By some measures, the future of the British royal family has never looked so bright. Last month, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, amassed one million followers on their newly-minted Instagram account in record-breaking time—evidence that Britain’s living vestige of history is proving one of the most resilient global brands of the twenty-first century. Instantly recognisable, their births, weddings and deaths command the attention of billions.
This all distracts us from the fact that monarchy is a conspicuous aberration in the twenty-first century. Viewed in the context of our modern ideas about enlightened government, it does not make sense. Yet in Britain—and in other democracies, like Japan and Sweden—it persists, constantly reinventing itself in a barely disguised attempt to survive. For Queen Elizabeth II and her relatives, this slow evolution into a kind of posh soap opera has proved incredibly effective. According to YouGov, last year seven in ten Britons agreed with keeping the institution—a view that held majority support across all age groups.
Oddly enough, this includes many who describe themselves as left wing. I have almost always voted Labour and were I a US citizen I’d be casting my vote for Warren or Sanders in the upcoming Democratic primaries. Inherited privilege, let alone that enshrined in the constitution, is complete anathema to my kind of politics. In an ideal world, I believe there would be no such thing as monarchy. And yet I find myself unmoved by the campaign to make the UK a republic, and inclined, occasionally, to even defend the institution’s existence.
In our current monarch, Elizabeth II, we have been extraordinarily lucky. Even the most hard line of anti-monarchists admit that she has conducted her role with grace and warmth—a small ask for a life of luxury, perhaps, but a bar many elected leaders fail to reach. It is also exactly what the British constitution asks of her. Nobody knows what the Queen’s political opinions are, and it will probably be many years after she dies before we discover them.
She is what elected presidents of other countries—even those in mostly symbolic office—can never be: a symbol of unity, floating regally above the heated disagreements that litter our national life. Opinionless, free from controversy and ready to appear at the opening of a hospital near you. Everybody knows who the Queen is. There will never be a head of state like her again, a living relic of history so widely known and quietly admired. She commands the veneration of other world leaders, not simply because she is the symbolic head of sixteen different countries, but because she has carried out her duty so diligently. If she has ever had mopes, tantrums or breakdowns—we have never heard of them.
It is relatively easy then, to be tolerant of a monarchy with someone who commands such unrivalled respect at the helm. In the future, this may be a harder position to defend. Whilst the constitution is unlikely to change, the person who occupies the throne certainly will.
Her controversial son and heir, Prince Charles, has become infamous for his correspondence with government ministers over the years (colourfully named the black spider memos on account of the thick, jet-black scribbles of his handwriting). Among the issues that he has championed are the use of homeopathy in Britain’s NHS, the preservation of historic architecture and opposition to genetic modification. Before their release in 2015, Charles and his staff fought for years to keep these letters from public view.
Unlike his future subjects, Charles has not earned the ear of the British government by virtue of expertise in any of these fields, but because of his status as next in line to a mostly symbolic office—a vestigial quirk of our country that bestows on him and his close family permanent influence that those born without such luck can never achieve. The issues themselves, and whether or not government ministers act on this correspondence, are secondary. Those unaccountable to democratic politics should not be given a special place to influence it.
The launch of Harry and Meghan’s record-breaking Instagram account suggests that the next generation of royals are destined to repeat the same mistakes. “We look forward to sharing the work that drives us, the causes we support … and the opportunity to shine a light on key issues.” These are not the words of a millennium-old institution, but those of a socially-conscious start-up. News that Prince Harry will be partnering with Oprah Winfrey for a new series on “mental illness and mental wellness” is proof of his growing appetite for activism.
As the sons of Princess Diana, one of the world’s most enduring icons of philanthropy, it is understandable that William and Harry’s view of monarchy resembles their mother’s. Diana was the first to trial-run this modern strain of being royal: campaigning against the use of IEDs in war, for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and for raising awareness of third-world hunger, among other things.
Considering the cultural zeitgeist, it is even less surprising that Harry & co. have chosen to reinvent royalty in the way they have. Our society values activists for fashionable causes more than ever, and demands that those in positions of power and influence use their platforms to help those worse off have become defining mantras of the decade’s political discourse. Moral complacency among those of high status is no longer considered acceptable. Harry and Meghan are obviously compelled by this vision of public life, and appear keen to emulate it in their duties as royals. Harry, however, appears to want to take the limits of his platform beyond the confines of precedent.
At an event at a YMCA in West London, Harry opined that the wildly popular video game Fortnite “shouldn’t be allowed.” “It’s created to addict, an addiction to keep you in front of a computer for as long as possible. It’s so irresponsible … what is the benefit of having it in your home?” Aside from being breathtakingly totalitarian and profoundly ill thought through, Harry’s intervention is a worrying indication that royal family rules about staying above politics are slowly being thrown out the window. Unlike his mother, whose pet issues always remained within the stated aims and objectives of the UK government, Harry is choosing to be less cautious. Arguing—deliberately and publically—for a change in UK law is a dramatic shift in royal behaviour and one that should be viewed with alarm.
The royals’ pursuit of activist credentials opens them up to accusations of hypocrisy, which will pose much less of a threat should they remain quiet. The family’s personal finances—excluding taxpayer subsidy and the Crown Estate—are famously opaque, and any less than squeaky-clean investments run a constant risk of being exposed to eager journalists. Having built a public image on social justice, any skeletons in the closet will only look worse.
Trading in the stoic neutrality of Elizabeth II for a more transient celebrity based on fashionable good causes may look like a wise move in the short term, but it risks alienating key bastions of support on which their existence depends. Chief among these are social conservatives, who may not agree with the young royals’ more progressive leanings. Stories in the British press about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, writing “messages of love” on bananas given out to sex workers (You Are Strong, You Are Brave) may appear uncontroversial to most. But actions like these make it relatively easy to place her on the political spectrum—information that previous members of the royal family would not have given away so easily, and for good reason.
The UK’s monarchy is predicated on a fragile settlement that those within it don’t use their platform. Or, if they do, it is to advocate for a narrow range of issues that don’t threaten their role as national figureheads. Otherwise, they may find that republican sentiments—especially dangerous in a world where monarchy is not the norm—may flare up in those whose tolerance for the institution is predicated on their feigned impartiality.
If the institution is to survive, Prince Harry and his generation of royals must inevitably discover, like their grandmother before them, that their immense privilege comes with a great many restrictions. They must learn to live with the anomalies of their role, or consign their extraordinary position in society to the trash. A place where history should probably have left it many centuries ago.