At the time of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018, many commentators seized on signs Britain’s royal family was embracing the 21st century.
The young prince was marrying a mixed-race, divorcee from America who showed independent spirit like Harry’s late mother Diana, the princess of Wales, and who was being welcomed with great fanfare into the royal household.
“It was as if the exclusivity of royalty and blue blood could be erased with a photo-op,” one Black British commentator, who asked not to be named, said in hindsight of the hopes the wedding once inspired.
Any vestiges of that fairy tale reached a bitter end during the US television personality Oprah Winfrey’s two-hour interview with the former royals when it was aired on CBS in America on Sunday night.
The most explosive revelations in the interview, carried out in California where the duke and duchess of Sussex have exiled themselves since they retreated from royal life last year, revolved around race.
There were “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born”, Markle said about the couple’s then unborn child, Archie, prompting Winfrey to pause. Harried and sometimes vilified by Britain’s tabloid newspapers, Markle was driven to feeling suicidal, she said, but was denied the help and protection she sought from the royal household.
While the revelations were not directed at any specific member of the royal family, they painted the institution of the monarchy in an unflattering light at a difficult time for race relations in Britain, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic by the death of George Floyd last year, and the high number of black and minority ethnic victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
Markle’s revelations — and those of Prince Harry, who sat beside her in the latter half of the interview and said his father, Prince Charles, had at one point refused to take his calls — have split opinion in Britain, prompting torrents of commentary, much of it highly partisan to one side or another, in the media and on social media.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and a historian of the ruling Tory party, saw dangers that these polemics will feed into the culture wars unleashed in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, providing ammunition for some politicians to exploit.
“If they can portray Meghan and Harry as prince and princess of woke in opposition to the rest of the royal family and establishment they will be tempted to do so,” he said.
The interview has prompted an outpouring of support for Markle from some members of the British Black community. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, the author, lawyer and women’s rights activist, said that the Queen herself should have intervened to try to halt the “divisive and hateful treatment” of Markle by some sections of the media.
“I get that families have feuds, and I have no interest in getting into that. But if you can treat one person that way, if you think it’s OK for a member of your family to be treated like that, how can I trust you, as the monarchy, to speak up for me. This is a matter of principle,” Mos-Shogbamimu said.
The palace made no response to the revelations ahead of their broadcast in the UK on Monday evening. But it had vocal defenders.
“Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital — and destroy the Monarchy,” television presenter Piers Morgan wrote in the Daily Mail.
Also describing the interview as a betrayal, Penny Junor, a royal biographer, wrote in the Sunday Mail newspaper: “It is hugely damaging for Harry too. For him the monarchy is not some quaint, outdated institution, as it is for millions of Americans . . . For Harry the monarchy is family.”
For the Queen, who turns 95 next month, the saga bears echoes of what she called her “annus horribilis” back in 1992, when the household was riven by divorces, and Diana published a damaging account of her broken marriage with Charles.
It comes as her 99-year-old husband Prince Philip recovers from a heart procedure in hospital, and after a year in which her second son Andrew was forced to step back from royal duties as a result of allegations surrounding his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced former financier and convicted paedophile. Prince Andrew has denied wrongdoing.
It also weakens one of the few institutions that binds the United Kingdom together, at a time independence movements in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Wales have all gained ground, strengthening the case for wholesale reform.
Support for the monarchy in the UK has remained consistently strong overall, however there is a growing generational divide, according to the latest survey on the issue by YouGov, carried out at the end of 2020. More than eight in 10 people aged over 65 preferred to preserve the monarchy over an elected head of state, compared with only half as many among 18-24 year olds. There is also a roughly even split among adults over who should succeed the queen, Charles or his son William.
“When Meghan came into the royal family as Diana before, they had their second chance to move into the 21st century. But rather than embracing these people, they tried to smother them and pretend the past is still there,” said Norman Baker, a former government minister and author of a book on the cost of maintaining the monarchy And what do you do? What The Royal Family Don’t Want You To Know.
Referring to reports in the British press of a bullying complaint against Markle filed by a former royal aide, he added: “I do believe she did cause difficulties for people who worked for her, but there is no excuse for the way the palace has handled this.” Markle has denied the bullying claims.
Only a few hours before the Winfrey interview was to be aired in Britain, prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday was among the few who did not have an opinion on the row, only saying he had “the highest admiration for the Queen” and the work she did “for the country and the Commonwealth”.
“I really think when it comes to matters to do with the royal family the right thing for prime ministers is to say nothing. And nothing is what I propose to say on this matter,” Johnson said.