For all the vitriol of royal commentators, it’s national racism in self-denial that has driven the Sussexes abroad, says Dani Garavelli
Of all the bilge written about Harry and Meghan over the past few days, it was a column by the Sun’s royal photographer Arthur Edwards that came closest to Private Eye-style self-parody.
Like a jilted lover, Edwards complained his relationship with Harry had been going fine before the American came along. “Travelling the world to take Harry’s photo used to fill me with excitement because you knew he would have fun,” he lamented. “But I haven’t seen him happy for a long time.”
Edwards is convinced this change in Harry’s demeanour is down to Meghan because – get this – one day, when she was otherwise engaged, he felt the old bromance being rekindled. “As [children] waited to be hugged by the prince, he had a massive smile,” Edwards writes. “He was almost like the old Harry.”
Others with longer memories might recall a different “old Harry”: a small boy in a suit walking behind his mother’s coffin, as photographers not dissimilar to those who pursued Diana into the Parisian underpass, battled to get close-ups of his grief.
Poor deluded Edwards. That was the moment Harry’s relationship with the paparazzi soured. If he managed to persuade them all was forgiven, so he could use them to promote his causes, then perhaps a broken childhood isn’t all he and Meghan have in common.
Edwards’ column reeked of self-pity. Other reactions to the royal couple’s announcement were full of vitriol, most of it aimed at Meghan. How misogynistic do you have to be to say, as Eamonn Holmes did: “I haven’t met her, but I find her incredibly irritating?” How lacking in self-awareness do you have to be to bark: “Go back to the US if you want your privacy” (Piers Morgan, 9 July, 2019), then call her an “ego-crazed leech” (Piers Morgan, last Thursday) when she takes your demand at face value?
In royal stories, it is always the woman’s fault. Princess brides are supposed to preen and procreate; to speak when they’ve been spoken to and always toe the party line. When they fail to comply – when they spawn only girls (Anne Boleyn); or are too ugly (Anne of Cleves); or too vulgar (Wallis Simpson) – it is only right they should be made to disappear.
Today’s courtiers – Morgan, Toby Young, Brendan O’Neill et al – have closed ranks. This band of brothers affect to be contrarian, yet give their all to ensure the world’s most retrogressive institution doesn’t yield to modern mores .These crappy few despise Meghan not, as they claim, because she is materialistic, but because she campaigns for the kind of society that would kick them out on their sorry asses.
Contrast their attitudes to Meghan to their attitudes to Prince Andrew. O’Neill thought the public shaming of a man who consorted with a convicted sex offender was “creepy”. Young put the whole farrago down to Andrew not having married a sensible woman like his own wife Caroline. Either he was blaming Sarah Ferguson for being flighty, or Caroline for not having the foresight to choose the Duke of York.
The comparison to Wallis Simpson is apposite; both women are American, worldly, divorced. They know what it means to be misrepresented by those who get to shape the narrative. They have been cast as social climbing seductresses, although another way of looking at it is that Edward and Harry were emotionally fragile men looking for somewhere to call home.
The attempt to cast Meghan as celebrity-hungry is particularly unfair, given she was already well-known. Those querying their ability to live independently seem to have forgotten she was doing fine before Harry came along. She may well miss the acting she gave up to join The Family. Who knows? It’s unlikely anyone other than Harry asked her.
The elephant in the room is race. Right from the start, the tabloids homed in on Meghan’s ethnicity. Even when they were feigning support, they couldn’t leave it alone. “How progressive” they chorused, ignoring the fact that any kind of fuss about a white man falling in love with a woman of colour is the opposite of progressive.
On other occasions it was more overt. Headlines such as “Straight out of Compton” sought to plant gangland connections in people’s minds. Articles claiming her family was just 150 years away from being cotton slaves and suggesting she would thicken up the royal bloodline with her “exotic” DNA were dog whistles for Mail readers.
What the reaction to Harry and Meghan’s decision has exposed is not merely that the UK is racist, but that – as Stormzy suggested – it exists in a state of wilful self-denial. When Meghan and others try to call it out, they are shut down. Watching screen-writer Amna Saleem on the BBC Nine was painful. She was in tears because the interview came after days of being called a c*** and receiving rape threats for writing about the racism Meghan had experienced. Yet fellow guest Iain Macwhirter dismissed the notion it had played a part in the couple’s decision. When presented with the aforementioned headlines, he denied they had racial undertones.
The same thing was happening to singer songwriter Jamelia over on Newsnight. There she was – a BAME women trying to explain what life is like for BAME women – only to have white historian Robert Lacey contradict her.
We know the UK has a problem with racism right now. The evidence is there: in the Windrush scandal; in Brexit; in the pejorative language used by the Prime Minister; and in the delegitimising of people of colour when they try to puncture white complacency.
Saleem got to the crux of the matter when she told Macwhirter: “You live in a different world from me and I am jealous you get to look at it this way.”
There are of course issues to thrash out with regards to Harry and Meghan’s stepping back. As others have pointed out, they cannot have it both ways. If they renounce the duties and the scrutiny, they ought to renounce the perks.
But my republican credentials have always been undermined by my preference for human stories over constitutional debate. While the monarchy is a repellent throwback, no-one gets to choose which family they are born into. Only those for whom money trumps everything could look at Harry and envy him his past. He has never tried to hide the ongoing trauma caused by the death of Diana. The statement the Sussexes issued last week may have been bland, but Harry said everything he needed to say about why he wants to take his family out of the limelight in a documentary earlier this year.
“My mum taught me a set of values which I try to uphold,” he said. “I will always protect my family and now I have a family to protect. I don’t want a repeat of the past.”
Unlike the white commentators who play down the negative experiences of BAME women, Harry understands the world is different for Meghan than it is for him. He has begun to see it through her eyes and is determined to make life better for her. Good luck to the pair of them.