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What politicians can learn from the Harry and Meghan saga

What politicians can learn from the Harry and Meghan saga

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Brits’ support for the monarchy is indicative of where they stand on a range of issues

Transcript

Over the holidays, I went to the local recycling centre. It was full of people unloading their Christmas rubbish – loads of cardboard and tonnes of junk from their Kias and their Fords, their Volvos and their Land Rovers. And, if you’ve been to your local recycling centre, well, you’ll know the feeling: it thrums with a certain purposeful, pious silence, people dumping stuff in skips with that combination of relief and righteousness that makes it a happy place. Worthwhile, to be sure, but with just a touch of worthy.

I’d just thrown away a large square of foam insulation – “That bad boy goes in residual”, as the woman in the hi-viz jacket had told me – I’d also put bottles in the coloured glass skip and was taking a sack of broken tiles to the “Hardcore and rubble” dumpster, when I saw a man – likely in his early seventies – carrying just a single item, a mug, to throw in the same skip for rubble. And when I looked in to see what he’d thrown away, it was, sure enough, a Harry and Meghan wedding souvenir mug.

“I see Harry and Meghan are on the tip,” I said to him. 

“Yes,” he said, “that was me.” A pause. “And we’ve still got the book to come.” He paused again, and then he added: “I just wish they’d leave us alone.”

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor of Tortoise, and, you’ll be relieved to hear, this is not another column speculating on the royal psychodrama and musing on the furious brothers grim; instead, this week’s Editor’s Voicemail is about us. Because I keep thinking about that moment at the skip and I suppose it does tell us something unpredicted, if nonetheless obvious and important, about the middle ground in British public sentiment and political life.

It’s obvious that Britain’s attachment to the institution of the monarchy is much stronger than many predicted; many people warned that public admiration for Queen Elizabeth II was not just greater than the regard for her son but there was more affection for her than the medieval anachronism of hereditary authority that is the monarchy. In other words, the Crown was going to be in trouble without the Queen.

But mile-long queues and millions of people in different ways paying their respects, it appears, were more than just personal tributes to the late Queen. The monarchy, it seems, is valued for itself and deeply woven into the personal identity of many, many British people. King Charles, it’s widely said, has made a good start. And you can’t help but think that’s in part because the public are willing him on; the British want it – the monarchy – to work. 

This has implications well beyond Palace PR and polling. 

If you think, as I do, that Britain’s political system is a mess and is in need of a constitutional overhaul, you’re going to need to rewrite the rules but keep the royals out of it. For any process of constitutional reform to work in the UK, it can’t impinge much on the monarchy. 

For Keir Starmer, it argues all the more for a common-sense social conservatism within Labour. The British public’s reaction to the Sussex saga is not going to go unnoticed by the Starmer strategists: it’s going to direct the party’s position on trans and biological sex, on reparations, on Land of Hope and Glory, on Winston Churchill and statues all towards the centre ground. Labour, already singing the national anthem at annual conference, is going to be all the more red, white and blue. In turn, this presents a political challenge for Rishi Sunak – with less room in the middle of that cultural battleground, the temptation for him will be to court the small-boats-bashing right and, as a result, risk forgoing the common-sense social centre.

And I suppose there’s an emotional pull of constancy in a time of change, one that goes well beyond democracy and beyond politics. I got a fair few “good riddance” to 2022 messages at the turn of the year; but, perhaps just to be contrary, I looked back on last year and, for all the reckless political irresponsibility, the wanton aggression and the economic strain, you couldn’t help but marvel at some of the breakthroughs in science that quite wondrously invited us to peek over the horizon: the James Webb telescope peering into the universe, ChatGPT making artificial intelligence a force for creativity and authorship, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory allowing us to hope that fusion offers a path to limitless, non-polluting energy. Before you get to Covid and the climate crisis, soaring prices and an escalating war, there’s a fast and full diet of change for all of us to contend with. No wonder we hold fast to things we know, things that are old, things that deliberately and determinedly try to span the changes and stay constant over time. 

In other words, there’s a lot to learn from that man at the hardcore and rubble skip – a lot, constitutionally and politically, socially and emotionally, in the phrase “leave us alone”.