The house of Windsor is perpetually said to be in “crisis.” Not because it is but because this is the language that headline writers prefer. For examples of monarchies that have been in crisis, we might remember the royal families of Russia, Germany, Italy, and Greece, among others. By comparison not just with these, but with almost every other institution on earth, the British royal family is an unparalleled success. It has been in situ longer than the American republic, longer than the state of Australia, and longer — though it may not feel like this — than if you knitted all of Joe Biden’s monologues back to back and set them to music.
For centuries the British crown has been a constant in our lives, and, like all such constants, it has been a model of slow, adaptive change.
Of course, this has required bridging many contradictions. The present age has as many of these as ever. And if there is one that today’s boils down to, it is that the public wants the institution of the monarchy to be like us and also not like us. We want the royals to be above us and yet not to show that they are much above us. To be as privileged as if they had earned it, and yet not to flaunt it.
While those born into the family tend to know the deal, those who are new to it can stumble. Not that all do. Kate Middleton, who married Prince William nine years ago, got things right almost from the get-go. Think of the royal couple waving to the crowds from the royal coach on their wedding day. Prince and princess grinning and waving frantically, as though worried they would overlook anyone in the crowd. Rarely can any newlyweds have looked like such caged supplicants.
But sacrifice is required. It is part of the deal. In return for a life that is materially stable and undeniably privileged, and that brings willing deference from the public, members of the royal family must give themselves wholesale to the nation. Part-time or half-hearted service does not cut it. And complaining or seeking sympathy at any stage is the fastest way of all to lose the public.
So it is with the recently happy, now distinctly unhappy, story of the marriage of Meghan Markle to Harry, duke of Sussex. Without any consultation with the queen or the wider family, in January the couple released a statement on Instagram announcing that they were stepping back from royal duties. A crisis meeting with the queen and other senior royals followed, and the upshot was that the Sussexes got all the independence that they professed to want. From now on, they are going to make their own way in the world, seek financial independence, drop their royal titles, and live — slightly bewilderingly — in Canada.
The “crisis” headlines have come about because this woe follows so fast upon another. For it is only a matter of weeks since we saw the self-withdrawal of the queen’s second son, Prince Andrew. For more than a decade, the palace has been fielding stories about his friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Pressure on the palace ebbed and flowed. But late last year, someone — exactly who remains disputed — thought it was time for Prince Andrew to finally speak publicly and clear the air. Epstein was dead, but the question of why the prince had kept up a friendship with him (even staying at his home after his initial prosecution and imprisonment) bubbled on.
Whatever the palace’s hopes, rather than clearing the air, the interview instead made everything around the prince radioactive. He appeared entitled, evasive, and on the main matter — of why he had remained friends with Epstein — frankly implausible. Shortly afterward it was announced that the prince was stepping back from all his public duties and would henceforth not be playing any role as a senior member of the royal family.
Yet it is the removal from public life of the prince a generation below Prince Andrew that is the more serious blow for the now 93-year-old queen.
For aside from the queen herself, the princes William and Harry have in some ways been the royal family’s most precious assets in recent decades. Known for their attractive and generally down-to-earth personalities, the boys are of course the sons of Princess Diana. And there is a rarely mentioned but undeniably ever-present national guilty conscience about her. The British public was obsessed with Princess Diana, and, as the perhaps excessive show of grief at her death demonstrated, that obsession (along with a drunk driver and a refusal to wear a seatbelt) undoubtedly went some way to causing the crash in Paris’s Pont de l’Alma tunnel in August 1997. So it has seemed very important in Britain that her boys — the princes — grow up not just happy but as normal as possible. They have, and will perhaps always have, our sympathies.
For his part, Prince William appears to be doing well. His choice of wife was especially sensible. Middleton was a university sweetheart who has the looks, sense of duty, and slight dullness that is critical for anyone marrying successfully into the royal family. For the truth is that wild cards, “personalities,” and one-offs tend to be burnt out (or burnt through) by their presence in the family. And if there is a reason, it’s that although the perception may be that the role is glamorous, the reality of royal service (as the queen herself knows) is an endless round of not widely noticed charity events: cutting the ribbon on a new hospital wing, putting a spade of soil on a commemorative sapling, unveiling a forgettable plaque.
Which brings us to Meghan Markle. Did she know this? Was she aware of what the job of marrying Prince Harry actually entailed? Perhaps not. Though she certainly sought out her prince. As the London-based gossip columnist Katie Hind has revealed, in 2013 Markle was in London openly scouting and asking around for help on how to bag herself an eligible Englishman. Various footballers appeared to be in the offing. But it seems that Markle knew the top prize and went out of her way to get it.
By the time she bagged Prince Harry, it seemed to be a win all round. The Hollywood starlet had found her prince and the royal family had found an addition who brought a dose of something important to the family. Now that accusations are flying each and every way, it is worth noting what the problem is not. Actresses have married into the royal family before. Lord Frederick Windsor, a cousin of Prince Harry’s, had earlier married the actress Sophie Winkleman. Stardom alone is not a problem. Nor, in itself, is being an independent woman. The house of Windsor has had plenty of them.
The problem seems to be a Meghan-related one. In an institution in which people are not expected to grumble, she appeared surprised that people did not want to hear her grumble. In an institution that is not expected to preach, she appeared — through the medium of a guest editorship of Vogue, among other things — to be all too willing to preach. And for someone who wanted to join the royal family, she is oddly averse to media attention. And despite having used the press when she wanted it, she now finds herself in the unprecedented situation of suing a British newspaper for accurately printing a letter that she had written to her estranged father shortly after the wedding. (Her father gave the letter to the Mail on Sunday.) None of this is nice, but it is less than most royals have had to put up with. And she has put up with it for less time than anyone else in the family.
Perhaps the job is not what she expected. Perhaps the press intrusion and criticism genuinely are beyond anything she had been warned about. But there is one accusation that now seriously sticks in the craw of the British public. That is the idea that there is anything racist about criticism of the Sussexes or that racism is the reason the couple are now departing for Canada and have given up their royal perks and titles.
The accusation has come from a number of angles. Inevitably pushed by the New York Times, it has also been claimed on national television in Britain. On one morning program, a black commentator making the accusation that Meghan was the victim of racism said that it was “not the job” of black people to educate white people about racism and that Meghan’s exit merely proved that racism was endemic in Britain. A host calmly asked what evidence there was for the idea that Britain was a country so racist that it had chased Meghan out. “That is another problem,” the guest said: “when people keep asking what examples.” In the absence of evidence, it has become common to argue that the idea of evidence is itself some kind of white, racist construct.
Such arguments themselves feel to many of us in Britain to be a distinctly American import. Doubtless it has caught on with some people in America in particular because it fits in with one narrative of the age (that Brexit, Trump, and racism are all of the same piece). As it happens, the polls show consistently that the British public is exceptionally happy about mixed marriages and related social issues. Not one prominent public figure in Britain in any way criticized the Sussex couple on racial grounds.
But for those who believe that facts are a social construct, let me give a “lived perspective” of my own: Far from there being any prominent or meaningful examples of racism perpetrated against Meghan Markle, the British public (as evidenced not least by the huge crowds that lined the streets for their wedding) expressed an understated but definite pride in her entry into the royal family. In a very short space of time, Britain over recent decades has become exceptionally racially diverse. And if a monarchy is to survive in such a situation, it must probably at some point, even if only on its margins, look more like the country it wishes to continue to reign over.
The sight of Prince Charles leading Meghan Markle down the aisle brought genuine pride to many of us. The palpably warm and happy way in which the Prince of Wales later took the arm of Meghan’s mother at the signing of the registry brought still more. And then there were the official photographs, released last year, of Markle’s black American mother cooing alongside an obviously delighted Queen Elizabeth and duke of Edinburgh over Meghan and Harry’s first child, Archie. All these things pointed to change in the way that Britain does best: not through huge upsets or upheavals but by the calm and happy acceptance of change from the top of the nation.
That change appeared to be going well. But the Sussexes have now decided to walk out on it. Perhaps they think they will do a great amount of good outside the institution of the family. And perhaps they will do some. But nothing they do will have the impact that it would have had if they had worked away — as Harry’s grandmother has her whole life — to demonstrate the virtues of constancy and duty in a world running low on both.
This article appears as “Roiled Royals” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.