The Firm vs the Sussexes
Monarchy is part reality TV show, part constitutional check on democracy, writes Eddie Ford
Apparently, after being admitted over a week ago to the King Edward VII private hospital in central London, the 99-year-old Philip Windsor is “comfortable and responding to treatment”. This is his longest unplanned visit for a decade or more and it is reported that he will remain there several more days for “observation and rest”, as he battles an infection.
Maybe this sounds cynical, but I interpret that to mean the Duke of Edinburgh is on his last legs and does not stand much chance of making it to 100 on June 10. Without being ghoulish, it would be interesting to see how the news is handled by the monarchy (or The Firm - a term first attributed to Philip). If he were to die in the midst of a pandemic, that would obviously present a nightmare in terms of publicity and ceremony. How to strike the right tone? How to get the decorum right? How to organise the funeral? Going into North Korean-style mourning - compulsory grief - for a grotesquely privileged 99-year-old man risks alienating the public after 122,000 have died so far of the Covid virus, especially so when that is a totally unnecessary level of fatalities caused by a criminally incompetent government.
After all, the royals totally screwed up their initial reaction to the death of Diana Spencer, almost sparking a mass backlash against The Firm for its perceived uncaring and heartless attitude. Public relations could be even more of a problem, when you consider the fact that the coronavirus has hammered sections of the working class, whether due to their job or housing conditions, and we now run the very real risk of ‘vaccine poverty’ - ie, a stark disparity between vaccine-rich areas getting protection, and particularly disadvantaged areas where the virus continues to take its deadly toll. Are the BBC and other outlets really going to devote - as they normally do with departed royals - hours and hours to Philip?
Of course, the House of Windsor is ubiquitous in the British media - even if that title is a complete invention (the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha quietly changed its name in 1917 to the more English-sounding ‘Windsor’ due to rising anti-German sentiment). Hardly making an original point, the royal family these days operates a bit like a reality TV show - something that upsets the traditionalists, it goes without saying. Every act of impropriety or scandal (we have been treated to many) receives dizzying amounts of coverage in the press - often siding with this or that individual, or faction. Every detail is micro-analysed. And the British royals - just like any star or band - have a devoted fan base around the world.
All of which brings us neatly to prince Harry Windsor, the duke of Sussex - royals have a lot of names. The sixth in line to the throne (meaning he does not stand a chance) seems to be becoming the black sheep of the family. Actually, that designation richly deserves to go to Andrew Windsor, the duke of York, for his dodgy connections to convicted sex offender and “friend”, Jeffrey Epstein - not to mention his appallingly misjudged television interview for the BBC’s Newsnight in November 2019. Anyway, it was revealed last week that Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, will not return as “working members” of the royal family. The decision followed a 12-month review of the couple’s position, which was thrashed out at a tense meeting in Sandringham last year.
As readers will doubtlessly recall, Harry and Meghan announced that they wanted to “step back” from royal duties - which is meant to be a job for life. We were told that “after many months of reflection and internal discussions”, the couple wanted to carve out a “progressive new role” within the institution of the monarchy - the mind still boggles as to what that could have been. The happy couple also said that they would be “financially independent”, jetting between the UK and North America. They also announced the launch of a charitable “non-profit” enterprise along the lines of those run by Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, etc, etc - where super-rich individuals of a philanthropic bent can generously donate, safe in the knowledge that it is all tax-deductible. By all accounts, the queen was not amused in the slightest by the new turn of events - “blindsided”, in fact, as it was made without any warning or prior negotiation. According to various news outlets, she and other members of family felt “dismayed”, “furious”, “disappointed” and “hurt.”
In other words, the couple had hoped for a half-in, half-out deal, whereby they could be based abroad, but still fly the flag for the monarchy - retaining all the trappings and privileges of Firm membership. But Harry and Meghan were never going to be allowed to have their cake and eat it - that would tarnish the brand too much. The final straw, it seems, was the announcement of a “tell-all” and “intimate” account by the couple of their “Megxit” departure from the UK in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which is due to be broadcast by CBS on March 7.
Provoked by an indignity too far, The Firm struck back - saying in an official statement that “in stepping away from the work of the royal family”, it is not possible for the couple “to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service”. No longer members of the business, Harry and Meghan are going to be stripped of their honorary military appointments and royal patronages. For Harry the patronages to be surrendered will be the Royal Marines, RAF Honington, Royal Navy Small Ships and Diving, the queen’s Commonwealth Trust, the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Football League and the Royal National Theatre. What will they do without him? Meghan too will lose her patronage of the National Theatre and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, also having to give up her role as vice-president of the Commonwealth Trust.
This must be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Harry, having spent a decade serving in the armed forces. He had previously signalled his intention to fight to keep these honorary military positions - only recently he successfully sued the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online for libel over claims he had snubbed the Royal Marines after stepping down as a senior royal. As a consolation prize, the couple will retain their HRH titles but will not be able to use them. Royals who are not royals. They will remain the ‘Duke and Duchess of Sussex’.
In a statement responding to their humiliating demotion, the couple said: “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal” - prompting accusations from palace officials that they were sticking two fingers up to the institution of the monarchy and being “horribly disrespectful” to the queen, at least according to some prominent correspondents with good sources. We now seem to have feuding houses - the Sussexes versus the Windsors.
As part of their striving for ‘financial independence’, the former royal couple has struck lucrative contracts with both Netflix and Spotify - the former for a series of documentaries, the latter for podcasts to promote their Archewell brand. The latter is a Beverly Hills-based organisation dedicated to “compassion in action” - which “through its non-profit work, as well as creative activations, drives systemic cultural change across all communities”.1 Not exactly working to a Stakhanovite work ethic, so far they have made just one Spotify podcast in December. As for Netflix, they will have to be patient.
Presumably the deal with Oprah Winfrey is worth huge amounts of money. The TV talk show host, television producer, actress, author and philanthropist is a close friend and neighbour in southern California. She attended their 2018 wedding (which was an overwhelming PR success for the monarchy, lest we forget - The Firm reinventing itself for a while as modern and liberal, not least because of Meghan’s Afro-American heritage). The interview with the couple will be carefully choreographed before recording, obviously, maybe bringing back memories for some of the wonderful - or appalling, depending on your viewpoint - 1995 Diana Spencer Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, which caused an enormous ruction. Was she an innocent victim or a cunning manipulator?
But how much can you actually milk from being a former royal is an open question. I am dubious. Yes, appearing on an Oprah Winfrey programme once is a big story, but twice? Three times would just be pathetic. Harry and Meghan could find themselves up against the law of diminishing returns if they are not careful. Viewers, and television networks, get bored easily. Indeed, you can imagine Harry and Meghan getting desperate, starting to appear on adverts for relatively ordinary products - just as former ‘anarchist’ Johnny Rotten ended up doing crap ads for Country Life Butter (“not about Great Britain, it’s about great butter”2). If one day you see Harry and Meghan doing an ad for the latest iPad or toothpaste, remember that you read it here first.
As this publication has said near countless times before, the British left tends to regard the monarchy as purely ceremonial or an irrelevant sideshow - as opposed to the real issues of poverty, wages, housing, the NHS, etc. This is a fundamental mistake. At times of political and constitutional crisis, the monarchy can wield crucial political power. In Britain, to become prime minister you have to prove to the monarch that you can “command confidence” in the House of Commons. Does anyone seriously believe that Jeremy Corbyn, even if he had won the 2019 general election by a comfortable majority, would have automatically become prime minster? After taking advice from her advisors and the Privy Council, the queen might well have vetoed Corbyn on the perfectly reasonable constitutional grounds that he cannot command a majority in parliament - in 2016, after all, 172 Labour MPs had voted ‘no confidence’ in him. Incredibly, the left cannot imagine such a scenario - telling us that the ruling class are too terrified of revolution not to do the decent thing and play cricket.
Similarly, in January 2017 would a president-elect Bernie Sanders have secured the votes of the Electoral College - it seems extremely unlikely. He represented a threat from the left and therefore would have posed far more of a danger to the establishment than Donald Trump. One way or another, Sanders would not have been allowed to become president, barring an extraordinary turn of events. These ‘checks and balances’ and constitutional mechanisms were specifically designed to block, frustrate and negate democracy - which is precisely why communists place such importance on the call for the abolition of such institutions and devices: we take matters of high politics seriously. We prioritise the development of a working class programme rather than spontaneity. If we want socialism, we have to overthrow the existing constitutional order - peacefully if we can, forcefully if we must.