Meghan and Harry Have Spoken. Now What?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- From the relative obscurity of LA (wrote no one ever), Meghan Markle and Prince Harry lobbed a royal grenade back at his home country and his family. Their most explosive allegation during the interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired in the U.S. on Sunday and in Britain on Monday, was of racism within the Royal family.
Those few seconds before a grenade explodes can seem like an eternity. The Royals were left to decide: Do they toss one back over to the other side, run for cover or hope for a controlled explosion with limited damage?
Buckingham palace seems to have opted for the third option. A brief statement released on Tuesday evening said that the “issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” That is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
Markle’s allegations were both broad and specific. She suggested racist attitudes were behind the decision to deny their son, Archie, the title of prince and a security detail, as well as the palace’s failure to push back against the relentless barrage of negative stories about her.
Not all of the accusations stick easily. The title of prince was not one due the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s child under existing convention (though Archie would have become a prince when his grandfather, Prince Charles, assumes the throne). Buckingham palace might also have felt a taxpayer-funded security detail for the couple, once they’d resigned as working royals and were living in Canada, their initial planned destination, would be hard to justify.
The bombshell, however, was the claim that a member of the Royal family had expressed concerns about their future baby and “about how dark his skin might be.” It feeds into the broader allegations by the couple of racial bias and recent debates about structural racism in the U.K. as well as aspects of Britain’s colonial past thrown wide open during last year's Black Lives Matter protests.
Markle’s allegation has also set off what must be the mother of all whodunits. Winfrey relayed the couple’s assurances that the offending party was not the Queen or her hospitalized 99-year-old husband, Prince Philip, who is known for his sharp tongue. That leaves a finite number of other suspects. The speculation is already rife and will only grow. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how it could prove damaging to “the Firm” — as the senior royals is known.
There is no easy way out of this. The charges of racism make this different from the sordid allegations around Prince Andrew’s relationship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. There are bad apples and then there are root-and-branch problems.
The government would like to stay well clear of this fight, but that’s awkward too. The George Floyd killing in the U.S. last year made a huge impact in Britain, bringing a much-needed debate on conscious and structural biases. Both the government and opposition pledged to tackle race-based discrimination. It was glaring that the royal family remained silent during the Black Lives Matter protests. It would be much harder to ignore if a working royal was, as alleged, a walking exemplar of racial prejudice.
A robust monarchy is squarely in the government’s interest, especially as it builds its Global Britain brand after Brexit. The Queen is, after all, the most recognizable Briton. The revelations can’t help but be damaging to the royal family’s standing among the 54-nation Commonwealth, most of whom’s members are in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
This isn’t a constitutional crisis, though. Most Britons are supportive of the monarchy, so long as they behave and are nice to look at. Opinion on the Oprah interview is sharply divided. A YouGov Direct poll shows broadly far less sympathy toward the Duke and Duchess of Sussex than opinion in America. But that doesn’t mean the Firm is off the hook. The fact that more young people tend to think the couple was treated unfairly speaks to a generation gap the family will be mindful of.
Partly, the popularity of the monarchy reflects the high public regard for Queen Elizabeth II, who is hurt by the allegations even if she wasn’t implicated. Meghan professed her affection for her; Harry his deep respect. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when dodging a question about the Oprah interview, affirmed his own “highest admiration” for Her Majesty. She’ll have latitude to try to handle this within the palace walls, though it will probably be left to her grandson William, second in line to the throne, to find a way to heal the rift with his brother and sister-in-law.
Of course, just how much still rests on the Queen’s long-serving shoulders must be a concern. On Tuesday, her heir, Prince Charles was shown at a vaccination center conversing mainly with ethnic minorities. It’s what royals are expected to do, only there were more cameras around this time.
That’s to be expected now. Many waves of scandal and division have crested and washed over the royals. History says this too will pass. But the monarchy will rightly be scrutinized for signs that, whatever happens behind palace gates, it takes racial equality — and racism — seriously. The Queen and her heirs can no longer claim silence is apolitical.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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