In a move that reflects the time-worn pathologies of powerful aristocratic families, the House of Windsor has agreed to allow the Queen’s grandson, Harry, currently sixth in line to the throne, and his California-born wife, Meghan, to leave the family business (The Firm) and attempt to establish independent lives in Canada, a former colony which remains a member of the British Commonwealth. This represents their exile from the territorial, ceremonial, financial, and emotional heart of the royal family.
The gimcrack contrivance of the constitutionally constrained modern royal family was immediately apparent upon its founding in the late seventeenth century. During a century of revolutions, the territories of England, Ireland and Scotland briefly cohered as a republic from 1649 to 1660 under Oliver Cromwell, following the execution of King Charles I. Subsequently threatened by a royal line devoted to Catholicism with the birth of a male heir to James II, the ruling class imported a foreign, but suitably Protestant, monarch, William of Orange, in what has been called the ‘Glorious Revolution’, 1688. This line ran out in 1714 with death of Queen Anne (memorably portrayed by Olivia Coleman in the film, The Favorite) who had no surviving children. Despite the efforts of James II’s son, the Catholic James Stuart (The Old Pretender), Anne’s second cousin, George, Elector of the tiny German state of Hanover, assumed the throne, ensuring a Protestant king. The Hanoverian dynasty has proved fecund. Its offspring continue to maintain the royal line, although the House of Hanover has been known, since the First World War, as the House of Windsor – a re-branding that attempted the concealment of its German ancestry.
The idea of the nation, an area of territorial coherence marked by shared ethnicity, language and culture, developed out of the perceived need for states to enshrine their permanence. Britain was first in embracing this modern notion by creating its parliamentary democracy (of sorts) under the aegis of the monarchy, in order to bring a sense of ageless political, cultural and historical inevitability to a fractured group of North Sea islands. That this conceit has survived into the twenty-first century is remarkable, but the defection of Harry and Meghan exposes its fragility at a time when Brexit presumably requires a revived sense of purpose, with the nation about to be cut loose from the European Union. It calls into question the family’s purpose beyond its existence as providers of fresh, tabloid-ready, globally enabled, sometimes salacious, occasionally tragic and consistently sentimental content.
Tom Nairn makes the point, in his dyspeptic study of the British Monarchy, The Enchanted Glass, 2011, that the royal family has consistently functioned as a conservative counterweight to British radicalism. He suggests that it has been encouraged by the ruling elite to generate sufficient and timely pageantry, bonhomie and noblesse oblige, in the celebration of the family’s births and marriages, in the lachrymose mourning of its deaths and in its tireless patronage of worthy causes in order to paper over the gross injustices evident in British society. Harry and Meghan dutifully played their part in this long-running production which Queen Elizabeth II continues to oversee as an aging but still stately showrunner. Their defection has resulted in the loss of The Firm’s brightest stars while simultaneously creating the kind of diversionary furor which is the family’s stock-in-trade.
Larger questions arise however, in consideration of the connective tissue (mostly composed of falsehoods) that binds nations together in the current age of information –the transmission of which is controlled not by individuals, states or royal families, but by the likes of Google, Facebook, WeChat and YouTube. Meghan and Harry have discovered that they cannot control the nature of their celebrity when it is disseminated by what McKenzie Wark, in Capital is Dead, is this Something Worse, 2019, calls ‘vectors of information’ under the command of an all-powerful ‘vectoralist class’ – the elite global coterie lorded over by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and old-school media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch (whose News Corp retains ownership of the British tabloid, The Sun). These new supra-capitalists “own or control the brands and celebrities that galvanize attention”. To the extent that ‘Sussex Royals’, the couple’s intended lifestyle and charitable brand, is a success, Meghan and Harry will remain victims of the same powers that, Harry believes, killed his mother, Princess Diana, and are currently intent on ‘destroying’ Meghan.
Zoe Williams writes sympathetically of Meghan in The Guardian, (traditionally a broadsheet not a tabloid),
“She has become a battlefield in a culture war. Something for Piers Morgan to sound off about, a vegan sausage roll in human form. It is a fantastically unenviable position to be in, but it is also one in which she could not have stayed neutral without being trampled to dust. Silence in the face of this would not have been dignified: it is both courageous and vital to object to it, whatever the cost.”
Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, was travelling in a dimly lit tunnel in Paris, attempting to escape a swarm of chasing paparazzi, when her chauffeur-driven Mercedes crashed and burnt, killing her, her partner, Dodi Fayed, and its driver instantly. In Britain, tabloid journalists are rabid in their pursuit of royalty: it is a high stakes game that has frequently struck at the heart of the family. Elizabeth II has suffered not only the death of Charles’ ex-wife in 1997 but was earlier witness to the dissolution of her sister Margaret’s life, barred by Royal protocol from marrying the love of her life, the divorced Peter Townsend. Margaret’s subsequent marriage to Anthony Armstrong Jones in 1960, her divorce, and several celebrity affairs were all conducted under the withering glare of a viciously sanctimonious British press. More recently, her third son Andrew has been ensnared in the sordid unraveling of the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking ring. Much of the British public takes great joy in the travails of the nation’s most privileged family while simultaneously reveling in the pseudo traditions and ceremonies that the royal family gamely continues to produce and star in amidst, what for most members of the clan, is the wreckage of their personal lives.
Theirs is, quite literally, a noble cause – the stifling of overt class dissent, forever bubbling beneath the surface of British society. They are the proud producers of an on-going soap that validates Britain and its cruel inequities by parading the family as living exemplars of the privileges of aristocracy whilst remaining ‘relatable’. The tabloids attempt the family’s subversion at every turn, as faithful recorders of its instances of moral turpitude, peccadilloes, and lapses of protocol. Yet they remain pathetically sycophantic come a royal birth or marriage.
Enthralled by freshets of free entertainment enabled by personal electronic devices, and the increasing availability of cheap consumer goods brought directly to one’s attention by those self-same devices, we exist in a perfect storm of twenty-first century bread and circuses – supine in the face of the social and democratic collapses that fester under such conditions of popular disinterest, inattention and apathy.
Royalty, heads of state, captains of industry, sports and entertainment stars offer up their lives in service to the insatiable maw of those who trade information for the privilege of exposing consumers to targeted advertising. They are but the tip of the pyramid, the base of which consists of all those who contribute cat videos, personal vignettes and the like to social media. Goods routed to consumers, along global supply routes and hub and spoke distribution networks, do so only upon the initial capture of their consumers’ attention on, most often, the tiny screens of their devices. (The actual production of those goods remains largely hidden from their consumers eyes, spread across the planet, most often in areas of poverty-wages, pollution and environmental vulnerability).
While the British royal family have traditionally fulfilled a leading role in the making of a state mythology, its function in the weaving of a plausible national tapestry is now challenged by self-curated ‘news’ streams that daily create personalized, pixilated visions of national coherence. The family’s unique ownership of ‘pomp and circumstance’ remains a significant attribute, but one must question whether a nation nominally ruled by Boris Johnson really needs the staid back drop of traditional royal ceremony. As Lord Mayor of London, he was quite capable of creating a phantasmagoria of Britishness at the opening of the 2012 Olympics. The Queen, The Firm’s leading lady, you will recall, had a bit part in this production alongside Daniel Craig as James Bond. Donald Trump, who is about to begin his fourth season as the show-runner for Make America Great Again, has no need of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, to validate his show – he is content with a mythic past that does not reach back much farther than the 1950’s.
Harry and Meghan have most likely consigned themselves to a lifestyle of the demi-monde, a twilight of insignificance as Royal exiles in the sad tradition of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson – those seminal arbiters of louche style and unfortunate political alliances. They do so at a moment when the relevance of the British royal family, never a very stable construct, is increasingly in question.