The fierce worldwide debate that has followed Oprah Winfrey’s TV interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) has centred around race but there are deeper undercurrents that could yet change not only the UK but the Commonwealth itself, says Clayton Goodwin.
The Royal Story has taken over the headlines, above politics and the pandemic: ‘Tinsel-town has tangled with tradition’, ‘Hollywood has mated with the monarchy’… and so on.
The soap-opera is running its appointed, and, some would say, orchestrated course – we have sighed with our favourite royal and hissed the villains in this modern, re-telling of the Not-so Merry Wives of Windsor (Diana – Mark 2).
But were the revelations really that surprising? Not if we read An African in Buckingham Palace? or Megxit: Does the UK have a race problem?. Was the suggestion that a member of the royal family could be racist such a shock? Or press contention that the institution of royalty has been tainted by association with slavery and discrimination?
At one level the saga of Meghan and her in-laws can be regarded as an over-hyped side-show serving to blindside attention from issues of greater and more inconvenient weight. On the other hand, the significance, itself, could have been underplayed at a time of considerable crisis …
Everything is in the timing and the context, and what it says about the future of the monarchy and the Commonwealth. There is definitely something afoot, and matters of concern, in the corridors of power for which a story to distract public attention would be welcome.
Have the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) been manipulated into providing such a cover-story (in both senses of the word), or has it been a prelude for other as yet undeclared developments in the ‘swelling act of the imperial theme’ (to quote Shakespeare)?
There are issues enough to be relevant to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda this summer.
The monarchy appears to be held in abeyance currently, while competing narratives are played out behind the scenes. The Queen, whose authority has been diminished for some time, is at an age when speculation as to the future is understandable.
Her grip has not been the same since her name was lent to her Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s illegal act of proroguing Parliament. It is reported that the royal princes’ respective supporters within ‘the System’ are engaged in an almost-medieval dynastic struggle.
Will Prince Charles be forced to cede his inheritance to his son? Will brother be set against brother? And, if so, what difference will it make to our future and way of life?
Media speculation has been rife. There is also another prince, Andrew, facing accusations which will not go away. Why am I reminded of the younger brother of the Mafia don in the Godfather story? Although judgement was passed on him, it was not executed all the time his mother was alive, but as soon as she passed ….
Union never less divided
Meanwhile the UK, buffeted by Brexit, is beginning to feel the adverse economic (and political) repercussions of its heedless exit from the European Union – repercussions which cannot forever be attributed to the ravages of Covid-19.
With Scotland showing an increased desire for independence, an emotion which is stirring, too, in more docile Wales, and old, perilous divisions being re-opened in Northern Ireland, the UK has rarely appeared to be less united.
Boris Johnson, a Prime Minister of extraordinary character and ambition, has pushed cronyism, incompetence, waste and false representation beyond normally accepted bounds.
He has got away with it so far because Labour and the Liberal Democrats took suicidal leave of their senses and the conventional Conservative Party imploded.
Boris has weathered the tempests of an unfavourable Brexit and misreading the early course of the pandemic primarily because there is no alternative effective source of power. In such a vacuum of opposition, would he be tempted to take stealthy advantage of the dilution of the monarchy’s former credibility to fashion for himself a position echoing that of a Shogun? The result would hardly work out well for his country in the Commonwealth.
A young lady from a different cultural, ethnic and geographic background walked onstage into this maelstrom at the moment when Black Lives Matter sentiment unleashed a tsunami of resonance across all walks and aspects of life.
The tide of opinion has been sufficient to provoke in the government, befuddled and intoxicated with its other struggles, an urge to dam up tradition with a perverted sense of history – including a ridiculous reverence for statues whose relevance has long been outdated – and institute a ‘cultural’ war (that is, ‘race’ to you and me).
That for many people the newcomer has caught the mood of the time, and has not been absorbed willingly into the ancien regime, is symbolic of an alternative view of a more cosmopolitan and inclusive Britain, that was caught napping over Brexit and does not want to be taken unawares again.
Coincidentally, sections of the media consider their traditional values to be threatened by the possibility that Barbados may want to have its own native-born head of state, rather than Queen Elizabeth II and, more importantly, her successors. Why? The island’s Caribbean neighbours in Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, as well as a good number of African and Asian countries, have had their own presidents for some time without it adversely affecting their loyalty to the Commonwealth under the umbrella majesty of the House of Windsor.
Perhaps that is the point. If ultra-loyal Barbados, the ‘Little England’ of common parlance, wants to leave home, maybe the Commonwealth, too, is ready for change.
The immediate fracas in the royal family, I suspect, may be a media/PR-directed side-show. These commentators and the organisations they represent are themselves no strangers to the charge of racism, and their intemperate rage is an indication of the precarious predicament in which the old order they sustain sees itself.
The times they are a-changing
The issues raised, however, go to the very heart of our political and cultural framework. The times they are a-changing (to quote the song), perhaps in a more sweeping way than we can imagine, and not everybody is happy.
What is it that we wish for our political and social future? Has the step taken by Harry and Meghan been a pace towards a more diverse and welcome identity, or should it be shunned as intrusion on a ‘Britishness’ no longer recognised or accepted universally, even by all its citizens?
The question of racism, wherever it is perceived, is deeper than its revelation about how it affects one person, her immediate relatives and their lifestyle. It concerns what this personal experience can reveal about an institution’s ingrained attitudes.
If the royal family, and the UK, wish to continue with the existing monochrome and archaic set-up, the Commonwealth, and the peoples of its constituent countries, also have a responsibility to consider whether it is a pattern they, too, wish to retain.
How will the shape of things to come in the House of Windsor be reflected in the wider family of nations? Should the UK, which has already withdrawn from one successful international community, stand back also from its hitherto dominant role in another while it heads towards that isolation which its government apparently so earnestly desires?
Or have Harry and Meghan provided an opportunity for reflection and for the course to be re-set?
Since its inception the UK (and its monarch), as the senior, more experienced and founding member, has often spoken for the Commonwealth – the time may be now for the Commonwealth to speak for the UK, to the people of these islands, and for the Commonwealth itself as to the identity it wants.