January 09, 2020
Edward VIII’s love for an American divorcee plunged the country into constitutional chaos. These latest goings on are hardly in the same league, despite what some might say
Meghan and Harrys story is quite the drama, but its no abdication crisis
There is a school of thought that believes Edward VIII chose Mrs Simpson precisely because of his aversion to doing the top job. Subconsciously, some think, the king chose a partner who could not be reconciled with the monarchy, in order that he might create a way out of it for himself. Perhaps in time people will be imposing that remote diagnosis on the Duke of Sussex. At some level, was Harry drawn to a woman whose nature would ultimately necessitate their joint escape from the institution?
Either way, a mere 83 years after the experiment was first tried, it is clearly much too soon to say whether marrying American divorcees generally works out well for the House of Windsor. I’m joking, of course. You need at least three instances of anything for it to officially become a trend.
As things stand, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be dividing their time between the UK and North America, and have issued a statement announcing they will “step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family”. This feels very middle-management speak. I’m not sure it is for oneselves to describe oneselves as “senior” members of the royal family in print. Either way, the pair omitted to inform their line manager (the Queen), whose close aides have duly let it be known Her Majesty is “deeply disappointed”. We can only speculate, but the move does look like the action of two people who know that if you consult others on things, they only try to stop you. Or, as an affectlessly seething Buckingham Palace statement ran: “Discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work though.” Maybe they can Skype the Sussexes in Canada?
Anyway, it is all quite the drama. Shocked royal commentators have likened it to the 1936 abdication crisis, while supportive celebrity friends of the couple appear to imagine it’ll be very similar to when the Beckhams went to Los Angeles. The Sussexes themselves possibly visualise their next phase as having a touch of the post-White House Obamas to it. I’m sure they could at least get a production deal with Netflix.
The one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that people talk the most frightful bollocks about the royal family. Consider the former trade secretary Liam Fox, who at the time of the Meghan and Harry wedding informed the press that the union would boost US-UK trade ties, adding that it would be “a most helpful adjunct to that relationship”. How’s that one working out for ya, Liam? As of now, the UK seems to have handed over 50% of the couple’s supposed worth to North America. But I beg you: please in no way regard this as a foreshadowing of how any UK-US trade deal will shake down.
Meghan and Harrys story is quite the drama, but its no abdication crisis
Back in the present day, newspaper reports are drowning in anonymous quotes from palace staff who believe you really can’t get the royals these days. To give you a flavour: “People had bent over backwards for them. They were given the wedding they wanted, the house they wanted, the office they wanted, the money they wanted, the staff they wanted, the tours they wanted and had the backing of their family. What more did they want?” OK. Next? “The level of deceit has been staggering and everyone from the top of the royal household to the bottom feels like they have been stabbed in the back.”
Of course, there have always been courtiers who can’t be doing with their impossible masters and mistresses, and regard being subservient to their headstrong ways as an inordinate trial. Alan Lascelles, the legendary royal private secretary who had once hugely admired Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales), ended up exasperated into disgust at him. “The King gave me an MVO for looking after his son,” he noted in his diary. “It was the hardest-earned medal I ever had.” Lascelles had previously been awarded the Military Cross for his service on the western front.
Then again, you can’t simply dismiss the voices of those who toil in the service of the crown for rather lesser riches than those afforded to the Sussexes. Buckingham Palace often advertises vacancies for butlers and so on at below the London living wage. Of course, unlike Meghan and Harry, successful applicants do not have to do their butlering in the full remorseless glare of media attention, and we can’t know one way or the other how their work affects their mental health. But if you are a member of the Sussexes’ loyal court staff, turning on the telly on Wednesday night was presumably not the nicest way to discover you would soon be out of work.
As always with an institution whose sine qua non is continuity, most of the things that screaming pundits are calling unprecedented are, in fact, precedented. The hysterical disapproval particularly so. While there was much more tolerance of the Mrs Simpson situation among the general populace in 1936 than some accounts would have you believe, many of the absolute worst people lost their shit about it. The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who made great personal hay out of the entire thing, attempted to frighten Edward into giving up his romance, telling him the press could no longer be restrained from attacking him if he did not.
Then, as now, it was a boom time for hypocrites and opportunists in public life. The celebrated diarist Vera Brittain remarked that the archbishops would no doubt be delighted to replace “the high spirited and determined Edward” with “that stiff, shy slow-brained man [George VI] and his snobbish, limited little duchess [the Queen Mother].” The then archbishop of Canterbury, a ghastly idiot called Cosmo Lang, misread the abdication crisis as indicating a yearning among the ordinary people for religious recrimination, and promptly launched a “Back to God” campaign. “The archbishop of Canterbury must be losing his enfeebled mind,” noted Chips Channon.
Many enfeebled minds are being lost today about Meghan and Harry, when perhaps the comings and goings of someone a distant sixth in line to the throne ought not really to cause them to entirely wet their pants. These days, archbishops tend to have more Christian charity, while the petty spites and preposterous self-importance of their 1936 counterparts have been transferred to breakfast television presenters and so on.
As for who will be reading all these gazillion articles, it’s an enduring mystery. Or is it? Many of those who profess to loathe the tabloid press are in some ways epitomised by a very nice woman I met in Windsor the day before Meghan and Harry’s wedding. She had already set up her camping chair. “It’s terrible what they’ve done to her,” she told me of the tabloid papers’ treatment of Meghan. And yet, on her lap as she explained this, she had a copy of the Sun. I noticed that once she’d read all about the latest goings-on with the couple in that paper, she would be able to move on to the next course: the copy of the Daily Mail, which nestled beneath it. Thereafter, any remaining appetite would presumably be at least partially sated by the Mirror, the third newspaper she’d bought that morning. It must be said that those who are most disapproving of “the media” are often the most absolutely completist in their research.
Elsewhere, I imagine the Meghan/Harry migration couldn’t be of less concern to Guardian readers, despite topping the website rankings ever since the news broke. There’s a certain stripe of non-royal-watcher who thinks it very infra dig to show the slightest interest. They, too, have their precedents. One of Noël Coward’s 1955 diary entries affects the grandest indifference. “I have noticed in the press certain references to Princess Margaret wishing to marry someone or other,” he writes. “I really must try to control this yawning.” Not a fortnight later, Coward is shoulder-deep in caring obsessively about the story, furious at the news that Margaret was not going to marry the someone-or-other (Gp Capt Peter Townsend) after all. “This is a fine slap in the chops for the bloody press which has been persecuting her for so long,” he thunders, going on at great length to dissect all aspects of the tangle.
As far as the press attention on Meghan and Harry goes, the couple will realistically never escape it, and – unfortunately – have arguably only made it worse for themselves by this action. Mere celebrities don’t have it easier. Only this week, Brad Pitt lamented his enduring status as “trash-mag fodder”, barely able to leave the house without being tailed by rather more formidable foes than British royal correspondents.
Then again, this is not the abdication. Whatever the vicissitudes of Harry and Meghan’s new path, it’s probably going to be better than ending up in a Bois de Boulogne house, paying social calls on Adolf Hitler. On the downside, the jewellery collection is likely to be comparatively sparse.
So people may currently claim Harry and Meghan’s move is seismic. But, long-term, it will be most dangerous insofar as it feeds into what we might call the monarchy’s Charles III problem. The UK is in a time of huge national flux and turmoil, and the Queen, the last link with the postwar consensus, is 93. Waiting in the wings is a rather unloved and not especially admirable man. For all today’s sound and fury, the real looming crisis for the royal family is not the sixth in line to the throne – but the first.
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