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Are You Siding With Harry or the Palace? Either Way, You Fall Into the Royalist Trap

Prince Harry’s tell-all media blitz was meant to lift the lid on royal failings. Even more clearly, it shows the price Britain pays for monarchy.

Must we, really? I’m afraid there is no avoiding the great crown soap opera as this finely crafted Prince Harry publicity spectacular engulfs the news. However nugatory the revelations about scenes of brotherly rivalry, beards, bridesmaids and broken dog bowls, it’s no use pretending it’s not happening or that the country and its households aren’t dividing into Harryites and Williamists.

Pollsters see a leave v remain rift – with leavers on the side of the monarchy and remainers inclined towards Meghan and Harry. While older people back the palace and the young lean more to Montecito, I doubt that last night’s angry and contrary ITV interview will restore Harry’s sliding ratings.

The interview landed as the next neatly choreographed step in the ace publicity machine of Prince Harry’s publishers. After the Oprah interview in 2021, six episodes of the Netflix series, teasers for his four TV interviews this week and the early leaking of his book, was there really anything new for him to say or for us to think? Nothing, beyond the painfully raw spectacle of his inchoate rage.The palace, with its hordes of PR specialists, spent weeks war-gaming its response – it was prepared for devastating revelations, ready to break its silence if absolutely necessary. So far, its worst fears have “not come to light”, which tantalisingly suggests it thought Harry had more lethal missiles to unleash.

Of course, Harry’s words evoke some sympathy for an angry, damaged man. In what family is it psychologically acceptable to consign the younger son to service the elder for life? Few parental divorces are as horrible as the one these boys suffered, their schoolfriends snickering over the tampon tape and the James Gilbey recordings, everyone ogling Diana and Charles’s self-justifying TV interviews and books, capped by their mother’s horrific death. The monarchy teetered as the Queen misjudged the Diana moment, but then she held it together. If it could survive all that, the blow of a minor twig breaking from “the Firm” to seek his Californian revenge is hardly fatal – as he voices full support for the monarchy itself, condemning only its toxic relationship with certain portions of the press.

His one act of heroism is this dangerous duel with the tabloids that he blames for his mother’s death, as he pursues cases against the publisher of the Daily Mail, Associated Newspapers and the owners of the Daily Mirror and the Sun, the Reach plc subsidiary MGN Ltd and Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, accusing them of phone-hacking or other breaches of privacy. His father warned that it was a suicide mission, but Harry says the royals have, in feeding the beast, made a pact with the devil. He rages at their failure to stand up to them: there was not a word from the palace in rebuke for Jeremy Clarkson’s disgusting hate attack on Meghan.

Everyone knows Harry is entirely right about the filthy, hypocritical, moralising amoral press and its corrosive effect on national life. Yet in his mist of confusion and contradictions, he doesn’t see that publicity is the monarchy’s lifeblood. When Queen Victoria withdrew from the public eye for years, her popularity plummeted. That oxygen is how the royals make their pointless living as fantasy creatures: they need the press to justify their very existence, like any celebrities. Their only role is to entertain us, and Harry plays his part perfectly. Walter Bagehot was wrong: the royals were never the “dignified” part of the constitution, but undignified performers who reduce us to infantilism in following their small dramas. Bagehot wrote that the purpose of the monarchy is “to excite and preserve the reverence of the population”. Indeed, citizens are reduced to subjects in revering this family of nothingness. Nor was Bagehot right to claim the monarchy’s “mystery is its life” and “we must not let in daylight upon magic”. The public needs feeding constantly with each new royal episode.

Of course the press is retaliating with a sewage outflow of bile, the full firing squad of rightwing commentators hating the Sussexes’ “wokery”. It stays unspoken that “wokeness” means #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, race swirling around in their loathing of “victim culture”. Harry sounds ill-equipped intellectually to take them on, unfocused in his fury against them, unpolitical, tin-eared and clueless about how his Afghanistan kill-count angered other soldiers, giving fresh ammunition to the enemy press. Don’t expect him to examine the slavery sources of some royal riches: the future William IV made a pro-slavery speech in the Lords accusing William Wilberforce’s abolition campaign of misrepresenting the treatment of enslaved people in the British sugar colonies, whose good living conditions he could attest to himself.

With the battle to re-examine the legacy of empire and slavery barely begun, the royal family’s failure to prevent Meghan’s flight is a disaster for them. Whatever restraint it took, it needed to embrace her. The Queen is gone. Charles’s pitiful King Lear plea, “Please, boys, don’t make my final years a misery”, reminds us that he lacks her reinforced steel. The monarchy’s popularity has declined for years: more 18- to 24-year-olds would now prefer to have an elected head of state, while only 53% of 25- to 49-year-olds are in its favour. As Graham Smith of Republic says, three white men in a row as kings stretching ahead for maybe the next 100 years looks singularly out of step with modern Britain.

Look at the Clarksonesque roll-call of Harry and Meghan haters and you might instinctively take Harry’s side, but no, let’s not be dragged into the psychodrama of this spin-off from The Crown. This country is braced for the deepest recession in the G7, so badly misgoverned that people can’t call an ambulance to a heart attack or police to a burglary, catch a train or stretch their shrinking wages to pay for food and heat, while public services are drained dry by austerity. Yet how easily we succumb to the great distraction of another instalment of the royal charivari, briefly diverting public anxiety and conveniently relieving pressure on the government.

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Monarchy is a cast of mind that blocks reform, an unholy religion made of these remarkably unremarkable people. Despite the best education for generations, their most useful genetic function is to demonstrate that talent and intelligence is randomly assigned. Monarchy breeds in Britain a feudalism of the imagination that gives a stamp of approval to inheritance and to the inequality, risen rampantly in recent decades, that is at the root of our social and political malaise. Harry exhibits the epic unreality the royals inhabit when he imagines this: “I genuinely believe, and I hope, that reconciliation between my family and us will have a ripple effect across the entire world.” The rest of the world, I fear, enjoys the show, but laughs at our absurdity.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist. Her books include Dismembered: How the attack on the state harms us all, co-authored with David Walker. 

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