The wedding of Harry and Meghan was supposed to hold a mirror up to a modern world in which anyone can ascend the rank of celebrity to marry Britain’s most eligible man and US Gospel preachers light up the stuffiest precincts of Anglicanism. It was to show the Windsors in their most accessible light – a Twenty-First Century monarchy refracted through the figure of a new people’s princess descended not from earls but from slaves. What could possibly go wrong?
A year later, the royal handlers are finding a somewhat different world reflected back at them – one more inaccessible and elitist than the monarchy has presented at any time since the 1950s. Rather than burnishing the monarchy’s popular credentials, Meghan has damaged them with exposure to the most excessive double-standards of celebrity culture. Sir Humphrey finds he has been played, and that the institution he was attempting to safeguard has been subject to a reverse takeover.
The speed of the backlash has been revealing. For all its remoteness and pomp, successful royalty rests on a certain unspoken intimacy between monarch and subject: a sense that, beneath the layers of ermine, there lies an understanding of life – including your own. This intimacy was cleverly brought to the fore as the British Royal Family modernised in the post-war years. The Queen was shown doling out a picnic from the boot of a Land Rover. Even Princess Margaret unwittingly did her bit, being snapped sweeping by on waterskis. The public responded with an intimacy of their own: marking hatches, matches, and dispatches as if for their own family. Underpinning the transaction is an honesty: the royals don’t pretend to be what they are not, and in return we love them for what they are. We know we can’t join the picnic but don’t mind, as we feel we are there already.
Now that painstaking work is being undone at an alarming rate. The layers of relatability are being stripped bare, and our delicate suspension of disbelief is collapsing under the weight of a different type of cognitive dissonance imported from Hollywood. Jet-setting eco-warriors and velvet-roped egalitarians have long been the target of snide private comment. Yet by hitching that world to the gilded carriage of the Royal Family, Meghan has turned herself into a new lightning rod for anti-elitism. The upheavals of 2016 turned partly on the suspicion that modern progressive egalitarianism is merely elitism in disguise. The wokeing of the Windsors seems to provide irrefutable evidence this is true. The result is a kind of #MeToo moment for normal people, who are finally able to give voice to their long-suppressed dislike of the celebrity virtue mill.
Their response – to retreat higher up the ivory tower in search of defenders – is only sending the couple further down the vicous cycle of their unpopularity. A character reference from Elton John or Ellen de Generes is hardly the panacea for a charge of being an out-of-touch luvvie. Such “A”-listers also have their own popularity to worry about. The celebrity marketplace is a brutal one, where social capital is painstakingly guarded and reinvested. The global PR elite will currently be carrying out a quiet reassessment of the Sussexes, and seeking to isolate their clients from contagion.
With the couple’s renewed attempts at authenticity likely to be greeted with cynicism – lifting the ban on petting their dogs, perhaps? – this process is hard to arrest. A genuine embrace of the quietude they claim to seek, followed by a chastened re-emergence in the shadow of William and Kate, would be the traditional solution. But such restraint may prove too hard a cold turkey after such a rich diet of global attention. The alternative seems to be becoming a kind of alternative pole – and running sore of embarrassment – to the main family, like a latter-day Duke of Windsor.
Either way, Meghan and Harry have offered the world a cautionary tale in the limits of what can be synthesised in the celebrity sphere – and a stark reminder that royals and celebrities stand not on the shoulders of giants, but on those of the little people whom they serve.