Royal courtiers called it “the Marmite jar strategy”. The evolution of the Crown’s reputation in the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was as gradual as the changing shape of the spread’s container.
The latest disclosures by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have smashed that strategy and tarnished the British royal family’s battered image. But their campaign is proving as divisive as the yeast extract spread. In a royal feud made for these politically polarised times, people either love the self-exiled Sussexes or hate them. The loser here is Brand Windsor.
The contents of the Duke of Sussex’s tell-all memoir, Spare, which include details of the loss of his virginity and a fight with his brother, Prince William, have leaked all over the royal family this week. The younger prince has overturned historian Walter Bagehot’s warning about guarding the royal “mystery”. He has not so much “let in daylight upon magic” as ripped back the palace curtains and exposed the monarchy to the blaze of 10,000 Californian suns.
In a week that should have been dominated by the far more serious drama of widespread UK rail strikes, a buckling NHS and the consequences of recession, many in Britain have chosen to gorge on the revelations, as though they were episodes of a real-life Succession.
Disgruntled royal siblings might in centuries past have sought to raise an army and march on London. The weapons of this battle are less bloody but just as wounding: Oprah interviews, Netflix series and blockbuster books. Either way, the outcome is regrettable.
The royal family has squandered a one-off opportunity to advance and improve its image. The princes were being groomed as standard bearers of a more modern approach and in 2018 the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a marketing triumph, seemed to portend a more inclusive monarchy. Instead, launching allegations of racism, animosity and lack of support, the couple have forced their own demerger from “the Firm”, turned their PR skills against the rest of the family, and pursued a celebrity career in the US. It is a discordant prelude to King Charles’s coronation in May.
The King will, undoubtedly, remember that less than 30 years ago, his own reputation was at a nadir following an equally divisive media battle with his wife Diana, Princess of Wales (a saga fictionalised, with exquisitely awkward timing for the new sovereign, in the most recent season of The Crown). Silence is the tradition and may well be Buckingham Palace’s preferred reaction this time, even if silence has in the past been seen as tacit approval of unacceptable attitudes. Having spun off the Sussexes, the palace could stand back and let them take the celebrity low road. Time might heal the core royals’ reputation, as it did for that of King Charles and Camilla, now Queen Consort.
Inevitably, this approach means Charles III may become the second King in 250 years to lose America, where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have reinforced their support. In the UK, however, only disgraced Prince Andrew is a less popular member of the royals, according to polling before the latest news. But there is a generational divide to consider and a future in which a more modern, inclusive royal family would have better reflected the image of the nation. The pressure is then on Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, to burnish the family’s appeal to a younger audience.
It is easy to forget that the Firm is a family, with a family’s dysfunctions. The difference is that feuding within this dynasty has wider consequences for an institution that is still adapting to a new sovereign and finding its way in a post-Elizabethan era.