How I hate the British fascination with royalty. I will not watch That Interview. But the Royal family is a critical link in my country’s constitution and we can’t ignore it entirely, much as we might want to. Both sides in this spat are making the case for the family’s release from its constitutional role; the grubby business of elections and politics can’t be worse than this.
For somebody that affects uninterest in the royals, I have a guilty secret. I immensely enjoyed the Netflix series The Crown. I only started to watch last autumn, but I have now seen all four series. Before the last series I was interested to read the criticism of it in the press, from royal experts. This is a class of people who make my flesh creep, as they try to exploit the social cachet of knowing the royals. Mostly this criticism was pretty weak – a lot of trivial things (but none that made as annoyed as the use of a Crusader III tank in Suez in 1956; this vehicle was obsolete in 1943). More serious were the conflations and exaggerations in the drama, and events that never happened. These often annoy me too (machine-guns at the Curragh, etc) , and I’m very wary of the defence that the dramas are following a higher historical truth. But to my surprise, I found that I felt that the makers of the series had a point in this case. There was another category of criticism, the knowing “they wouldn’t do that” about some or other misbehaviour, such as the mistreatment of the Thatchers when they visited Balmoral. And yet the drama made it clear that this arose from a gulf of misunderstanding, not intention, and it is all too credible.
The strength of The Crown is that it has a clear and consistent theme, and that theme is clearly true. The institution of the monarchy overpowers the individuals in the Royal Family, and crushes all those who attempt to assert their individuality. Although the drama starts with the last days of George VI, its real beginning is the Abdication Crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII had tried to rebel against the system. This casts a heavy shadow over the first two of the series. The drama shows how the Queen herself came to terms with not being in control, and how pretty much everybody else in the family was crushed and became very unhappy. It focuses on Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But we know that the unhappiness doesn’t end there. Funnily enough the series doesn’t make a big deal out of the tabloid press, the big focus of Prince Harry’s anger – but they point to the contradictions of the institution itself.
The fourth series of the Crown ends in the early 1990s. But we all know that the same drama has been continuing at the same pace in the quarter-century since. And That Interview is only the latest twist. What to make of it? The most explosive claim, about remarks over the colour of Harry and Meghan’s baby is quite hard to take seriously without more context. Was is overt racism, or was somebody being a twit? We may never know – but sensitivities differ across the Atlantic. The broader claim is more serious though: that much of the British public struggled to accept an interracial marriage, which was stoked by the British press. This was part of the toxic atmosphere that the couple felt they had to escape; Prince Harry feels that the Royal Family machine ran for cover rather than fight their corner. The Crown suggests that this was always so, but that this is out of necessity. Another serious charge was that Meghan was not offered help, or help that she felt she could use, when she complained of suicidal thoughts. This echoes, consciously perhaps, of the Palace’s neglect of Princess Diana. In that case the usual secret sources suggested that The Crown was being unfair and one-sided, and that Diana was pretty difficult to deal with. That defence reveals an incomprehension of the problem; the television portrayal was all too convincing. In Meghan’s case the story is likely to be more complicated – but establishing the truth feels like an intrusion.
But the big picture is clear; it is another variation on a theme that has been played out many times. A younger member of the Royal Family feels they can freshen things up. The ‘Firm” feels that this is intolerable and will undermine the monarchy, and crushes the troublemaker. The interesting thing is that The Firm could well be right: the moderniser may do much more harm than good, given the ambiguous nature of the institution, being an upholder of democratic values while being deeply undemocratic itself.
Is it worth it? The British Monarchy does a reasonable job of being the ceremonial head of state. It has its weaknesses. In 2019 the Queen could do nothing to stop several months of Boris Johnson controlling the considerable executive powers of the state with no parliamentary or democratic mandate – a constitutional and democratic outrage. It was the Supreme Court, not the Monarch, that stopped the most outrageous element of this: the attempt to prorogue parliament.
But this constitutional arrangement comes at a huge human cost to the family at the centre of it. By and large they don’t choose to be members. If we had an elected head of state, they at least would have chosen it as a career. The Monarchy has turned the Royal Family into a factory of human misery. There are better ways. Alas reform is unlikely to be a political priority. The misery of one family is not worth the time and trouble.