Marx got most things wrong, but one of his most glaring errors was in predicting that England would play host to the first Communist revolution. Not so – he neglected the capacity for our aristocracy to adapt to the demands of proletarian democracy. Why was there no Bolshevik uprising in Bristol, or a Red Army rising in Reading? Because our erstwhile upper classes learnt that the baying mob could be bought off with bread and circuses. Or, at least, National Trust tea rooms and gift shops. The monarchy in particular learnt how to appease two of the greatest motivators of human interest– a desire for the sublime, and a hankering for scandal.
The sublime corresponds to the pomp and circumstance of the Royal family. It is both magnificent, and trivial. The monarchy gives us all a taste of what Freddie Mercury called (talking about a very different Queen) a “touch of the heavens”. For endless historical, religious, aesthetic and political reasons, most of us think of the monarchy as special. They are our Disneyland: a little bit of grandeur and magic accessible to normal people. The monarchy will thus endure as long as most of us think it is nice to have Her Majesty nod approvingly at our art exhibition, or that getting an MBE for a sponsored swim is wonderful, or turn up to see the Earl of Wessex open their local swimming pool. Though even the most ardent monarchist would agree that an “Elizabeth and Philip” tea towel is pretty vulgar, the magnificence of a Royal wedding or coronation will long keep the public interested in the Crown*.
But Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s appearance in the papers this week reminds us of the other salacious source of the monarchy’s popularity. For better or worse, the House of Windsor provides us with the world’s best soap opera. As much as we want to buy into the Royals’ secular divinity, all but the most uptight of retired colonels and Tory grandees enjoy the entertainment provided by the ongoing travails of a serially dysfunctional family. You know all the greatest hits – the tragic love triangle of Charles, Diana and Camilla; Prince Andrew, Pizza Express and his appalling choice in friends; the textbook wooing and wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It explains the continuing popularity of The Crown and why publications as austere as Heat Magazine or as tacky as The Times rake in the cash by splashing on the psychodramas of the Sussexes, Cambridges and the rest of the gang.
This plot of this particular episode centres on the publication of a book, Harry and Meghan: Finding Freedom, purporting to give Hazza and Megs’ side on what drove them to swap Windsor for Los Angeles. It is written without their cooperation – honest, your Honour – and those parts so far released certainly make for scintillating reading. We find out what Wills said to his brother when things with Meghan seemed to be hotting up, and how Harry bristled at an intervention he considered “snobby”. From descriptions of their first date to details as tediously exact as what Harry had for dinner with the Queen before leaving Windsor for the last time, it is a laboriously detailed attempt at self-justification. It is telling that the authors, Carolyn Durand and Omid Scobie, are about the only two journalists left not currently being sued by the Sussexes.
What should we make of this palace pot-boiler? Not a lot, to be honest. It certainly exposes just how damaged the two Princes’ relationship is: the Cambridges come across as uncaring snobs, not the lovely darlings of Mail on Sunday picture pullouts. But Harry and Meghan will get little sympathy from the public. It has long been clear that they have it in for the Palace. They have only had to “find freedom” across the pond because they feel choked by the requirements of royalty. The two are more Hollywood than Holyrood, exemplified by behaviour like jetting to a posh gala in Elton John’s plane to lecture us plebs on using fewer fossil fuels. They want the fame and respect that comes with being a Royal without any of the duty. But by junking in all the traditional duties of royalty so quickly after being married to go and mingle with the uber-rich and famous, they have long since evaporated any goodwill left towards them in Britain. We allow the Windsors to have their wealth and stardom in return for them doing things for us. If you aren’t willing to open a few hospitals, don’t expect any affection.
Meanwhile, the melodrama of monarchy will plow ever onwards. Previous tell-all royal books like Paul Burrell’s on Diana had little impact on the monarchy’s general standing. Charles has made up the holes in his public image left by the “People’s Princess”, growing into old age as a ruddy-faced and happy heir to the throne now he’s married to the woman he loved all along. William may have fallen out with his brother, but he hasn’t lost the public’s goodwill. The Queen remains the most respected and remarkable woman in the world. She is the model monarch – a non-partisan, national figurehead, and Britain’s constant through 60 years of violent change. And Harry? Well, I always thought he was destined to stay in England, marry a Sloane Ranger and cheerfully boss around some soldiers at Sandhurst. I hope him, Meghan and little Archie find happiness in Hollywood, even if it has been at the cost of their family and fame back home. Either way, the world’s longest-running soap opera will keep on airing – and we will remain glued to our screens.
*No, not that one.