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A Different Idea of Deference

Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, attend a Commonwealth Day youth event at Canada House in London, March 11, 2019. (Chris Jackson / Pool via Reuters)

We are unlikely ever to know for sure what led Harry and Meghan to request a (partial) abdication from the responsibilities of being a ‘senior royal’. If I had to guess, (which is all I can do), one starting point for the current mess may stem from a failure by Harry to explain (or by Meghan to understand) how Brits see the royal family.

Yes, for the most part, they support the monarchy as an institution, and, yes, there is enormous personal respect for the Queen, 93, and still plugging on gamely. But this respect coexists with a willingness to mock, tease, and find fault with the royals. There is nothing new about this, although its extent has ebbed and flowed over the centuries — George IV (1820–1830) received rougher treatment than George VI (1936–52) and deservedly so (but that’s a different topic).

Most of the current ‘senior’ members of the royal family have been ridiculed, caricatured, and criticized, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Many of them have been at the sharp end of gossip columns. It comes with the territory. With the taxpayer paying so many of their bills, the public expects that it has the right to pry and jeer, as well as the (sort of) obligation to cheer. Celebrities on the American side of the Atlantic are certainly not immune from this sort of treatment — far from it — but they are cocooned, flattered, and deferred to in a way that, for all the pomp and ceremony, a British royal generally is not. They can also indulge themselves in ways that would be frowned upon if a member of the royal family tried the same trick: The coverage of Meghan’s wildly extravagant baby shower was . . . instructive.

Few Brits have much doubt that the royals live very well, but, as they are paying for at least of part of this lifestyle, they prefer both a nod to frugality (ask the Queen how this is done) and, when it comes to the high life, a little discretion. This was something that, say, Princess Margaret (the Queen’s late sister) was unable to grasp — and she paid a price for it.

And Brits tend not to like being lectured by their royals. To borrow an idea from Lenin, the royal family is a living flag. Its members are important for what they represent, but not for who they are. Their opinions have, for the most part, no more weight, therefore, than those of a piece of cloth. The Queen has always understood this (which is why her public pronouncements are largely confined to uplifting banalities). Prince Charles, on the other hand, has never been reluctant to express his point of view on subjects on which he has no obvious expertise and to expect that he should be heard respectfully simply because of who he is. That has often played poorly. The Duke and Duchess of Woke seem to have fallen into the same trap. Harry should have known better. And someone should have told Meghan that being royal is a role, and reminded her — not that she should have needed reminding — that actors don’t get to write the script.

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