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Philip Collins: Flashbulbs, blood feuds and fairy tales

Wednesday 10 March 2021

A former Number Ten speechwriter unpacks the true meaning of Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah – and the dissonant ideas of monarchy and modernity at its heart


Oprah Winfrey: So I was there on that wedding day. And I so recall… this sense of magic. I mean, I’d never experienced anything like it. And when you came through that door, it seemed like you were, like, floating down the aisle. Were you even inside your body at that time?

Meghan Markle: I’ve thought about this a lot, because it was like having an out-of-body experience that I was very present for. And that’s the only way I can describe it. Because the night before I slept through the night entirely – which in and of itself is a bit of a miracle. And then I woke up and started listening to that song ‘Going to the Chapel’. And, and, just tried to make it fun and light and remind ourselves that this was our day. But I think we were both really aware, even in advance of that, this wasn’t our day. This was the day that was planned for the world.

Here is the whole nonsense, captured in a maxim that could fit inside a fortune cookie, to use the idiom to which Meghan Markle has now returned. “This sense of magic” and “an out of body experience that I was very present for”. The magic of monarchy is the deception we practice on ourselves, the way that we collude in the fairytale it has to tell. This exchange, in which Winfrey and Markle think they are reminiscing about the wedding, in fact establishes what is about to go wrong and why.

Throughout what follows, Markle is articulate and thoughtful and Winfrey is sympathetic but acute. This is the only moment in the interview when they both talk sheer moonshine, and it is telling. Unless you believe in some of this, modern monarchy simply cannot make sense. Do not let daylight in on monarchy, wrote Walter Bagehot in 1867. This opening is the claim to magic. What follows is the harsh Californian sunlight.

Oprah Winfrey: Everybody who gets married knows that you are really marrying the family too. But you weren’t just marrying a family. You were marrying a 1,200 year-old institution. You’re marrying the monarchy. What did you think it was going to be like?

Meghan Markle: I will say I went into it naively… I didn’t fully understand what the job was: What does it mean to be a working royal? What do you do? What does that mean? … But I think as Americans, especially, what do you know about the royals? It’s what you read in fairy tales, you think is what you know about the royals. So it’s easy to have an image of it that is so far from reality. And that’s what was really tricky over those past few years, when the perception and the reality are two very different things… I grew up in LA, you see celebrities all the time. This is not the same. But it’s very easy, I think especially as an American to go “Oh, these are famous people”. It’s like: no, this is, this is a completely different ball game.

This is the heart of the misunderstanding and it extends beyond Meghan Markle and beyond the credulous American public to the British people. There are two significant points here. The first is that being a royal is not a real job. Nobody would really notice if it were not done. There is no job description and no infrastructure which made Markle’s reference, later in the interview, to being a member of a union and talking to human resources (as if Monarchy Ltd were a FTSE-100 corporation), so strange.

The second misunderstanding is that modern royalty is not a fairy tale. It only seems that way in the sentimental coverage of weddings and baby births. In fact the monarchy today is an unstable merger of ancient blood-feuds with contemporary flashbulbs. It is bound to end badly, as Harry himself says later. The Belle Époque ends with the image of Jay Gatsby, floating face-down in a swimming pool. The standard issue image of monarchy is Diana’s speeding car, chased by the paparazzi through the Ponte de l’Alma in Paris. The fleeting nature of newspaper fame is consuming the hereditary eternity of monarchy. It is no trade for an actress to go into, let alone naively.

Oprah Winfrey: You came in as the first mixed race person to marry into the family, and did that concern you in being able to fit in? You came in as an American, you came as an actress. You came in as a divorcee, you came in as an independent woman, you came in as the first mixed race person to marry into the family and yours was a different story. And did that concern you, in being able to fit in? Did you think about that at all?

Meghan: We thought about it because they made me think about it. Right? But I think at the same time now upon reflection, thank God all those things were true. Thank God I had that life experience. Thank God I had known the value of working. My first job was when I was 13 – at a frozen yoghurt shop called Humphrey Yogart. I’ve always worked. I’ve always valued independence. I’ve always been outspoken, especially about women’s rights. I mean, that’s the sad irony of the last four years, is I’ve advocated for so long for women to use their voice. And then I was silent.

Oprah’s question is a brilliantly concise litany of all the things that we really do not want in a princess. A mixed-race American divorcee actress of independent views. That is a full house in royal family bingo. I suppose she might also have been a republican. She probably is now. But look at the gulf in understanding in Meghan’s answer which touches on the core secret of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The period of modern monarchy begins with Diana’s BBC Panorama in 1995 and has now been book-ended by Harry and Meghan with Oprah. But through all the tumult the woman on the throne has never given an interview.

The Queen has ruled in silence and that refusal to provide a commentary allows us all to project onto her monarchy whatever fantasies of stability we want. So to be asked to be silent is not, as Meghan implies, an insult specific to her. It is the stock-in-trade of the family firm. It is the way they do things in there.

Oprah Winfrey: There’s a conversation with you… about how dark your baby is going to be, potentially, and what that would mean or look like. And you’re not going to tell me who had the conversation?

Meghan Markle: I think that would be very damaging to them. Okay… Which is really hard to understand. Right? Especially when, look, the Commonwealth is a huge part of the monarchy and I lived in Canada, which is a Commonwealth country, for seven years, but it wasn’t until Harry and I were together that we started to travel through the Commonwealth, I would say 60-70 per cent of which is people of colour right? And, growing up as a woman of colour, as a little girl of colour, I know how important representation is. I know how you want to see someone who looks like you… And I think about that so often, especially in the context of these young girls, but even grown women and men who, when I would meet them in our time in the Commonwealth, how much it meant to them, to be able to see someone who looks like them in this position, and I could never understand how it wouldn’t be seen as an added benefit, and a reflection of the world today. At all times, but especially right now, to go – “how inclusive is that?” That you can see someone who looks like you in this family, much less one who’s born into it.

The most explosive part of the conversation and an accusation that was confirmed later in the proceedings by Harry. Though neither would identify the culprit, the remarks about Archie’s skin tone are shocking. There is no context in which they are going to look any better.

They do also raise a serious flaw in the monarchy, which is that a white hereditary aristocracy cannot possibly hope to represent an increasingly diverse democracy. The royal family is no longer the representative family of the nation that it claims to be, and which we conspire in believing it to be. It may not matter if we find a new story for monarchy apart from “family of the nation”. There is a big rhetorical point at work here. The story of the family is no longer colliding with the truth of the country. Monarchy needs to tell a new tale. The oldest institution of all is adept at updating itself and Meghan here puts her finger on the reason it needs to do this again.

Oprah Winfrey: So here’s a time to set the record straight. What was the tipping point that made you decide you had to leave?

Prince Harry: My biggest concern was history repeating itself. But more, perhaps, or definitely, far more dangerous – because then you add racism, and you add social media. And when I’m talking about history, opinions… I’m talking about my mother. When you can see something happening in the same kind of way, anybody would ask for help, ask the system of which you are part of, especially when you know there’s a relationship there that they could help share some truth or call the dogs off, whatever you want to call it. So to receive no help at all, and to be told continuously: “This is how it is. This is just how it is. We’ve all been through it”… And how far they were going to take it and get away with it. And get away with it, and be so blatant about it. That’s the bit that shocked me. This is – we’re talking about the UK press here, right? And this… and the UK is my home. That is where I was brought up. So yes, I’ve got my own relationship that goes back a long way with the media. I asked for calm from the British tabloids once as a boyfriend, once as a husband, and once as a father…

It is worth remembering that, as observers, we know very little of what goes on behind closed doors. Being asked to take sides in Harry and Meghan versus the press, as though it were a football match, is trivial and silly. Yet it is hard not to feel sympathy for Harry’s case here. He does invoke his mother, but he does not lay the emotion on thick. The case made here is at the core of why Harry has decided that life in Britain is intolerable.

This passage came after Meghan had described the insufferable nature of life in the bubble and revealed that the vicious attention she received at the hands of the British newspapers brought her to the contemplation of suicide. The newspaper coverage of the royals really is a disgrace and the whole broken relationship needs to be reset. The unfortunate thing is that Harry here is raising a serious issue that will not be taken seriously. In the end, of course, the culprits are the readers. If there is no market for the vicious treatment of Meghan Markle it will soon stop.

Oprah Winfrey: Because is it like being in a big royal bubble? … And your brother? Relationship? Much has been said about that.

Prince Harry: But the rest of my family, my father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave. And I have huge compassion for that. Much has been said about that and much more will continue to be said about that. And I, as I said before, I love William to bits. He’s my brother, we’ve been through hell together. And we have a shared experience. But we, you know, we were, we were on different paths. The relationship is space at the moment, and you know, time heals all things, hopefully.

Harry’s two saddest moments in an interview that had almost nothing but sad moments was when he said that his father has refused to take his calls and when he refers here to the rift with his brother. The deep sadness of this passage of course recalls the famous day they were forced to tread the same path, walking behind their mother’s coffin at her funeral in 1997. Diana’s shadow hangs over this interview. Oprah does ask what she would think if she could see what had happened, to which Harry replies that she would have seen it coming.

Then Harry gets to the central problem, for his generation, of monarchy. It is a gilded prison from which they all want to escape. The collusion of people and monarch has created a trap. Prince Charles is the transitional figure who half hates it and half feels that things must be as they are. Harry, though, is his mother’s son and here he gives us the reason why the Queen’s version of monarchy will die with her. Harry’s father will be forced to update the institution and the best symbol of that would be to pick up the phone and invite his son back. If Harry decides to take his call, of course.

Oprah Winfrey: Are you hurt by that decision?

Prince Harry: I am hurt. But at the same time, I completely respect my grandmother’s decision. I would still love for us to be able to continue to support those associations, albeit without the title or the role.

There are a number of villains in this interview. The British press figures throughout as a disgrace. The institution of the monarchy, the “Firm” with a dodgy human resources function, is singled out over and over for opprobrium. There is the unnamed member of the family who made the racist slight about Archie.

On more than this occasion, Harry is keen to exculpate his grandmother, the Queen. After the interview, Harry and Meghan asked Oprah Winfrey to broadcast that neither the Queen or her husband was the source of the comment about Archie. Meghan tells only tales that present the Queen in a glowing light. Harry states his continued admiration for his grandmother, his “colonel-in-chief” as he calls her. Yet here, in response to Oprah’s question about the decision to refuse him the status of a minor royal, we discover that this was, in fact, the Queen’s call. The Queen could have allowed a change in status. She could have chosen to reconfigure the monarchy. She could have acceded to Harry’s request and he would, by his own testimony, then have stayed. She decided not to and, as he says here, it hurts. It was also the wrong decision.

For the senior royals to become half-in and half out is the way that monarchy should develop. Smaller, no longer all-consuming, with leading players who have real jobs. There is a new phase of monarchy there for the glimpsing – but not under the current management. For all the terrible treatment Harry and Meghan have had from other members of the retinue, this is why they are now in Santa Barbara. The Queen could call them back any time she wanted.

Oprah Winfrey: Your story with the prince does have a happy ending.

Meghan: Yeah, greater than any fairy tale you’ve ever read.

Harry: Yeah, with, without question there was, there was a bigger purpose. There were other forces at play. I think, throughout this whole process.

It is appropriate that we go a bit twilight zone at the end. No other institution gains the uncritical commentary granted to modern monarchy – which therefore becomes intolerable for those who are forced to live as our pantomime ghouls. Monarchy, in the Harry and Meghan version, is a human zoo. Throughout the interview there has been a strange air of liberation and freedom. America may well be fascinated by the spectacle of royalty – though, as Oprah Winfrey’s breathless questions revealed, most Americans have not the first idea of what it is really like. But the US has never wanted to reinstate the monarchy. The land never wanted the King, or the Queen for that matter, back. They live in the land of the free and, for the moment, that is where Harry and Meghan are living too. It can’t possibly last but, for the moment, they are free at least.

Photograph CBS