Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex meets children as she attends the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 on 9 March 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

What could Harry and Meghan learn from history?

Have the Duke and Duchess of Sussex traded short-term PR advantage for the sake of their future reputations?

Artillery Row

The last couple of weeks have been an eventful time for one of the world’s most talked-about couples, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Not only did Meghan Markle triumph over the Mail on Sunday in a privacy case, which many  – including me – believed that there was a reasonable chance would not go her way, but she and Harry chose to announce her new pregnancy in a suitably low-key and unostentatious fashion. They distributed a softly lit black-and-white photograph of the expectant parents to the worldwide media, in the confident expectation that it would then grace front pages everywhere.

International reaction was mixed. American coverage noted that Meghan’s choice of “pregnancy reveal dress”, by the designer Carolina Herrera, sent a “powerful message” about femininity, but the British media were more cynical, as could be seen in The Daily Star’s headline “PUBLICITY-SHY WOMAN TELLS 7.67 BILLION PEOPLE: I’M PREGNANT”.

The Sussexes have largely lost the battle for hearts and minds in Prince Harry’s home country

It is fair to say that, despite (or because of) their best efforts, the Sussexes have largely lost the battle for hearts and minds in Prince Harry’s home country. There has been a general suspicion that the couple are too brash, too self-invested – in her case, too American – to have ever really gelled with the expectations and demands of the Royal Family. It was therefore no great surprise that their formal announcement that they were, indeed, leaving their responsibilities and abandoning their patronages has led to a bitter exchange of briefing and counter-briefing, of a kind largely unseen since the Nineties and Princess Diana’s heyday. A coldly formal message was put out from the Queen’s private office last Friday announcing that:

Following conversations with The Duke, The Queen has written confirming that in stepping away from the work of The Royal Family it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service. The honorary military appointments and Royal patronages held by The Duke and Duchess will therefore be returned to Her Majesty, before being redistributed among working members of The Royal Family.

Rather than simply accepting their banishment as the status quo, Harry and Meghan fought back with an angry, equally pointed statement that, “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.”

While Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, may or may not be depressed at the idea of having to cast about for a non-thespian member of the Royal Family as the NT’s new patron to replace Meghan – perhaps Prince Charles, a keen amateur actor in his student days, might step up to the mark – there is little doubt that the Duke and Duchess’s decision to leave Britain behind and seek a more accepting, and lucrative, life in America is one that has caused ructions since it was first announced twelve months ago. Much of the press coverage last weekend revolved around the much-speculated rift between Prince William and Prince Harry. The Sunday Times reported that William was “shocked and saddened” at his brother’s “insulting and disrespectful” behaviour towards the Queen, and going so far as to compare the rift between the two to what occurred between Edward VIII and George VI, after the former abdicated and the latter was left to take up the mantle of kingship as Britain prepared for the Second World War.

In the event, George proved to be a more conscientious ruler than his brother had ever been, not least because he lacked Edward’s highly controversial and provocative instincts, most notably his much-publicised Nazi sympathies. Although Prince Harry has had his own unfortunate form in these regards, few have seriously sought to accuse the now-sixth in line to the throne of sharing his great-great uncle’s inclinations. Yet, just as Edward was accused of being in thrall to his twice-divorced mistress Wallis Simpson, eventually abandoning his throne as if it were little more than an irritation, much of the media coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has taken it more or less as a given that Meghan remains the dominant partner in the relationship and responsible for the increasingly controversial and headline-grabbing actions that the couple have chosen to pursue.

It remains to be seen as to how far Meghan chooses to put the boot – or the stiletto – into the Royal Family

Just as Peter Cook once came up with a brilliant sketch in which, dressed as Greta Garbo, he drove through central London, blaring, “I WANT TO BE ALONE!” from a microphone, so the formerly royal pair have been accused of backing into the limelight. It has been seen as a particular provocation that the Sussexes have chosen to mark their emancipation from the Royal Family with an interview with Oprah Winfrey. The programme, which is due to air on 7 March, has apparently been “significantly re-edited” already, allegedly as a result of their losing their royal patronages, but this will also raise speculation that any especially eyebrow-raising revelations will not make the broadcast programme.

What is known of the format suggests that the interview will be Meghan-heavy, as she talks of “stepping into life as a royal, marriage, motherhood”, before being joined by Harry to discuss their future plans in America. Winfrey, who attended the couple’s wedding in 2018, is not seen as a grand inquisitor in the Paxman or Charlie Rose tradition, but it remains to be seen as to how far Meghan chooses to put the boot – or the stiletto – into the Royal Family.

Buckingham Palace, justifiably fearing a repeat of the controversy engendered by Princess Diana’s notorious 1995 Panorama interview, are said to be “anxious” about what, if anything, is said. Should it be unrevealing and bland, then it will hardly help Brand Sussex to secure the lucrative Netflix specials and publicity opportunities that they are said to be seeking. But if the floodgates of revelation and recrimination are opened, then it will lead the prurient and gossip-hungry to continue to speculate about royal relations and The Meghan Effect for months, even years, to come.

One can only imagine what a sceptical GB News interview conducted by Andrew Neil would be like

In managing the fallout from their decision to leave “the Firm”, the Sussexes could take counsel from the events that befell the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after 1936. George VI was implacably opposed to his elder brother’s desires to take an influential role within the Royal Family and refused to grant Wallis the HRH title that she craved, as well as snubbing the couple’s 1937 wedding. Relations between the two brothers worsened to a terminal extent after the outbreak of war, not least because of the so-called “Operation Willi” in 1940, an attempt by the Nazis to kidnap the Duke and restore him as a puppet ruler to the throne. George believed, not without credence, that his brother’s protestations that he was an unwitting victim rather than semi-interested observer were unconvincing. The Duke and Duchess were therefore cast off into their own exile, this time to Bermuda, where Edward was given the largely honorary role of Governor-General and the two of them loudly chafed against the restrictions and privations of their lifestyle.

After World War Two concluded, they, too, turned their backs on any idea of royal service (making a mockery of the Royal Family’s motto “Ich Dien” – “I Serve”), and set about enriching themselves. Money, or the perceived absence of it, had loomed large within their sphere, and so they, too, turned to America as an appreciative audience. Not only did Edward (ghost)write four long personal articles for Life magazine, but both of them lent their names to bestselling autobiographies, the Duke’s A King’s Story and Wallis’s The Heart Has Its Reasons.

Neither book is today remembered as either great literature or especially revelatory – both studiously avoid any allusion to the non-existent relationship between Edward and George VI after the abdication, or any mention of Nazi sympathies – but the very fact that both books exist, while the Royal Family attempts to avoid all such publicity save what can be revealed entirely on its own terms, remains remarkable. It also set a precedent for what was revealed of the inner workings of the institution by its former members. Never again, it was hoped, would such indiscretion exist. Until now, that is.

When I was writing about the abdication in my book, The Crown in Crisis, I found it difficult to warm to Edward, and described him as “a wretched, quixotic ruler, an obsessed and demanding lover and, bar the odd instance of compassion and decency, a selfish and thoughtless man”. Although there have been occasional attempts to rehabilitate him, as in Madonna’s misguided film W.E, posterity usually places him firmly at the lower end of royalty, amidst some considerable competition.

Harry and Meghan may have traded short-term PR advantage for the sake of their future reputations

It remains to be seen how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will seek to emulate the Windsors in their actions. Should they be primarily interested in the acquisition of money and status, they will find many willing patrons, as Edward and Wallis did, but their repeated, tetchy insistence that they will carry on a life of service through whatever means they can belies the popular belief that they have relocated themselves to California to enjoy a more respectful standard of existence. (One can only imagine what a sceptical GB News interview with the duo, conducted by Andrew Neil, would be like.)

The Royal Family still enjoys a remarkably high level of popularity in Britain, as it is seen as a bulwark of stability and tradition while the rest of the modern world evolves rapidly and often vertiginously. The warmth and sincerity of the concern displayed towards Prince Philip, currently ailing in hospital, is proof of the way in which his subjects feel protective and proprietorial towards “the First Family”.

Yet just as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor quickly discovered that popularity, once lost, was all but impossible to regain, so Harry and Meghan may have traded short-term PR advantage for the sake of their future reputations. It may be that they achieve a huge amount away from the daily strictures of the Royal Family, and that their looser, less formal attachment sets its own precedent that others will emulate in the future. Yet if the Sussexes take note of what happened with Edward and Wallis, whose lives ended up being rather sad and pathetic, they may find themselves less keen to pursue the actively disruptive path that they seem hellbent on taking. Carolina Herrera statement dresses notwithstanding.

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