It is the curse of the Windsor men: they can’t resist marrying women who are more interesting than themselves. The news this week that Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, Prince Harry, is engaged to an American actress has not exactly rocked the UK. But those traditional balcony photos—men in military uniform, women in weird hats—are going to look very different in future.
Back in the 1980s, Harry’s father, Prince Charles, was aghast when his shy bride, Lady Diana Spencer, transformed herself into the first global superstar. Meghan Markle isn’t that, not yet at least, but it’s clear that she has star quality. Unlike his elder brother Prince William, who made a safe choice when he married Kate Middleton, Harry has gone full Hollywood.
The engagement was announced at a moment when the United Kingdom is angry and divided, still suffering from the self-inflicted wounds of last year’s referendum on EU membership. Who cares if a minor member of the royal family has finally decided, at the age of thirty-three, to give up a mildly rambunctious bachelor lifestyle? By now, most Britons have forgotten the naked photos of Harry taken at a party in Las Vegas and the Nazi uniform he ill-advisedly once wore to a costume party. True, Harry’s great-great-uncle David married an American divorcée who, according to an FBI report, had an affair with Hitler’s foreign minister, but that is nothing more than coincidence. Great-great-uncle David—better known as King Edward VIII—is another example of a Windsor man who married interestingly.
All this matters for a simple reason, which is that the British royal family remains in place by consent. That can be withdrawn as well as given: plenty of European countries have got rid of their monarchies or scaled them down on the Dutch model of bicycle-pedaling quasi-commoners. You wouldn’t know this from the British media’s servile reaction to Harry’s engagement, which wiped everything else off the map. The corgis “took to her straight away,” declared the usually conservative Daily Telegraph, which will have baffled anyone unfamiliar with the upper-class habit of channeling the ancient wisdom of dogs.
Ordinary people are not so sure: a YouGov poll suggests that about half the British public is indifferent to the royal engagement, a figure that rises to 62 percent among male respondents. The poll also confirmed earlier findings suggesting that the younger royals are more popular than Prince Charles and his second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Prince of Wales has never really recovered from the avalanche of bad publicity he received after Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997; over the summer of 2017, as the twentieth anniversary of the fatal car crash approached, his ratings plummeted again.
For decades, the public was not allowed to know the extent of the prince’s attempted interference in government policy, something that changed a couple of years ago with the release of the famous “black spider memos”—a small selection of his letters, so named because handwritten in ink, that showed Charles lobbying ministers on a wide range of subjects, from agriculture to education. He urged the health minister, for instance, to provide homeopathy, regarded by most doctors as a crank remedy, on the National Health Service. In another, he asked for public money to train teachers who would follow his deeply conservative ideas about the teaching of English and history.
In August this year, YouGov asked people which members of the royal family have made a positive contribution to the monarchy, a vague formulation that nevertheless offers some measure of whom they like and whom they don’t. Just over a third thought that Charles was doing a good job, down from 60 percent four years ago. This is most likely a reaction to an accumulation of episodes, from the 2002 revelation that he’d threatened to leave the country (and spend the rest of his life skiing) if fox-hunting was banned, to the moment when he was caught on mic a few years ago describing the BBC’s royal correspondent as an “awful man.”
There is no mechanism to prevent this angry, thin-skinned man from ascending the throne, but he cannot force his subjects to feel affection for him or treat him with the deference he thinks he deserves. Behind the scenes, anxiety has been growing for years about the prospect of his becoming king, even to the point of wondering whether the institution can survive the coronation of Charles III. As long ago as 2010, the historian and former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings wrote a startling essay for The Daily Mail that argued that “this increasingly eccentric royal could imperil the monarchy.”
The YouGov poll in August pointed to one of several possible flashpoints, with only 14 percent of respondents saying they wanted Camilla to be Queen. Memories of the public anger that followed Diana’s death, culminating in her brother’s remarkably hostile funeral oration, remain raw in royal circles. It has been a long time since members of the royal family were booed in public—as happened to George VI in 1940 when he and his consort visited bombed-out parts of the East End of London—but the royal family’s popularity can never be taken for granted.
A republican movement has been growing, steadily but surely, in the UK. The emotional outpouring after Diana’s death did real damage to the royals, prompting the most searing criticism the Queen had experienced during her forty-five years on the throne for her frozen, unfeeling response to her subjects’ grief. She had already experienced what she famously called her “annus horribilis” five years earlier, prompted by her children’s failing marriages and a fire at Windsor Castle, and after 1997 the family kept a low profile for a while—even though the attacks on the Palace had been factional, not republican, in character. Charles eventually succeeded in overcoming public resistance to his marriage to his former mistress, but he remains a hostage to the Diana effect.
Kate Middleton has gone out of her way to avoid comparisons with the mother-in-law she never met, but that isn’t what the public seems to want. The women in their twenties and thirties I meet speak dismissively of Kate, complaining that she is dull, dresses like a woman twice her age and lacks ambition. But this same group warms to Markle, viewing her as the epitome of a modern woman: confident, outgoing and with a successful career, even if it is a legal drama called Suits that few British people have seen. Her being mixed-race has also been welcomed as evidence that the country has changed for the better, with a poll showing that nearly 70 percent approve of the idea that a royal might marry someone of a different ethnicity. But Harry is fifth in line to the throne and his marriage has little constitutional significance. The fact remains that, if everything goes to plan, the country will have white men as heads of state for most, if not all, of this century.
The Daily Telegraph described Markle as “a Hollywood princess,” a latter-day Grace Kelly in the making. Her prominence is the logical continuation of a process begun by Diana, whose lasting legacy was to turn the British royals from distant figureheads into worldwide celebrities. Charles doesn’t like it much, viewing himself as a weighty thinker, busily trying to solve the world’s problems and getting no thanks for it. It isn’t clear whether he or anyone in the family is ready for the change in royal family dynamics when a Hollywood star joins the line-up. In an interview recorded by the BBC to mark his engagement, Harry’s bulb seemed already to have dimmed in comparison to his fiancée’s mega-watt glow. She leaned forward, she laughed, she interrupted him, improving on the anecdotes he had begun to tell in his flat English accent. Without even trying, Markle may find herself upstaging her new relatives in ways that are bound to ruffle feathers in a family obsessed with status and protocol. Prince Philip once complained to the Queen that, unlike Charles, he had never received an Australian knighthood; it was an oversight his wife hastened to remedy.
The royal family are not The Royle Family, a BBC sitcom about an unemployed family living in the north of England, but the addition of Markle to the cast moves them deeper into the territory of popular entertainment. The princes’ candid TV documentary this summer about losing their mother suggested a media savviness on the part of the younger Windsors that recalled Diana’s astute use of the intimate interview in her famous 1995 Panorama confessional. But the more we come to view the royals as a branch of the entertainment industry, the more cracks start to appear in what the writer Tom Nairn called “the enchanted glass” of monarchy.
The Queen and Charles were among the first major figures to face questions following publication of the Paradise Papers, which revealed that they (or their advisers) had avoided tax liabilities by parking their wealth offshore at a time when many working families in Britain must rely on foodbanks. Seventeen of the Queen’s relatives are supported by British taxpayers, despite years of austerity and cutbacks in public spending, and they don’t do much in return. In August, the Press Association calculated that Harry and William had each worked just forty-six days so far this year, although many royal engagements last only an hour, plus travelling time.
The royal finances are opaque, deliberately so, allowing Buckingham Palace to claim that last year the family cost every British citizen about sixty-five pence (less than a dollar). That sum derives from the Sovereign Grant, the Treasury’s direct payment to the Queen that was fixed at £42.8 million in the financial year 2016–2017. But the figure excludes the huge cost of royal security. The campaign group Republic, which wants to replace the monarch with an elected and accountable head of state, estimates that the real cost of the institution is around £345 million, about eight times more than the official figure.
In an era of unbridled populism, however, personalities matter more than arguments. The current heir to the throne was jealous of his first wife, resenting the attention she got during public engagements; now he will have to accommodate a glamorous daughter-in-law trailing photographers and camera crews wherever she goes. Charles hasn’t spent years planning his coronation only to discover that the only question on anyone’s lips is “What will Meghan wear?”
This post has been corrected. The year that Queen Elizabeth II named her “annus horribilis” was 1992, not 1997. And in 1997, she had been on the throne for forty-five years, not thirty-five.