The Harry and Meghan show is masking a looming problem for the House of Windsor that could have a big effect on the New Zealand of the future. By Paul Thomas.
First things first: whatever we may think of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s supposedly momentous sit-down with Oprah Winfrey – major news event or public relations stunt, declaration of independence or war, soul baring or wallow in self-pity – the quasi-royal couple deserve thanks for driving the odious Piers Morgan off the air.
After that it gets problematic.
The strange little fib about a private wedding – “just the two of us in our backyard with the Archbishop of Canterbury” – encapsulated the opaque nature of the exercise and the questionable status of the content.
Yet, the fallout, which supposedly amounted to a “crisis for the monarchy”, already seems absurd. If anything, the interview was a reminder that the monarchy and royal family are part of celebrity culture, itself a by-product of the entertainment industry.
On his YouTube channel, British comedian and would-be public intellectual Russell Brand made the point that the monarchy is engaged in a difficult balancing act: maintaining the mystique and dignity that provides historical context and validation while continually evolving to ensure it remains relevant to the here and now.
“The monarchy … has to be simultaneously traditional, because without tradition there’s no reason for it to exist, and progressive, because if it becomes too irrelevant, then people will think, ‘Well, what’s the point in having a royal family?'” said Brand. “Each generation of royals has this … unique responsibility to kind of make the royal family seem mysterious, elusive, potent and alluring while still making them accessible.”
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have certainly nailed the progressive part of the gig.
What could be more progressive than moving to California, making content for Netflix and becoming “chief impact officer” for a Silicon Valley health and well-being start-up?
Prince William, being a future king, is more or less obliged to go in the opposite direction to his sibling and perhaps rival. Yet, as a bunch, the Queen’s children and grandchildren have largely flouted their “unique responsibility” to be mysterious, elusive, etc. The combination of their flaws and insistence on the right to be contemporary, no matter how self-indulgent that may look, has at times turned the monarchy into an upmarket soap opera.
A Faustian pact
Celebrity culture is based on the transformative power of fame. The almost overnight transformation of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, from “middle-class Middleton” to international style icon is an obvious example of the way celebrity confers distinction and glamour.
Arguably, the first royal celebrity was Edward, Prince of Wales, who in 1936 became King Edward VIII. During the 1920s he was the most photographed figure in society and inspired a song brimming with the vicariousness that animates consumers of celebrity culture: “I’m wild with exultation, I’m dizzy with success, for I’ve danced with a man … who’s danced with a girl who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
After less than a year on the throne, Edward abdicated over his insistence on marrying American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One way of looking at the crisis he precipitated was that he wasn’t prepared to allow the responsibilities of being a constitutional monarch to inhibit his celebrity lifestyle.
Celebrity is a Faustian pact with the mass media: exposure but on their terms. One of the Sussexes’ major grievances is mendacious tabloid scrutiny and “the Firm’s” supposed disinclination to protect them from it. But a poisonous fog of tabloid sensationalism has hung over the royals for decades now, and the belief that an equerry could call off the dogs with phone calls to a few editors displays an alarming unworldliness. In 1917, press baron Lord Beaverbrook declared that his operating principle was “kiss ’em one day, kick ’em the next”. Nothing has changed.
It’s easy to forget that Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, were once seen as prize assets of the Firm. He was a dashing version of his stitched-up brother Prince Charles, she an earthy, jolly counterweight to the neurotic Diana, Princess of Wales. Now, Fergie’s an embarrassment, a byword for calamitous lack of judgment and thunderous gaucheness, while Andrew, a jowly, accused sexual abuser of an underage girl, guilty by association with the late predator and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, has been reduced to a cipher.
The inherent contradiction between privilege by virtue of bloodline and the desire to be relevant was evident in the 2007 furore over whether Harry, then an army officer, should undertake a tour of duty in Iraq where the insurgency was in full swing.
The Monarchist League of New Zealand insisted Harry shouldn’t go near Iraq because he wasn’t “just any ordinary democratic citizen”. With friends like that, who needs Republicans? The monarchists’ position was that Harry should have been able to become an army officer, strut around in his dress uniform, guzzle taxpayer-subsidised grog in the Officers’ Mess but skip the soldier’s core duty of serving in a hot zone.
That stance simply reinforced the perception of the monarchy as an elaborate make-believe and reduced Harry to an impostor, like the movie stars who routed the forces of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan on Hollywood sound stages while less fortunate, less important others fought the real war.
In the end, High Command didn’t allow Harry to go to Iraq, but he did two tours of duty in Afghanistan, creating a stir by comparing operating an Apache helicopter’s weapons systems to playing video games: “It’s a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation.” It seems safe to assume Harry’s not telling too many war stories in his woke Californian self-exile.
The mortality problem
Compared with the abdication, Charles and Diana’s break-up and Diana’s death, the Oprah event and its aftermath are a very minor affair kept alive beyond its natural lifespan by leakers, gossip columnists and investors in Megxit Inc.
The monarchy is facing a crisis, however, one as foreseeable as it is unavoidable: mortality. Although Queen Elizabeth II has the longevity gene – she turns 95 next month; her mother lived to 101 – she’s on her last lap. Numerous samples of public opinion in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth have indicated that her passing will trigger a much-intensified questioning of the institution.
As Labour Party leader in 2016, Andrew Little declared that discussion of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements was “on hold” until the Queen dies. A similar sentiment had been expressed a few years earlier by then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Although on one level it’s perplexing that the timing of such a discussion in Australasia is determined by an Englishwoman’s longevity rather than the citizens concerned and their elected representatives, Little and Gillard were simply acknowledging reality.
The Queen in her wisdom has tended to err on the side of traditionalism, rarely flirting with progressivism. Although that tendency has drawn criticism from time to time, most notably in the wake of Diana’s death when some were offended by the Queen’s stiff upper lip, it has underpinned her standing as a symbol of continuity, guarantor of stability, repository of timeless standards and values that sometimes seem in increasingly short supply and, in the hard-core monarchists’ fairy-tale world, the only person or institution standing between us and anarchy.
Charles has worked hard to present himself as a serious person, and one can’t help but admire his ability to ruffle feathers across the spectrum – for instance, by simultaneously deploring modernism and championing multiculturalism. But it remains highly questionable whether he will be seen in the same reassuring light as his mother or inspire affection to the same extent.
Since Charles brought himself to the world’s attention as a 14-year-old by strolling into a pub and demanding a cherry brandy, apparently unaware that there was such a thing as the legal drinking age, he has provoked mixed reactions and given the impression of eccentricity, not always of an appealing variety. Now 72, he’s both the oldest and longest-serving heir apparent, and it’s probably fair to say that familiarity hasn’t worked in his favour.
The previous oldest heir apparent was “Bertie” the playboy prince who, in 1901 aged 59, became Edward VII. By coincidence, Edward’s last mistress, Alice Keppel, was the great-grandmother of none other than Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the other woman formerly known as Camilla Parker Bowles.
Although the Queen’s longevity has been a major positive for the monarchy, in that her enduring presence has offset the family’s regular eruptions of unseemliness, it has a downside. Not only is Charles the oldest heir apparent, William (38) is the oldest heir apparent to an heir apparent and William’s son George (7) is already the oldest heir apparent to an heir apparent to an heir apparent.
When George was born in 2013, then Prime Minister John Key welcomed him as “a future king of New Zealand”. Assuming Charles and William also have the longevity gene – Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, their father and grandfather respectively, died last week at the age of 99 – it could be half a century before George gets his turn.
Who knows what Aotearoa will look like in 2071, but there’s no compelling evidence to suggest the country won’t change as much over the next 50 years as it has over the past 50. In 1971, New Zealand was in many respects – and certainly psychologically – still a British colony: devoutly monarchist, essentially monochrome and monocultural, socially conservative, highly regulated and more or less God-fearing. Now it’s none of those things. And whichever direction New Zealand goes in over the next 50 years, we can be reasonably sure it won’t take us back to the way we were.
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