Prince Harry and Meghan’s TV interview in which they talked of racism, neglect and feuding inside the royal family is the biggest challenge to the British monarchy this century, but supporters say it will survive, at least while Elizabeth is queen.
Meghan and Harry’s accusations underscore just how hard the taxpayer-funded institution, which traces its roots through 1,000 years of British and English history, has found it to adapt to a meritocratic world and intense media scrutiny.
The monarchy, headed by Queen Elizabeth, will try to ride out the turmoil and then quietly reform – as it did in the abdication crisis in 1936 when Edward VIII gave up his throne for American divorcee Wallis Simpson, or in the public anger following the death of Harry’s mother Princess Diana in 1997.
But there may be lasting damage, and with Britain nearing the end of its second Elizabethan age, a looming conflict of generations.
“This is a grim moment, there’s no doubt, for the family,” a former senior royal aide told Reuters.
“It’s very easy in these moments – and we are in a moment – to think dark thoughts about the future of the monarchy. I think it’s pretty secure, but there’s no denying that this is a meaningful blow and a difficult crisis for them to navigate.”
Plotting a path out of the crisis will fall to Elizabeth, 94, her son and heir Prince Charles, 72, and his eldest son Prince William, 38, plus a small group of advisers such as the queen’s private secretary Edward Young, 54, and Charles’ private secretary Clive Alderton, 53.
Ultimately the final decision will rest with Elizabeth – effectively chairman of “the Firm” – with input from Charles and William, though they will also have guidance from advisers and could consult Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Those top three royals gathered at Sandringham, the monarch’s country retreat, in early 2020 to hash out a possible compromise for Harry and Meghan as they stepped back from official duties.
Around 40 hours after the interview aired, Elizabeth issued a statement to say the royals were saddened by the challenging experiences of Harry and Meghan and promised to privately address revelations about a racist remark about their son.
Throughout its history, the monarchy has had to cope with wars, revolution and civil strife. But in the last century, the greatest threat has come from within its own ranks.
The abdication crisis unexpectedly propelled George VI, a shy man who had a stammer, onto the throne in a turn of events which ultimately led to his daughter Elizabeth II, now 94, becoming queen, a role she has held for a record 69 years.
During that time, the greatest existential threat came in the tumult of the 1990s, when the institution struggled to cope with scandals and wrecked marriages, not least that of Charles to the late Diana.
After the death of Diana, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair convinced Charles to persuade the queen to come to London to be seen to address the nation, though there were tensions then between the PM’s team and the Palace’s advisers.
Blair felt the Palace had been slow to respond and parachuted his own PR chief in to help it deal with the crisis.
There are concerns the monarchy is again being pushed to the precipice – this time due to accusations of racism and neglect by Meghan and Harry, the sixth-in-line to the throne and younger brother of future king, William.
“The royal family has faced far greater challenges in its existence and although front pages are fulminating with the hype that this is the greatest crisis that’s hit the royal family, that’s tosh,” Mark Borkowski, one of Britain’s leading public relations experts, told Reuters.
Novelist Hilary Mantel, whose trilogy about the court of Tudor King Henry VIII garnered two Booker prizes, likened the royal family to pandas, “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment”.
“But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at?” Mantel wrote in a 2013 essay. “Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”
Harry admitted he had felt confined.
“I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped,” he said. “Trapped within the system, like the rest of my family are. My father and my brother, they’re trapped. They don’t get to leave and I have huge compassion for that.”
Polls show the British public overwhelmingly support the queen, and even republicans admit there is absolutely no prospect of any constitutional upheaval while Elizabeth is monarch.
But approval for Charles – who Harry said he felt had let him down – is much lower.
The furore comes in the midst of a “culture war”, often portrayed as a rift between an older generation wishing to protect Britain’s history and heritage from a “woke” youth, who see their elders as blocking moves to end racial and social injustice.
A snap survey carried out after the interview indicated that the British public’s sympathies lay more with the queen and other royal family members than with Harry and Meghan, but were split on whether the couple had been treated unfairly, with younger people tending to take the couple’s side while those over 65 did not.
Borkowski said the generation who grew up when Elizabeth came to the throne were dying out and the monarchy had to think about its future.
“This throws up many, many questions that need to be answered because of what Meghan and Harry have unveiled by opening up some wounds and pitching a battle in the heat of the culture wars,” he said.