to all of this that is very clear: Harry is having a visceral reaction to watching his wife receive negative media attention that has triggered memories of his childhood and mother. This doesn’t require much conjecture; he’s explicitly said as much in public statements over the last three months. And I think most people watching this situation get that and feel sympathy. That information contextualizes, but doesn’t excuse, the Sussexes’ recent behavior.

This idea that Meghan has been let down by the Royal Family isn’t a new dynamic. Indeed, it’s a narrative that’s always been deeply intertwined with Diana’s story. The talk back in 2010 and 2011 was that the Royal Family went into overdrive to support Kate when she married William to ensure history didn’t repeat itself. The couple set their own pace; they stayed in Wales for the first two years of their marriage; and the Middletons remained major players in the young family’s life. William is also famously protective of Kate, and now his children, and fiercely guards their privacy by way of geography, time off, and managing expectations. His efforts have gotten him in some hot water with the press over the years, but they’ve also paid off. If nothing else, the Cambridges are a happy family, and Kate has acclimated to and blossomed in her role over the years.

The biggest difference between Kate and Meghan is a dynamic I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the last few years: Kate was given eight years to learn what marrying William entailed and Meghan wasn’t. Meghan dealt with one year of being Harry’s public girlfriend before an engagement was announced, during which time she was living in Toronto and making occasional visits to London. Not being British, she had a less intuitive understanding of how the British press operated, and likely (and understandably) related the attention to that which an actress in the public eye might receive. Those are very different animals.

The person with the information to sense what was coming was Harry. He also had the benefit of watching William and Kate work through intense media attention, not all of it positive, for close to two decades. Thus, if Meghan was poorly prepared, then some of that fault lies with Harry. It also lies with Meghan – we all have access to Google. There are ample communications staff within KP who could have helped talk her through some of it, and indeed, I’m certain that they did. It was quite literally their job. So the shock and naivete doesn’t really track with me.

As for the Royal Family – did they bear some responsibility in all of this? According to the Sussexes’ defenders, they are guilty of staying silent while Meghan was flayed by the media for over a year. Their specific charge is that the coverage was racist, and that in failing to accommodate Meghan they have shown themselves out of touch and cruelly obtuse. Fans have explicitly demanded that the Queen, Charles, William, and Kate – or some combination thereof – make a public denouncement of the press’s treatment of Meghan, and that anything less of that is silently condoning racism.

I agree that race was a factor here – particularly in outlets like The Daily Mail. But for my American readers, I also think it’s worth underlining that racism is a slightly different beast in the UK than it is in the U.S. I also think that what many Americans – who make up a significant portion of the Sussexes’ fans – immediately identified as racist was in fact classicism and xenophobia. That Meghan was an American, an actress, a divorcee, and decidedly middle class all fed into her coverage. None of that excuses outlets like The Daily Mail (and others) for the gross headlines and stories they ran, but putting all of this into the racism basket indicates Meghan experienced something unique to her alone.

I have said before that what Meghan has seen from the British media is worse than what I ever saw Kate or Sophie (the Countess of Wessex) experience due to its tone and unrelenting pace. I stand by that. I have also said that what Meghan is going through pales in comparison to what Diana endured. I stand by that too. But there’s another woman who is rarely called forth to contextualize Meghan’s experience, and that’s Camilla. I would argue that Camilla is the gold standard on handling bad press – at various points she has literally managed threats against her physical safety, so deeply did the public despise her. So, there are other examples of what’s playing out now within the RF, and the biggest difference is tactics on handling it – Meghan is fighting fire with fire via Harry, while Camilla, Sophie, and Kate (and their spouses) have all remained stoically silent until the storm passed.

There are two reasons why the Royal Family hasn’t made a public statement on this particular issue. The first is that it’s really just not how they handle things, and that m/o is borne out of experience. It rarely makes things better, which I think has been proven by reactions to the Sussexes’ recent statements. If they take particular issue with a story or publication, they say nothing and let their lawyers do the talking. Legal action might drive more stories in the short-term, but it usually addresses the issue. For example, think of how quickly reporting on William’s rumored affair last year died down. Compare that with the Sussexes’ media lawsuit, which was accompanied by an emotional essay by Harry with which the press had a field day.

The second reason they’ve stayed silent is that it’s overly simplistic to say any and all criticism of Meghan is driven by racism. By and large, she was greeted enthusiastically by the media, who were thrilled to have new fodder, and a royal bride who appeared to work better with reporters than Kate. Things soured for two reasons: 1) the usual backlash that makes up a cyclical press cycle (and yes, that’s problematic, but again, not unique to Meghan) and 2) the Sussexes’ own behavior. Quite a bit of the negative press was focused on the Sussexes’ deteriorating relationships with the rest of the Royal Family, and we can hardly say now that was incorrect, no? Funding, Wimbledon, the christening, private planes, the Vogue edition – I’m sorry, but negative reactions to any and all of that is fair game, even if you disagree.

New press engagement

The Sussexes announced on their website that going forward they would no longer participate in the “royal rota,” or the set list of royal correspondents who are briefed on royal engagements and news. Instead, they, via their American PR company, will hand select which outlets are tipped to cover them on the grounds that the current arrangement doesn’t accurately reflect the new media landscape.

I disagree with what they’ve laid out, and I think their explanation is disingenuous. I also don’t really give a damn, save for one important caveat: You can’t do this if you want to maintain your titles, your duchy of Cornwall allowance, and ability to represent the Queen. Which brings us to…

The money

The Sussexes’ announcement noted that they wish to pursue financial independence. In order to make their own money, they are proposing that they sever their links to the “Sovereign Grant,” which their website says makes up about 5% of their current income. The motivation behind this is twofold – 1) They want the ability negotiate commercial deals and, seemingly, market branded merchandise; and 2) They believe that financial independence releases them from royal constraints, allowing them to say what they want about whatever they want. More on this latter point shortly.

What is left unsaid is that 95% of their “income” is from Charles, whose wealth is based in the duchy of Cornwall, an estate that will eventually become William’s when Charles ascends the throne. The Sussexes make clear that they want to work towards financial independence, meaning, I think, that they want Charles to keep bankrolling them until they get their feet under them, ideally before William controls the purse strings.

Royal finances are complicated and I don’t want to wade into this very much, but suffice to say that classifying Cornwall money as private wealth is problematic. As such, pretending as though removing themselves from Sovereign Grant output releases them from all royal duty is not an airtight argument. It also doesn’t address that public money will still have to pay for their protection and their travel based purely on who they are. This will be one of the stickiest dynamics to negotiate.

Titles & privileges

Early reactions from many onlookers is that if Harry and Meghan don’t want to play by the rules, then they should leave the monarchy completely. That means they would be stripped of their HRHs, and possibly even their Sussex titles. In the couple’s world, they are under the impression that they can simultaneously represent the Queen as members of the Royal Family, but operate an independent charitable foundation that supports progressive politics and negotiate commercial deals without any conflict of interest. This is impossible.

Members of the Royal Family remain politically neutral because the monarch must, and the monarch must because political power is held by his or her government. It’s a thin line, a grey area, a shaky unspoken agreement – all of those things, sure, but it holds on the understanding that the monarch doesn’t attempt to influence political outcomes or policy via direct lobbying or in the court of public opinion. This can be – and has been – tricky, but to make up an example, take the Heads Together campaign launched by William, Kate, and Harry to tackle mental health. Their efforts are focused on removing stigma, supporting communication, and facilitating access to resources. What they’re not doing is demanding better healthcare coverage, arguing public facilities need more funding, or speaking out on the cost of medication. Why? Because all of those have public policy implications.

As for deriving an income from any of their work – they’re prohibited from doing so in the hopes of eliminating corruption. Take a gander at some other royal families around the world, or European royal families before World War I, and you’ll start to see why. For that matter, zooming out a bit from the fashion and cute kids, it’s worth remembering that the Royal Family is an influential, public institution and those absolutely deserve scrutiny for the good of the public.

Whether you sympathize with them or not, what Harry and Meghan are proposing is that they get to control who covers them and when, that they get to say whatever they want regardless of the political implications, and they get to make their own private money to be used as they see fit, all while maintaining royal privileges. They will in effect be trading on the power of their titles and association with the monarch, while ignoring all the facets of that life they deem burdensome. No. That’s not how it works.

So, it’s possible that this ends with Harry and Meghan departing the Royal Family and beginning a life as private citizens. Harry has inherited wealth worth several million, while Meghan has a decent nest egg from her career as an actress. They would be able to purchase a home, set up a new life, and live very luxuriously while they embark on their new chapter as celebrity activists. I think that would be a mistake and a shame, but it’s a more realistic outcome than what they’ve proposed.

And if I was Charles – or William – and had just been blindsided by the couple, it’s about the only thing I’d be offering.

The negotiation

More than a few people are speculating that part of the Sussexes’ motivation for laying all their cards on the table was their assumption that it would force the Queen and Charles to give in to their demands. That because the Royal Family would be so keen to avoid embarrassment and a public back-and-forth, they would concede to stop the bloodletting. That was quite the gamble, if true, and so far it hasn’t worked out for them. If I had to place money on who will end up giving more ground, I’m going with Harry and Meghan. The Palace doesn’t mess around when you threaten the monarchy’s very fabric, and that’s what the Sussexes have done, whether they see that or not.

As I mentioned up top, the latest advisement from Buckingham Palace is that we’ll have a resolution in the next few days, so stay tuned. In the meantime…Happy Birthday, Kate.

12 thoughts on “Sussexit 2020

  1. Michelle M

    Thank you so very much for your thoughtful, thorough and superbly written coverage of this crisis. I appreciate you very much.

  2. laurean6410

    A thoughtful perspective on this mess. What’s so heartbreaking? Harry just dissed his magnificent, graceful, most respected grandmother. How could he?

  3. LEW

    New reader, really enjoying the blog.

    I think this is a very good analysis of the situation. I’m the sort of age Diana would have been and thus remember that whole time well. Harry inspires a lot of affection, both because of what he went through and his natural gift of connecting with people. Meghan is a woman of achievement and ability who I think has had bad treatment in some sections of the press, some of it racist. Truthfully, although I don’t and never will know them, I only want good things for them.

    In my opinion, they are currently in very dangerous waters. They simply cannot be “semi detached” royals, taking a back seat in some areas but trading off their status to promote their views and even more dangerously, make money. It doesn’t work like that and is in fact a recipe for disaster. Hard though I imagine it is to face, what gives them currency with the celebrity friends/charity large donors etc is not their own personalities and abilities but their royal status. Dilute that and I think many of those currently making much of them will disappear like midsummer mist. That status also gives them their voice; give it up and they will soon lose the ability to have people listen.

    The Duke of Windsor is an egregious example but I think a fair one. He and the Duchess ended up as sidelined Eurotrash, drifting in aimless luxury (with a good deal of resentment thrown in) for the rest of their lives. Notably, however, he had been a real proper King and there was the added glamour of “giving up his throne for love”. If it could happen to him, it could happen to Harry-and I don’t want it to.

    1. Glad to have you here, and thank you! I very much agree with your take on the situation, and the comparison to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is apt. I have the same concerns that they’ll find they lose a good bit of their luster and influence without the royal trappings, hence why they’re trying very hard to keep them. It’ll be fascinating to see where they net out – we’re very much in uncharted waters.

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