The crisis that has engulfed the royal family, sparked by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell announcement that they are jumping ship, is about far more than just their personal future. If that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t be so important. Families fall out, scandals come and go and the monarchy marches on. But this announcement and the extraordinary Sandringham summit convened by the Queen was about something much more fundamental. The subject of discussion was what the monarchy does, who it is for and how much longer it will continue in its current form after the Queen’s reign. And, indeed, whether it should survive at all.
Everyone’s sympathy this week has been for the Queen, now 93, and the upset Harry and Meghan’s decision has caused her. But it has also been a nightmare for Prince Charles. He is the second most senior member of the family and the one who will take the monarchy forward, but he is also a loving father, facing the possible disintegration of his family. His two sons, once so close, now barely speak to one another. Prince Charles will have been terribly worried about Harry’s happiness, and desperate to help his younger son find the right solution without burning any bridges.
Every so often the British monarchy goes through a major reorganization: there was one in 1986 when a firm of City accountants suggested nearly 200 changes. For years now, there has been much talk of another crunch coming: plans for the Prince of Wales’s new ‘slimmed-down monarchy’. There were even reports last week that Harry, now sixth in line to the throne, had come to believe he would end up without a role in the new, lean family firm. A photograph released to mark the start of the new decade showing four generations of heirs, but no Harry, was said to have served — to him — as proof that his days are numbered.
I think this is nonsense. Harry and Meghan have been a huge asset to the monarchy, stars the world over — at one time, the danger seemed to be that they’d eclipse everyone else. Their taking a step back from frontline duties will be a huge loss, as the Queen made very clear in her post-Sandringham summit statement. If they were to walk away completely, it would leave the monarchy not so much slimmed down as emaciated. But that’s not to say that there are not fundamental questions to be faced about the future of The Firm.
The case for having fewer people on the royal payroll is fairly easy to make. If there were fewer individuals to safeguard and fewer flights and journeys to be financed, the cost of protection and transport would go down dramatically. So should the potential for trouble. A tight-knit team would be easier to control and, with fewer households, there would be better communication, therefore fewer surprises.
But there are downsides to downsizing too. Some 3,000 of our charities have royal patrons. The value of the work that royals do for causes that are overlooked or underfunded by government is incalculable: a royal patron on the letterhead can be transformative for both profile and funding. With fewer members of the family to go round, that number will inevitably dwindle.
The concept of a charitable monarchy dates back hundreds of years, but it has become an integral part of the family’s daily work under the Queen’s reign — and an invaluable example for the rest of us. As the writer Will Hutton put it, though inequality of wealth has ballooned back to 19th century levels, there is no sign of 19th century levels of civil engagement and philanthropy by the rich.
But if anyone can get the British rich to part with their cash, it is the royals: the more senior the better. An invitation to one of the palaces, to Clarence House or Highgrove, and a chance to press the flesh both rewards — and inspires — charitable giving. It’s not always very visible but we’d certainly notice if we were to lose it.
Years ago, there were already concerns that the monarchy was getting too big —and that turf wars were inevitable. After a row about whether Camilla should marry Charles, I remember being told by one of his former press officers that it was imperative to do away with royal households. ‘It’s divisive,’ he said. ‘Why have we had this punch-up between St James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace? Because they were working for the individuals and not the institutions.’
If people are keen on simplification and a cut-back monarchy, it’s in part because they don’t understand what monarchy is for. In the days when kings and queens had private armies and fought bloody battles, their subjects were in no doubt about their use. Even in the last century, when the power to chop off people’s heads was long gone, Londoners who lost homes and loved ones in the Blitz knew exactly what monarchy was for. Advised to leave the capital for their safety, the King and Queen resolutely stayed, choosing to face the threat of bombs alongside everyone else. They walked amongst the rubble of flattened communities and stood with the bereaved to offer support and comfort. Their actions embodied the sentiments of the country: they represented the nation to itself. And they put a figurative arm around the vulnerable and the distressed. The love and the loyalty was two-way.
Today I am not so sure it is, particularly amongst the young, who are keen on the idea of a pared-back royal family. The concept of putting duty and service before happiness is anathema to them. Meghan was right, they feel, when she said it was important not just to survive, but to thrive. Yet this is what the Queen has done her entire life: lived in the public eye, meeting and greeting strangers, sacrificing the happiness she might have had elsewhere.
For the young, the royal family are nothing more than celebrities — a view reinforced, of course, by the arrival of Meghan, who was already a celebrity. But there is a very real difference between a royal and a celeb. The Queen has never confused the two. She has always understood that her fame and the public interest and adulation (which was colossal when she was young) has come because of the office she holds, not because of any special talent or achievement.
Charles struggled to find a role for himself when he left the Navy. Eventually he found it in The Prince’s Trust and a lifetime of impressive charitable work. William has followed suit, but I suspect Harry has struggled to find structure or fulfillment since leaving the Army. It may be time for a radical rethink of how those members of the family who are unlikely to succeed live their lives.
Celebrities can be vain, selfish and coin-operated. They can say and do as they please. They can buy mansions, planes and privacy. So can politicians and presidents. The undemocratic nature of the monarchy — which is what sticks in so many people’s craw — is its great advantage. There is no greasy pole to climb, no voters to woo.
Our working royals are in the public eye for their entire lives; every expense is scrutinized, every utterance analyzed, every mistake turned into a public outrage. It’s a lot to ask. The question is not do we need them — but do we ask more of them than any human being can reasonably give?