A Royal Family is a projective test: it is designed to be an emblem of a nation with which all citizens can identify. They need to see enough in that family to be able to imagine themselves being part of it. This family, by dint of some historical achievement, is chosen as the prime example of a country’s people, to be defended, admired, and copied by them all: it should set an example, and bind the nation together. For the chosen family, it is a Faustian bargain: a very good standard of living in return for good behaviour and embodying the countries’ values. Luxury demands service in return, and part of that service is to be on public display.
In terms of inter-tribal competition, this makes sense. When dealing with the tribe across the mountains you want your representatives to look as good as possible. However impoverished your tribe may be, your representatives must be well-dressed and able to put on an impressive show when receiving visitors, and able to offer presents when visiting other countries in return. Perceptions matter. Making a good impression can lead to better trade relations, and might even avoid a war.
These historical precedents may seem less important now, but it is strange how countries without an official royal family tend to get fascinated by Britain’s Queen, or their own special political families. In US politics, more attention will be paid to those with surnames such as Bush, Clinton, Obama, as well as Kennedy and in future Trump. France guillotined their royals, but still has some interest in the royals over the water. Pedigree is a factor, even when people say it should not be.
YouGov surveys show a big generational difference in how UK citizens perceive Harry and Meghan. The 18 to 24 year-olds are sympathetic to the young couple, those over 50 not. Of course, the age of viewers cannot determine the truth of the matter. Also, plenty of people are not interested, or at least say they aren’t. The very latest polls from YouGov show Harry has fallen 15 points into negative territory at -3, and Meghan down 14 points to a net rating of -27.
The fact-checking has now begun. Doubts have been raised by matters such as which members of the extended royal family get which titles, and which levels of protection. In this the young couple appear to have misunderstood the standard procedures set up in 1917. There are considerable doubts about whether the Archbishop of Canterbury would have married them in a private without witnesses present, and then gone through with a massive charade three days later, against all legal and religious requirements. Also in doubt is the claim about not having access to passports, since there was plentiful foreign travel in that period, and the Queen is the only one who travels without one. Journalists have gone through the proffered specimens of hostile front-page UK press coverage, and find that many were written by the overseas press, or after the couple had already left public life. Much of the earlier negative press was because of their championing global warming precautions while taking private jets. Other claims they made are hard to assess, particularly the one about their baby’s skin colour. More of that later. Curiously, with all this focus on the Royals as a family, the interview made no commensurate examination of the Markles as a family.
Undeniably, people are interested in what Harry and Meghan had to say. A royal family must be somewhat mysterious if it is to serve its symbolic function. It is natural to wonder what the Queen is like. I have been at functions where the Queen was present, and she was gracious and very capable. A little story: at a big lunch she gave for civic leaders she was on the round table next to ours. Afterwards I quizzed the guy sitting next to her, a local butcher. He said that at any reception he had generally found himself on table 20, but this time had to search up the entire board to find, to his great alarm, that he was sitting next to her. Assuming he should only speak when spoken to, he said: “Within 20 seconds it was clear we would be having an ordinary conversation”. I asked what his impressions were. He replied “A really excellent mimic”. Not many people know that.
Today, on a Zoom conference with schoolchildren about science the Queen was asked what Yuri Gagarin was like. Deadpan, she replied: Russian. And then joined in the laughter.
Camilla, attending the opening of a new wing of a hospice, came into to see a dying friend of ours and was charming, talking with her for quite some time. Slightly to my surprise, our friend was very moved by her visit. The Duke of Edinburgh was good fun to talk to, a close friend found. When the Queen visited Trinity College Cambridge she told another friend how much she had enjoyed visiting Charles when he was studying there. I had a long conversation with Lord Linley, son of Princess Margaret, about his fine furniture business. Finding out that I was a psychologist, he quipped: “How am I doing?” and carried on describing his work. Friends had a long friendly conversation with Lady Diana, which they always remember. A casualty consultant told me that a politician visiting the hospital was generally considered a nuisance (he had Thatcher in mind) but if a Royal came along everyone was smiling for at least four days. The royal family meets everybody. It is part of the job description, and they generally appear to enjoy it.
Among those over 50 years of age there is considerable irritation at the Harry and Meghan accusations, and a feeling of betrayal. Their wedding was a big event, designed in the way they wanted, and was very well received by the public. They were very popular. Eventually, their lectures about global warming began to grate on nerves, given their private travels. (Prince Charles had been given the same treatment, for the same reasons). Royals live a charmed life, but are not expected to complain when hypocrisies are exposed.
Now to the skin colour of the baby, based on comments actual or potential. Harry said that racism was a large part of the reason he gave up his royal duties and left his country. The line taken by some commentators is that the accusation requires the royal family to reflect deeply. Well, let’s consider what might happen if they did so. They would note that they had accepted a divorcee into the family, had given the couple a superb and very expensive wedding with priests and choirs that celebrated the brides’ African heritage, gave them a fine house, watched them gain enormous popularity and public affection, and then crash out shortly thereafter, with public accusations of racism. The whole point about crying racism is that the accusation is irrefutable. No good deed counts as absolution. So long as the accuser claims (with all their heart) that they were treated unfairly, the case is proved, and all that remains is to determine the sentence. The royal family, after all that reflection, might be tempted to go back to arranged marriages.
I took the photo of Harry in June 2019 when he was the guest of honour at Founders Day at The Royal Hospital, the retirement home for soldiers “broken by war”. Everyone wanted to meet him, and looked on with interest as he chatted to those presented to him. It seemed that his future lay in helping Army charities, to public acclaim.
Younger critics refer to the couple and “Ginge & Cringe”. Older critics prefer “Duchess Difficult & The Hostage”.
Although there have been many different public reactions, one I often hear is: