I RECALL staying up late more than a quarter-century ago to watch Diana’s BBC interview with Martin Bashir. I couldn’t be bothered to repeat the experience with her son Harry and his wife Meghan Markle’s ‘tell-all’ chat with Oprah Winfrey.
Bashir has been accused of deception in obtaining the interview. It was nonetheless fascinating, as the first instance of a senior member of Britain’s most elite institution laying bare the royal family’s dysfunction. “There were three of us in this marriage,” Diana complained about her husband’s relentless infatuation with the woman his family didn’t allow him to marry.
At least not until the princess of Wales succumbed to her injuries in a car crash two years later. Diana’s status as an ‘outsider’ has been compared with that of Meghan. The parallels are limited. The ill-fated Diana-Charles match was in effect an arranged marriage between a nubile teenager and a considerably older heir apparent, a decorative decision rather than the culmination of a fairytale romance.
Diana may not have been blue-blooded, but she was the daughter of a trusted viscount and former royal equerry. Meghan is a biracial actress from the other side of the Atlantic with a divorce behind her. Both of them, one might say, left one dysfunctional family to enter another, but beyond that, the commonalities mostly reside in media hype.
The British royal family’s racism isn’t its biggest problem.
Hundreds of millions of women, young or otherwise, experience trials and tribulations with their in-laws. The unfortunate experiences of Diana and Meghan don’t even come close to the frequently fatal ordeals of targeted brides in the subcontinent. And there’s no good reason why any one family’s experience or ordeal should be elevated above others.
On the other hand, not every family doubles as a political institution. The Windsors are by no means globally unique in this respect, except insofar as at least the senior-most members of the family interfere in political affairs. Just last month, a series of investigative reports in The Guardian pointed to a history of royal involvement in framing legislation, which shows the Windsors to be particularly wary of revealing the extent of their wealth.
The British royal family is symbolic of the feudalism that persists in a nation that purports to be a model democracy, boasting “the mother of parliaments”. In several other countries there are debates about how the upper house of parliament is elected, and whether the process is democratic. In Britain the upper house is selected.
The proportion of hereditary peers has diminished in recent decades, but even life peers are appointed by the monarch, albeit usually on the advice of the government of the day. Mind you, the chamber — the only upper house in any bicameral parliament in the world to be larger than the lower house — includes the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England. As for the separation of church and state, suffice it to say that the head of state — the monarch — is also the supreme governor of the Church of England. That’s hardly a barrier, though, to un-Christian ideas and practices among the royal family.
Perhaps the most publicised ‘takeaway’ from Meghan and Harry’s conversation with Oprah relates to racism. There was hostile speculation among one or more members of the royal family, apparently, about the skin colour of the couple’s offspring. The duke and duchess (as they still are) refused to reveal the identity of the culprit/s, but made clear that it was neither the queen nor her husband — whose racist observations over the decades are infamous.
It may also be worth recalling that the present monarch is only a generation removed from an uncle who taught her to flash the Nazi salute. But neither the ideological inclinations nor the racial preferences of the royal family are the biggest issue. It’s the feudal institution itself that’s an absurd anomaly in the 21st century, as its subjects — not just in Britain, but in Canada, Australia and New Zealand — will sooner or later realise, collectively or one by one.
To some people, this was clear centuries ago. Percy Bysshe Shelley was bold but hardly innovative in penning the sonnet England in 1819, in which he decried princes as “the dregs of their dull race, who flow/ Through public scorn — mud from a muddy spring”.
Perhaps the most apposite precursor to the Harry-Meghan saga is that of another celebrity couple hounded out of Britain by racists 50 years ago. The same year, one of them put on record a bunch of timeless thoughts, including the verses: “You can go to church and sing a hymn/ You can judge me by the colour of my skin/ You can live a lie until you die/ One thing you can’t hide/ Is when you’re crippled inside.”
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2021