Meghan Markle: the royal family needs a desperate update – could a Trump-bashing American actress be the answer?

For a great many years the monarchy seemed perpetually out of step with Britain’s shifting social sands – distant, old-fashioned, the emblem of a stuffy, out of touch elite. As it prepares to welcome an outsider, Will Gore asks what it means for 'the firm'

Will Gore
Monday 27 November 2017 18:44 GMT
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have announced their engagement

The announcement of Prince Harry’s widely anticipated engagement to the US actress Meghan Markle sent the world’s media into paroxysms of excitement. An erupting volcano in Bali was a mere trifle by comparison. Indeed, with all eyes on the betrothed couple as they took a photocall in the grounds of Kensington Palace, the volcano might just as well have gone back to sleep.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Harry is a member of the world’s most famous royal family, while Markle is a poster girl for American television: he, the product of a British aristocracy at its most dysfunctional; she the mixed-race child of an LA psychotherapist and an Emmy award-winning lighting director. It has modern-day fairytale written all over it.

For hard core royalists the excitement at the thought of a 2018 wedding will be hard to contain. Just as Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton six years ago saw London thronged with flag-waving well-wishers, so enthusiasts will expect to hang out the bunting for Harry and Meghan. Diehards will already have cleared their diary for the entirety of next spring in order that they can slap on the Union Jack face paint, travel to the capital and wave red, white and blue in the faces of the newlyweds.

Inevitably, sceptics were quick to react with equal and opposite force. For republicans, the prospect of more taxpayer pounds being spent on yet another set-piece royal event sticks hard in the craw. The chance to raise a toast to the monarchy’s future, theoretical abolition is the only silver lining.

Social media provided an immediate platform for the extremes on both sides of the debate. Whichever way you look at it, however, it is impossible to deny that the marriage of the fifth in line to the British throne and an American TV star is major global news event. Moreover, the meeting of minds between emblems of the UK establishment and the US entertainment industry raises questions beyond those usually associated with a royal wedding.

After all, while Harry might not be the first British prince to marry a divorcee (the Archbishop of Canterbury has given his blessing for a Church ceremony) – or the first member of his family to wed an American for that matter – Markle’s mixed-raced heritage brings something new to the table. The future Mrs Wales (or Duchess of wherever) has herself expressed pride in her background saying that she has come to “embrace” her identity as the daughter of a white father and black mother.

What is interesting insofar as the upcoming nuptials are concerned, however, is not that her ethnicity is a point of great debate; but that it is not. That is as it should be, yet it is hard not to suspect that in the not so distant past there would have been a great deal of flustered twittering both in aristocratic circles and among certain sections of the wider public. The lack of agitation suggests that British society has largely moved on and that the royal family has moved on with it: this union thus stands as important statement about the degree to which progressive values and diversity have been entrenched in the UK mainstream.

To that end it is perhaps notable too that Markle has been publicly critical of the world’s conservative-in-chief, Donald Trump, describing him in a 2016 interview as “divisive” and “a misogynist”. Once she has marred into “the firm”, Markle may have to keep her views to herself: but it is comforting to know something of her politics. It might add some frisson to a future state visit by the US President.

Prince Harry, for his part, has come to typify the modern Windsors. Indeed, it is arguably he more than any of the rest of the clan to whom Britons can relate. In part that reflects the fact that he and his brother were the primary subjects of the extraordinary proxy grief which poured forth from ordinary UK citizens on the death of Princess Diana two decades ago. However odd that public hysteria might have been, few of us who watched the young princes walking behind their mother’s funeral cortege cannot have been moved by their buttoned-up sadness.

The sense that Harry and William should not experience the same level of intrusion that their parents had suffered remains strong.

That isn’t to say that Harry in particular has managed always to avoid the attention of tabloid editors. His Nazi-themed fancy-dress mishap at the age of 21 earned notoriety and censure in equal measure. Yet for many people the error of judgement served only to reinforce the feeling that he was just an ordinary young man who didn’t deserve to be picked to pieces by vultures in the media.

What’s more, while Harry gave the impression of living by his mistakes, he also appeared to learn from them. His stint in the armed forces wrong-footed those who saw him as an undeserving wastrel; and in subsequent years he has dedicated himself to charitable endeavours commendably, showing both compassion and insight.

In recent times he has spoken well about the impact his mother’s death had on him. The pain he experienced is not unique – but the public context in which he was forced to mourn most certainly is. The decision to describe publicly how he battled to deal effectively with his grief (including by seeking counselling) was brave and intensely modern.

There will be some who wonder whether marrying an actress is the best way for Harry to combat the tabloids’ desire to discuss the minutiae of his every romantic entanglement. But then, none of us choose who we fall in love with. Rumours abound that Harry wants his wedding to be a low-key affair. Given the stardust involved, the response to that notion might be "fat chance". Wherever the pair decides to tie the knot, the hordes will follow. That said, keeping the cost down would be one in the eye to the abolitionists.

Conspiracy theorists will note that the news of the royal engagement – Harry’s proposal having been accepted earlier this month – broke on the day that the Government made public its industrial strategy white paper. Coincidence, no doubt, but it is surely true that the Prime Minister will be delighted to have an uplifting national moment on the horizon which might distract us from the mire that is Brexit.

There is something else too. For a great many years the monarchy seemed perpetually out of step with Britain’s shifting social sands – distant, old-fashioned, the emblem of a stuffy, out of touch elite. In the last 20 years, that has changed to a remarkable degree; the shock of the public’s response to Diana’s death having forced the Queen and her family to face up to the fact that for an anachronism to survive it must evolve.

Harry and William have grown up in a period which has seen the rehabilitation of the royals. They have, indeed, been integral to it. Seemingly personable young men, they have sought with some success to draw boundaries between their private lives and their public roles and to do so with integrity and a lightness of touch that has played well with the media and the public alike.

They have given contemporary faces to an ancient institution and made it seem more relevant. Harry’s engagement to Markle – her ring designed by Harry and incorporating diamonds owned by his mother – is the icing on the cake.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have announced their engagement

Paradoxically, some of the forces which have taken us down the road to EU withdrawal – anxieties about globalisation and fear of modernity – are threatening to drive a reversion among many in British society to the insular attitudes of a bygone age.

Those attitudes are not, in the long run, sustainable of course: the world will not stop turning.

Is it too mad to wonder, once the Brexit dust settles, whether the younger royals may – against all the odds – represent a Britain looking forward to the future rather than an imagined past?

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