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Harry and Meghan represent the triumph of celebrity over royalty

We treat the royal family like Hollywood stars but get offended if they behave like them

January 10, 2020

12:59 PM

10 January 2020

12:59 PM

You win, America.

First you broke away from us, but, frankly, we could live with that. Colony or no colony, Britain remained the world’s strongest power and we were happy to let you explore the barren landscapes of your nation while we got on with exploring the rest of the globe.

Slowly but surely, though, you began to overtake us. Even the Great Depression could not halt your progress and after you came to our aid in World War Two, and our empire collapsed around our ears, we were forced to acknowledge that you had surpassed us economically and militarily.

But we still had culture right? Your sheer resources and manpower might have allowed you to put our seafaring exploits in the shade when you were first to reach the Moon but you still listened to our Beatles, and watched our Hitchcock, and read our J.K. Rowling. Yes, America might have brute strength but Britons had culture and class. The whole James Bond franchise is premised on this cheerful belief.

But what do you know? American culture started to transcend ours. Where was the British Scorsese? Where was the British Sopranos? Where was the British Pynchon? In a last ditch effort to sabotage American supremacy, Britain planted agents like John Oliver and James Corden to undermine American culture from within. Despite some promising results, their efforts have largely failed.

But we still have tradition, yes? We have the royal family and our aristocratic heritage. Americans love The Crown and Downton Abbey. Of course they do. Who can they stack against the Windsors? The Kennedys? Pah! A bunch of sex fiends and moral cowards. Yes, we have tradition. 

Or, at least, we had tradition.

The decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to ‘step back as “senior” members of the royal family’ and ‘carve out a progressive new role within’ the ‘institution’ of the monarchy should not come as a surprise. I say this less because of their characters, as fallible as their characters might be, than because of the general drift of British public life. Members of the royal family have become celebrities, famous less because of what they represent than because of their clothes, opinions and marital troubles.

Way back in 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge noticed that the royals were becoming overexposed. In a mischievous New Statesman article, he wrote:

‘Nothing is more difficult than to maintain the prestige of an institution which is accorded the respect and accoutrements of power without the reality. The tendency for such an institution to peter out in pure fantasy is very great. It is like the king in chess. If he ventures into the middle of the board the game is lost. He has to be kept in the background and ringed round with pieces more powerful than himself. ’

The ‘fantasy’ Muggeridge observed was nothing compared to the outbreak of mass hysteria that surrounded the life and death of Princess Diana. Whatever you think of the trajectory of the Duke of Sussex’s life you have to sympathize with someone who saw their parents divorce and their mother die, and had to be paraded in front of flashing cameras and gawking masses in the most heart-breaking of possible moments in a young man’s life.

The prurience of the press has been referenced in defense of the Duke and Duchess’s departure from the ‘senior’ realms of royalty. They are victims of media bullying, we are sometimes told, like Prince Harry’s mother many years before.

A New York Times article blames racism as predictably as night follows day, but while I am sure there have been some Britons who have taken offense at the Duchess of Sussex being mixed-race it seems probable that her broader unpopularity has been the result of her and her husband piously insisting that they would have ‘two, maximum’ children for environmental reasons even as they chartered private jets. Me, I think hypocrisy is one of the lesser sins but there is nothing Britons hate more than someone who appears too keen on the sound of their voice. 

For the last 20 years, the Queen, Prince William and Princess Catherine have done an impressive job of securing the popularity of the royal family largely by staying in the background and getting on with their doubtless boring work of attending ceremonies and opening hospitals. If this sounds like it does not give them much freedom to be themselves then, well, that is kind of the point. In the absence of real power they are more significant for what they symbolize than for who they are. As Sebastian Milbank observes, that does not seem to be enough for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. They do not want to be elevated public servants but ‘US-style celebrities’, dispensing lofty wisdom in over-expensive clothes.

Still, it is futile to blame the ambitious pair. We have treated our royals like US-style celebrities and it is only by Her Majesty’s good judgment that they have resisted being forced into that mould. There has been the obsession with good looks (as if Queen Victoria was a dazzling beauty). There has been the endless speculation about their romantic and emotional lives. There have been the storms of photographers following their every move. We have treated the royal family like Hollywood stars but get offended if they behave like them. A.N. Wilson writes eloquently about the ‘constitutional miracle’ that is the monarchy but it is difficult for us to be too high-minded when we all saw the leering British media coverage devoted to the shape of the Duchess of Cambridge’s younger sister’s behind.

Of course, it is rather silly that people are hyperventilating about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex disgracing the monarchy weeks after the Duke of York had to make sweaty excuses for being friends with an infamous multimillionaire sex pest. Still, this rather sad case is proof that even the British monarchy has been Americanized. And we did it to ourselves.

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