Over New Year, I re-read The Crucible for the first time in a long while, and was struck by one passage in particular. In a powerful monologue, Danforth, the chief judge of the Salem witch trials, warns Francis Nurse of what is at stake in the petition signed by 91 landholders and church members, defending his wife, Rebecca, and two others accused of consorting with the Devil.
“... you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there is no road between. This is a sharp time now, a precise time – we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”
Last night, as I watched Prince Harry being interviewed by ITV’s Tom Bradby, these lines returned to me with a powerful and unexpected resonance. The tragedy of Prince Harry – for tragedy it is – resides in his own implacable belief, acquired only in recent years, that we also live in “a precise time,” in which there is no “road between”.
Here, in a one-hour-and-forty-minute special (the length of a feature film), was a mostly genial 38-year-old who is nonetheless consumed, damaged and essentially defined by an uncompromising sense of his own rectitude; certain only that he and his wife, Meghan Markle, have been wronged by a cast of pantomime villains.
Though he grudgingly admitted towards the end of the conversation that “I am sure we got things wrong,” he bridled when Bradby gently suggested that there were people in the UK who wished he would just stop talking. “Stop talking about what?” he snapped.
Like the six-part Netflix series, Harry & Meghan released last month, the interview illustrated how he has swallowed in one gulp what is lazily called “wokery” but has been better described by the US writer Wesley Lang as “successor ideology”.
The primary feature of this ideology is its purity tests. In the Netflix series, Harry revealed his dismay that “we’re probably never going to get genuine accountability or a genuine apology” from (it was implied) the King, the Queen Consort and the Prince and Princess of Wales. On 18 December, the Sunday Times reported the renewed charge by “a source close to the Sussexes” that there had been “no meeting, formal apology or taking responsibility or accountability.”
So when Harry said in last night’s interview that “the ball is in their court,” it was clear what he meant: if there is to be the reconciliation for which he claims to yearn, his father, stepmother, brother and sister-in-law must first abase themselves in a sort of Maoist “struggle session”; confess in full their wrongdoings to the blameless “H” and “M”; and atone accordingly.
In the past few days, we have been treated to an astonishing series of allegations, mostly concerning his father’s emotional distance, the alleged manoeuverings of Camilla to become queen, and, above all else, his feud with his “arch-nemesis” brother.
In 2019, we are told, William brawled with Harry at Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace, ripping the younger brother’s necklace and pushing him to the floor, onto a dogbowl which was – sad to say – broken in the melee. After Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, wicked “Willy” – this time “steaming” and “shouting” – again allegedly “lunged” at “Harold” and “grabbed my shirt” twice. On another occasion, the elder prince chased Harry around the gardens of Balmoral, dressed as Scooby Doo, armed with a tin of Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti, bellowing: “The power of Christ compels you!”
All right, I made the last one up. But you get the idea.
I say that all this is tragic, because I think Harry had a great deal to offer. He and Meghan are quite right that the monarchy is ludicrously incapable of welcoming and helping outsiders when they join the Firm by marriage – including those who might otherwise have become invaluable ambassadors for the institution. Their critique of the way in which the media vilified Meghan – often descending to racism or dog whistles – is also demonstrably fair.
Before he became a symbol of intergenerational conflict and culture wars between young and old, the demographic with which he was most popular was pensioners – as a unifying, rather than a divisive figure. His foundation of the Invictus Games and his charity work have been outstanding. However you cut it, he is a serious loss to the royal family.
And lost he most certainly is. In response to the criticism that his very public denunciation of just about everyone else has not exactly smoothed the path to peace, he replied to Bradby that “peace can happen when there’s truth” and that “silence only allows the abuser to abuse.”
He went on to lecture his interviewer about the distinction between “unconscious bias” and racism. And there was something at best ridiculous and at worst a little repulsive about hearing such a person – a multi-millionaire white male, fifth in line to the throne – so breezily appropriate the slogans and rhetoric of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
Just as the admirable energy of the modern social justice movements – against racism, sexism, the destruction of the environment – has too often been squandered on cancel culture, arguments about who should be allowed to speak and on what subjects, and performative recrimination, so Harry has been captured by a scolding ideology in which the attribution of blame trumps everything else.
As often as he deploys the word “truth,” he has come to see the world as no more than a battle of competing “narratives” in which he, as a self-appointed exemplar of the oppressed, has an absolute right to “own my story and tell it for myself”. Well, mission accomplished – or about to be accomplished, as we await the official publication tomorrow of his 416-page memoir, Spare.
In this respect, Harry is a hypermodern figure, in that the particular narrative contest he has chosen to enter values victims over heroes. Only from true victimhood can deep knowledge flow: he has made, he said, “a decision to right a wrong” and to be “part of the solution” (needless to say, all of his relatives are still part of the problem). He last night declared it “my life’s work” to put the British press in its place.
Extraordinarily, he also claimed that his reconciliation with the rest of the royal family could send “a ripple effect around the world”. Yes, that’s what the people of Ukraine are really hoping for in 2023, Harry.
The prince’s champions say that his apparently limitless candour is a courageous example of modern therapy and what it can achieve. But this is a category mistake. In the past century, psychotherapy, counselling services and the meetings of 12-step recovery groups have indeed had a transformative effect upon millions of lives.
But their basis is the working through of trauma, addiction and personal difficulties in private spaces. The purpose is to deflate the ego, renounce grandiosity and the quest for an audience, and to explore the individual’s problems in a secure environment.
Harry’s compulsive oversharing – a recognised psychological phenomenon, by the way – has much more in common with the behavioural patterns of social media: Instagram for showing off your “best life,” Twitter for settling scores, TikTok for dancing, singing and shouting about old people and pronouns.
During the Abdication Crisis of 1936, the monarchy was damaged by the counterproductive efforts of Edward VIII (Harry’s great-great-uncle) to keep his affair with Wallis Simpson out of the press. The mighty newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook declared himself persuaded by the king’s request for media silence, made “calmly and with considerable cogency,” and colluded with the Harmsworth dynasty to keep the story from British readers for as long as possible – a doomed enterprise that did the institution of monarchy no favours at all.
Eighty-seven years later, the same institution faces precisely the opposite problem: a senior, if already estranged member of the Windsor family who makes absolutely everything public, has no filter, and, while demanding privacy, simultaneously turbocharges the very voyeurism he claims to abhor. The loss of his virginity to an older woman in a field when he was 17; his frostbitten penis after a trip to the North Pole; the precise number of Taliban he killed (25, for Harry completists); his visit to a psychic to contact his late mother; lots of drug talk: all this and presumably much more will be available to read tomorrow. To borrow Bagehot’s phrase, Harry has not just “let in daylight upon magic”. He has encircled it with stadium floodlights.
Does it matter? There is a metropolitan inclination to say, de haut en bas, that this is all just a deranged soap opera and not worthy of clever people’s attention. A soap opera it most certainly is, but it is a mistake to ignore it.
For a start, the Netflix series has been and continues to be a big hit for the streaming service. Even before its publication, Spare is riding high in the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whatever else the Sussexes get wrong, they understand that the rules of power in the 21st Century follow the template of the entertainment industry rather than the constraints of the old institutional order. Their overall popularity may have dipped in the UK, but they still have a loyal following among the young and are viewed sympathetically in many countries, especially the United States.
None of which can be neglected by an institution that relies upon consent in the future as much as the authority of the past; that justifies itself to a considerable extent by its global reach and its contribution to Britain’s “soft power” overseas. Harry and Meghan may seem comparatively friendless right now, but they have many youthful supporters at the checkpoint between today and tomorrow. Scorned, wrathful and impermeably self-righteous, they are not going anywhere.
And all of this only four months after the death of the Queen, and 118 days before the coronation of the King. Harry’s grand J’Accuse comes at a moment of transition and intrinsic vulnerability for an institution that was headed by the same reassuring figure for 70 years. At present, the new monarch is proving popular and handling his role with panache. But it would be idle to discount the embarrassment, anger and despair that his younger son’s multimedia attack must be causing him, at this of all times.
As for Harry: it is hard to imagine that, deep down, this spree is bringing him much pleasure. The chilly reward of revenge – the pulse of adrenaline in weary veins – is seldom long lasting. And the sanctimonious stockade that he has chosen as his own psychic kingdom is a lonely place.
The trouble is that Judge Danforth was quite wrong. The insistence upon purity is invariably a path to misery, a pointless battle with the foibles and errors of human beings, royal or otherwise. Confidence that you are right is rarely enough. The times, whatever this sad young prince may believe to the contrary, are never “precise”.