Going spare

With the British establishment suffering a collective conniption, Paul Demarty says we republicans owe a small debt to the Californian prince

Of all the indignities heaped upon the rightwing commentariat of this country by Harry Windsor’s tell-all memoir, there is the small matter that the perfidious Spaniards got to read it all first.

A screw-up in publication dates saw the early release of the Spanish edition, which set off a race to retranslate the scandalous bits back into English; as details percolated out, the ‘punditocracy’ - faces all an angry purple - set to work on their denunciations, and, it is fair to say, the monarchy died just a little. Indeed, the sheer pitch of vituperation - from usual suspects like Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan and the like, along with weirder types like ex-Marxist hollow man Brendan O’Neill - probably testifies to the fact that the damage has been done, and there is not much the serried ranks of Little England can do by way of revenge.

Like everyone else, we are dependent on the summaries floating around the bourgeois media to understand what the rogue prince has to say in his book, smartly titled Spare. The word, of course, refers to Harry’s role in the grand scheme of things. The rules of primogeniture hand the crown down to eldest sons, and the eldest sons of those eldest sons; but that is a risky business - riskier, of course, further back in history, when diseases and injuries were more commonly fatal, and infant deaths frequent even among the ruling classes. Even in the best circumstances, it is statistically probable that at least one generation in every three will produce no male issue.

Kings and queens thus need, ideally, to produce at least two sons, to be on the safe side: the heir and the ‘spare’. Spares have always been problems. In the high Middle Ages, the safe bet was to send younger noble sons into the priesthood; one could easily get him a bishopric, or the charge of a powerful abbey. The demands of celibacy might worry the poor boy; but then, as was spectacularly the case with the Borgia popes, one could always merely ignore them. Where this course was not taken, the spare had something of an interest in fatal misfortune befalling his elder brother - ideally before the latter had produced an heir of his own.

And, indeed, one of the headline-grabbing leaks recounts a physical altercation between Harry and his elder brother, William, who - during an argument about (what else?) Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle - is alleged to have knocked the younger man to the floor, breaking a dog-bowl. Harry claims that he did not respond in kind; but that is not the point, so far as the gammon-faced bloviators in the press gallery are concerned. The real injury is telling the story. It is the ‘spare’, as per tradition, who is the true fratricide.

It is not only his brother who, apparently, does not come off well. Charles, upon Harry’s birth, is supposed to have congratulated his wife, in so many words, on producing a spare, before departing to the arms of his mistress. The word, apparently, was openly used of him by everyone - even sainted ‘Granny’, Elizabeth. They did not mean it in a bad way, naturally. But it seems to have stung, and reinforced the dilemma of men in his position: for all the wealth and idle comfort, what the hell are they for?

Devil’s bargain

Harry is a product of a strange moment in the cultural history of the British monarchy, as we have noted many times in this paper. After the war, and especially after the 1960s, the monarchy made a big change in how it did what would now be called (in Meghan’s Californian homeland at least) branding and strategic communications. Before then, the emphasis had been almost entirely on the monarch alone, and especially in the ceremonial functions of state they carried out. As the hairline fractures spread through British elite culture in the post-war years, an ingenious new approach was rolled out. The whole family would play public roles; princes and princesses would be set up as trade ambassadors, patrons of charities and so on. They would become celebrities in their own right.

The question of whether this was a success is an interesting one. It clearly worked to a point. I have no detailed empirical evidence for this, but anecdotally one finds in the general British (or at least English) population certain parasocial bonds with certain royals. Weddings, like those of William and Harry, are big events. That said, when it backfires, it tends to backfire spectacularly. The collapse of the marriages of Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, and Charles to Diana Spencer, shone an unkind light on the ruthless culture of ‘the Firm’. Above all, Diana’s subsequent death produced a wave of public feeling that all but overwhelmed the palace.

William and Harry, then, were born at ground zero of the worst disasters the royals would face. They grew up in a sham marriage which sensationally collapsed when the boys were still young; their mother was, for the last years of her life, pilloried and hounded by the rightwing press, arguably to her death (Harry certainly seems to think so). For the tabloids, she was somehow both a complete moron and a manipulative sociopath (similar things are, of course, said about Meghan today - time is a flat circle, at least in the yellow press).

Papers have quoted Harry’s account of his mother’s death. He was told, in person, by Charles, that “mum’s been in a car accident”; Charles did not offer a hug or anything so vulgar. (Without the book in our hands, it is difficult to know if Harry is trying to make his father sound like an emotional idiot, but a certain picture develops in these fragments …) After that, he merely cites a feeling of numbness, and indeed guilt that he could not cry over her as perhaps she deserved (and ‘the Nation’ wanted).

Body count

Numbness is a theme throughout, it seems. He is similarly cold in retailing his body count during his military service in Afghanistan - 25. He knows exactly how many enemy combatants died at his hands, because the computer told him so. (He has previously compared his work in the army to playing games on a PlayStation.) He reports that it gives him neither satisfaction nor embarrassment - the army did a great job, he says, of dehumanising the enemy. He does not seem to have an opinion on whether that was a good thing or not. I remember the puff-piece interviews from those days, when he would recount his triumphs over ‘Terry Taliban’ with the moronic grin of the callow Eton-Sandhurst product he then was.

Rather ridiculously, the anti-Harry brigade have made common cause with ‘Terry Taliban’ in denouncing these statements. More sober commentary was available from Joe Glenton, a contemporary of Harry’s in Afghanistan, who later deserted and took up with the anti-war movement and the left. His spies tell him that Harry “was a decent, rather laddish officer who did his job - which is about the highest accolade available to anyone who went to Sandhurst.” The trouble with blandly confessing things like this is it breaks a code of omertá. “It is generally frowned upon to boast about killing people … It is particularly bad form to do so outside the company of your fellow veterans - for example, to civilians.” The military and civilian worlds must be kept separate - a split that is “essential to professional military identity but [which] makes transition back to the real world so fraught after discharge”.1

Eton is probably worth mentioning here. It is not only the army that exists to sand off normal emotional responses: the public school system has always existed more to form a certain character - a brutish herd mentality that would provide more or less competent officers and colonial officials in sufficient numbers to rule a global empire - than to impart knowledge (the standard of education per se at such schools was, until relatively recently, pretty dire). EM Forster put it rather acidly back in 1926:

For it is not that the Englishman can’t feel - it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks - his pipe might fall out if he did. He must bottle up his emotions, or let them out only on a very special occasion.2

As Forster notes, the public school is traditionally a place for the haute bourgeoisie to rub shoulders with the lower aristocracy (in this country thoroughly bourgeoisified). Charles is actually the first English monarch to have been educated at a public school rather than by private tutors (unless one counts naval colleges). Schools like Eton and Gordonstoun are larger bubbles than the study-room of the governess, but they remain bubbles nonetheless, and perhaps of a worse, narrower psychological character.

William is the product of the same forces, of course; and has come out ‘right’, by the standards of the Firm. Perhaps being the heir, rather than the spare, was incentive enough to display the regulation stiff upper lip, find himself a reliable wife (if not quite of the sort of elite breeding stock preferred by ‘Granny’), impregnate her with two boys (and a girl), keep his mouth shut and wait his turn - surely not for as long as Charles had to.

Ways of escape

Fate had other things in store for Harry. The grain of truth in the hysterical hatred the rightwing pundits have for Meghan Markle is precisely that one could not imagine a more effective solvent for this psycho-social structure than the love of a liberal Californian actor. We have no idea what possessed Harry to let it all hang out like this; but we cannot imagine that Meghan discouraged it; it is all rather more Hollywood than Sandhurst. (So are the various post-mortem encounters with Diana, whether by means of psychics or merely laying hands on her grave, apparently reported in the book.) Certainly the book is written by that rare species - the celebrity ghost-writer who is himself a celebrity, JR Moehringer, whose own memoir was recently adapted as a film by George Clooney (Clooney introduced the two).

Harry complains that certain members of his family have “gotten in bed with the devil” - the “devil” being the tabloid press. But that is not exactly what has happened - as we have said, the whole institution has gotten into bed with the devil. It is arguable that, of all the subsets of celebrities, only the royals are still completely hostage to the tabloids. The central irony is that the whole purpose was to make the royal family seem more ‘normal’, with the result that it has plainly ceased to function as a family in the recognisable bourgeois sense, if indeed it ever did. For all the faults of the average nuclear family as an institution, its members do not typically employ large numbers of PR flacks to leak gossip about each other to The Sun. It is always difficult for the children of divorced parents to reconcile to the stepmum or stepdad; but at least they do not have to cope with a vast charm offensive designed to convince the entire country that remarriage should proceed at the earliest convenience.

Harry has escaped - sort of. He has become an American celebrity; across the pond, the Sussexes are popular (with liberal types at least). They have eased neatly into the ‘famous for being famous’ category of celebrity: she was a decent actor, but not a superstar; and he was a royal, but a spare. But together, they have a story: a meet-cute; a very modern fairytale wedding; a second-act crisis of conflict with the worst in-laws in the entire world; which is finally overcome by the power of love, and the marketability of (in Glenton’s words) “grating American cringe”. The leads are attractive - she in a Hollywood way, he in a gloopy singer-songwriter way (we will not go into the controversy over Harry’s beard). The world they live in is a hall of mirrors, but a well-furnished one. It is as if he had been sprung from a maximum-security jail, only to be trapped in the charming fake small town from The Truman show.

He could only make his escape by casting the most unflattering light on the machinery of the royal family. For that, he will never be forgiven by the reactionaries. Piers Morgan worried that this might be the end of the monarchy altogether - an overstatement, to put it mildly, and the overthrow of the monarchy remains a job for conscious political actors, and not one to be achieved at the level of culture per se. Nonetheless, it is a problem when the ‘dignified’ part of the constitution is revealed as a pack of vipers.

For that, and that alone, republicans owe Harry and Meghan a small debt of thanks - and we wish them luck in all their future podcasts, docusoaps and wellness grifts.


  1. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/08/prince-harry-afghanistan-deaths-spare.↩︎

  2. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1926/01/notes-on-the-english-character/648361.↩︎