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The Sussexes Have Not Stepped Down From Royal Status...But They May Have To

Thursday, January 9, 2020

There sure are a lot of headlines that say the Sussexes are quitting royal life. Fun headlines, but not accurate. Meghan and Harry have done nothing of the kind. At first blush it might seem the couple is making that move, but if you read the fine print you will see they intend to remain as royal as ever. If you missed it, the Sussexes posted a shock announcement on their Instagram today, and subsequently press-released:

The announcement is worded such that it seems they are leaving the family, or stepping down from some defined position, but that’s not the case. They are making a break for financial autonomy, which they think will free them from the scrutiny they've endured over their private planes, home renovations, and so forth, and crucially, provide them more autonomy from the Royal Family itself.* That second point is as important (if not more so) than the first. Meghan and Harry were denied their own court when they split from Kensington Palace; they have doubtless been reminded often since that they have to toe the line, keep their politics in check, and follow royal rules.  They want autonomy, they want to engage in political activism, and they want to be the primary stars in their sphere.  But, they don’t want to give up their royal titles. They want their cake and to eat it, too. 

I chuckled at their claim they are renouncing "senior royal" status.  It makes me wonder who wrote this blurb?  Senior royal is not a title you relinquish. “Senior royal” is a bit of an amorphous concept that embraces those members of the BRF high in the line of succession and prominent in public life—but there is no official list.  Meghan and Harry aren't giving anything up by "relinquishing" senior royal status. So long as they remain Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and they undertake public roles, rather than living retired lives out of the spotlight, they are senior royals.  Frankly, I'd make an argument that you don't even need that second prong to be considered a senior royal, but it's too late at night to argue about that right now. You get the point that this is not really a thing. 

So, what are they are doing? For a long time now, I have been war-gaming out Meghan's various options to have her cake and eat it, too. It has long been my opinion that Meghan does not want to give up her title.  She likes being a royal.  But, she also wants to be a political activist and, frankly, she wants to be the top star, not second to Kate and William. I can't blame her for those desires, but she signed up for it all when she married “the spare.”  So the royal family is both the platform she craved and needed, and the very institution that limits her ambition—a strange conundrum, indeed.  

One option for Meghan that I have considered a lot is the path I thought the couple had chosen today as I quickly scanned through their announcement.  My thought has been that Meghan would survey the scene, appreciate her massive star power now she has married Harry, and she (and Harry) would, in fact, fully relinquish royal status and break out onto the global scene as a celebrity political activists—like George and Amal or any number of Hollywood couples.  They’d rely on the star status garnered as royals to power their careers as celebs. That would free them to promote the causes they choose and to enjoy the perks of wealthy elites without scrutiny. There are a few problems with that plan.  The first is that I had trouble seeing Harry fully agreeing to walking away from his family like that; second, Meghan loves her royal status, too; and third, it is a gamble. The royal brand has a magic with which simple celebrity-status just cannot compete.  I don't know if Meghan knows that, and you never know in our changed world, she might be able to hold the magic. This kind of move has never been done (Diana is not precedent for this, she was unique).  The question in my mind, and Meghan's if she is strategic enough, has been whether she and Harry really could maintain the magic long-term if they were just Meghan and Harry Windsor-Mountbatten—wealthy global activists. Maybe! Maybe not. Maybe they end like Wallis and David, essentially exiles from Britain, sadly trying to keep up pretenses in LA or Toronto. I don't know where it would go for them, and they can't predict it either. It is a very big gamble, though. If I had to bet one or the other, it would be close, but I'd bet they’d draw the Wallis and David ending. 

As I say, I think Meghan loves being a royal, and Harry is in no hurry to leave his family and royal life so radically, either. So, they’ve tried to do both by ceding something—senior status—that will justify greater autonomy without sacrificing the real deal, their HRH status and titles.   They are trying to say, “we are no longer constrained by the royal strictures, but we are still royals in every sense.” From their titles, to their homes, to their security, to their charity work on behalf of the Queen—even to continuing to accept funding from the Duchy of Cornwall, which actually provides the majority of their funding.  They are renouncing something that isn’t an actual thing, it is a description.   

As striking as the couple’s announcement was, even more jaw-dropping was that they gave Buckingham Palace no advance warning…again. This has been confirmed by a number of outlets, and BP’s statement said as much. Two hours after the Sussexes issued their announcement, BP issued its own statement, essentially saying, this is complicated and nothing has been decided. No kidding it is complicated. 

What Harry and Meghan don’t seem to get is that they cannot go off and be their own royals on their own terms. Royalty is not like a last name. It isn’t yours to take with you and do with as you will.  We have talked about this before, it looks like we will be talking a lot about this in the future.  The monarchy is about the monarch. In our modern world, where monarchies are anachronisms, and democracies are the preferred style of government, monarchies have to be wholly apolitical.  I used the analogy on an earlier post, but Meghan and Harry, as royals, are employees in a company. They are not CEOs, they are not managers, they are employees. The company promotes a single person—the monarch.  If Harry and Meghan want to sell something else, they have to leave the company.  You cannot use the company’s trademark, “British royal,” and sell something else. That dilutes and harms the royal brand. You either are in—you sell the product and fully support the program the CEOs determine—or you are out looking for work at another company. 

That is the problem the BRF is looking at now.  They have to control the brand. They can’t have Meghan and Harry out there as British royals with styles, titles, and all the pomp of royalty, but also doing their own thing—engaging in progressive politics, setting their own policy agendas, and calling their own shots.  The Sussexes can’t go to Canada and set up what would be tantamount to a rival monarchy. They can’t run a parallel royal family in North America. The BRF has a brand to protect, and the monarch controls the brand.     

This will be a bitter pill for the Palace, and I cannot imagine how hard it must be for the Queen, Charles, and even William.  Harry is grandson, son, and brother—he is a loved one, but this is a crisis for the institution. I don’t know if they have the stomach to see it through, but they have to present the clear choice to Harry and Meghan—in or out.  It will be hard to walk this announcement back, and I have the sense that emotionally the couple have crossed the Rubicon.  It is possible the Palace can come up with a solution that enables M&H to gracefully walk it all back, but anything short of fully reversing course would require concessions the BRF was clearly not willing to make just a short time ago. Sending the couple to North America was probably not in the cards, as long as they seemed to be intent on their own purposes and ends.  This announcement just confirms the very fears that would have prompted the Palace to deny the two autonomy to start with. Emily Andrews has noted that Meghan and Harry’s shock announcement may have been a deliberate play to force the Queen’s hand to give them now what they sought before, with the idea that such a public announcement would leave her no choice.  Of course, she has a choice, it is just a hard one, and Meghan and Harry have gambled she won’t make it. 

But, the Palace must make it. Harry and Meghan must be in or out.  If they have chosen out, then they must relinquish their styles and titles, their security, all taxpayer support, all royal residences, and pursue life as normal, uber-wealthy activists. If the Palace does not present that sharp choice, if they try to find some middle ground where Harry and Meghan “distance” themselves from Britain geographically, but remain full-fledged royals who globe-trot and pursue political ambitions, I believe, with a heavy heart, it will be the death knell of the House of Windsor.

The Palace might find a solution, or agree to a solution, but it is hard for me to imagine what compromise they can find that does not weaken the monarchy. 

This is obviously a "developing story." ;)  Stay tuned....