Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
When I was 16 years old, I joined Republic, the British organization which campaigns to abolish the monarchy. Americans, it has always seemed to me, got this one right in 1776. Why afford political power and taxpayer-funded luxury to a bunch of people on the basis of their bloodline? This is the digital age, not Game of Thrones.
So, when the first news reports began to surface on Wednesday that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be quitting the royal family, I wanted to cheer for them. In February of last year, I wrote a piece for CNN arguing that the two should quit. The British monarchy is an outdated system whose suffocating protocols would drive any sane person mad – especially an independent person like Meghan Markle, who is used to having her own voice and her own career.
Good for her and Harry for quitting.
And yet – it seems that Harry and Meghan aren’t yet prepared to relinquish quite all of their royal perks. Early on Wednesday evening UK time, the couple issued a statement announcing their intention to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.” This seems to have been widely interpreted as an announcement they were resigning from royal life. But they’re not.
As the evening wore on, a new website for the couple – www.sussexroyal.com - slowly spluttered into life, which bore all the marks of hasty copy-editing. In a series of statements across its pages, the pair made clear that they intend to remain ‘“royal” patrons of charities, take part in some royal activities, and most importantly of all, continue to receive money from Harry’s father, the Prince of Wales, who in turn receives most of his income from the royal body, the Duchy of Cornwall. Even the Sussexes’ own website acknowledges that they’re only relinquishing 5% of their existing income.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s offices at Buckingham Palace put out a terse response stating that nothing had yet been finalized. Harry had warned neither his grandmother, his father nor his brother that he would be making this statement. The BBC reported that Buckingham Palace is “disappointed” – Britspeak for “the Queen is livid.”
CNN reports that the Queen had asked Prince Harry not to release this statement before further negotiations with the royal family, but he ignored her request. Certainly, it seemed odd to see the Sussexes’ new website emblazon their desire to “honour the legacy of her Majesty the Queen” (a phrase normally used of monarchs who have passed away) when they hadn’t honored her enough to agree a news release strategy.
American progressives have taken Meghan and Harry into their hearts. It’s easy to see why: Meghan has clearly experienced visceral racism since her arrival in England, in the face of which she deserves everyone’s support. For most her life, she’s also espoused progressive causes, and since their marriage, it seems that Harry has too.
But many British progressives find this all profoundly confusing. In British schools, we’re taught to curtsey to royals if we’re every “lucky” enough to meet them – because we are born their social inferiors. We need to address them as “your royal highness,” no matter what their merits as actual members of the human race. (Nowhere was the absurdity of this clearer than when BBC interviewer Emily Maitlis closed her recent interview with Prince Andrew, whose friendship with the sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein sees him facing highly credible claims of statuary rape: “Your Royal Highness, thank you.”) According to the latest announcement, Meghan and Harry still want to be called “your royal highness;” they’ll still act as royal patrons; they’ll still be living in the Frogmore home for which the British taxpayer last year contributed a $3 million refit.
That may not be your tax money, American reader, but it is mine. Don’t expect Brits to be thrilled.
The other problem is with Harry. For those of us who’ve watched him grow up in Britain, he has always been the exemplar of aristocratic male excess – specifically, in approach to race and to the environment. This is the kid who, along with Prince William went to a costume party with theme “natives and colonials.” Other guests wore blackface; Harry dressed as a Nazi. As a young army officer, he was filmed using profoundly offensive racial slurs to refer to a colleague of British-Pakistani heritage.
Like other royals, he seemed to get away things the rest of us likely wouldn’t. In 2007, the police dropped a case into the illegal shooting of two endangered birds of prey on one of the Queen’s estates after interviewing Harry and two others who denied that they had killed the birds. The crime could have carried a six-month jail sentence - police said they wouldn’t charge the royal, but weren’t looking for anyone else. The previous year, Eton College settled with a former teacher for £45,000 after she had claimed that she had ghost written some of Prince Harry’s A-level coursework. (The tribunal found that this claim could not be proven, but upheld many of her complaints.) Harry denied these accusations of cheating and later responded to the incident, saying: “Maybe it’s just part of who I am. I have to deal with it. There’s lots of things people get accused of. Unfortunately mine are made public.”
Inside the Royal family
For a long time, it seemed that Harry was everything that progressives loathe – a playboy growing up without the threat of consequences.
People do change. And it is entirely possible that Meghan – who has fought and written about racism all her life – has opened her husband’s eyes to progressive perspectives that weren’t part of his world before. Having a mixed-race child will certainly teach anyone about racism. Two Neo-Nazis were jailed last year for terrorism offenses, including propaganda that encouraged an attack on Harry for marrying a mixed-race woman. Experiencing that horror would make any prince ditch their racist school friends.
But it’s still hard for many British progressives to rally round Harry as a champion of a new liberal monarchy. Especially when he and Meghan seem determined to remain in the royal family – but entirely on their own terms. Brits who struggle to pay the rent will have laughed outright to see them talk about working toward “financial independence,” given the significant inheritance he received from his aristocratic mother, Princess Diana, and great-grandmother the Queen Mother. The “Duchy of Cornwall,” from which comes much of the income Prince Charles donates to his sons, is an old feudal fiefdom.
Most is ancient landholding, but it also includes feudal rights like bona vacantia, which means that the Prince inherits all property left by commoners who die without a will or a next of kin. (Prince Charles donates most of this to his favorite charities – which dovetail with his personal projects– but he also uses it to make some “discretionary payments.”) And as Duke of Cornwall, Charles is also protected from paying certain corporation taxes – and is exempt from laws in Cornwall governing matters like planning permission. All these little tax breaks – on taxes ordinary Brits have to pay – add up to boosting the funding which will continue to pay for Harry and Meghan’s life.
Meanwhile, Charles has set a pattern for royals privileging their own pet causes. His lobbying of the government to divert public money toward homeopathy – for which there is no known scientific evidence – is notorious. So the news that Harry and Meghan have applied for a trademark allowing them to sell their own branded merchandise as “Sussex Royal” isn’t the first instance of a royal using their status in order to promote a personal cause. But whether it’s Harry or whether it’s Charles, there’s no social justice in watching members of the royal family exploit their accident of birth.
Much has been written in the US about the injustice of British tabloids focusing attention on Meghan and Harry’s etiquette breaches, while Prince Andrew faces credible accusations of much more serious crimes. That’s entirely right – although part of the problem is that Britain’s tough libel laws make it much harder to accuse someone of a crime that actually matters than to circulate gossip alleging a mere social faux pas. The legal stakes are higher with Andrew. But British anti-monarchists like myself see the culture of royal entitlement that shaped Prince Andrew as the same culture of royal entitlement that shaped the young Prince Harry – until Meghan, perhaps, opened his eyes. It’s understandable if both the Sussexes want to quit. But to live their values, they need to quit the family business entirely. Perhaps they could burn the entire edifice down with them.
An earlier version gave an incorrect first name for Jeffrey Epstein.