LONDON – In Prince Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, the royal brand took an all-powerful transatlantic blow, but how much damage it will do remains to be seen.
While the British monarch has had very limited direct power for centuries, the institution’s status as a symbolic figurehead – uniting the nation domestically and projecting influence abroad – remains perhaps the strongest argument for its survival in the 21st century.
Harry and Meghan’s portrayal of the royals as profoundly non-contact, with no regard for mental health and without sympathy for the racism they say drove them out of the country could seriously undermine this argument not only in the UK but also also in the United States and the other former colonies of Great Britain.
“Go back 100 years and the royal family would probably have hoped that one of the justifications for their existence was that they were meant to portray the best of British life,” said royal writer and historian Sarah Gristwood. “It’s hard to believe in the last few decades. And this interview certainly doesn’t help.”
Queen Elizabeth II’s response did not specifically address any of the couple’s claims, saying she was “sad” to hear how challenging their lives had been.
The reaction did not seem to dampen the shock and anger the interview sparked in the UK #abolishthemonarchy Hashtag trending on Twitter. Still, the reaction was different and there was a lot of criticism of Harry and Meghan. And there is little evidence that support for the monarchy will decline while the Queen, 94, rules.
“Rather, the greatest damage to the monarchy lies in what this has done to its international reputation, particularly in relation to the future of Prince Charles,” said Gristwood.
Charles, 72, Harry’s father and heir to the throne, is far less popular than the Queen, and antimonarchists believe his coronation will cause a shift in public opinion. During the interview, Harry barely helped his case, saying he felt “disappointed” and claiming that his brother, Prince William, 38, and her father were “trapped in the system”.
Internationally, even the most diplomatic responses were meaningful, going well beyond the usual reverential tone when it came to the royals’ discussion.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Meghan needed “courage” to speak about her sanity – notable because the American, a former television actress, claimed the palace refused to help when she told them she had suicidal thoughts.
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Tennis player Serena Williams lamented the “pain and cruelty” that Meghan, her friend, was exposed to. And filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted: “The kingdom that first brought slaves here 400 years ago has dwarfed its current racism in all its brutality.”
In general, Americans who saw the interview were far more personable to Harry and Meghan than Brits. said pollster YouGov. People in the U.S. were twice as likely to side with the Sussexes as Buckingham Palace, and most believed the breed played a role in Meghan’s treatment by the royals, it said.
Although the US dropped the monarchy in 1776, the Americans are by far the most lucrative market for British tourism today. Americans spent more than $ 4 billion in the UK in 2019, more than the next three nationalities combined, according to Visit Britain, a government-funded agency.
The issue is hotly debated, but backers say the royals are a big part of this draw. The royal brand is based not only on weddings, crown jewels and castles, but also on shows like “The Crown” on Netflix and “Royal Warrants” that adorn brands like Burberry clothing, Johnnie Walker whiskey and Bentley automobiles.
Crises such as the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the lingering questions about Prince Andrew’s relationship with wealthy financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died of suicide in 2019 while in custody, are also not unknown.
But what made Harry and Meghan’s interview uniquely damaging, in the view of some observers, was that it didn’t focus on individuals, but rather painted a damned picture of the institution itself.
“Meghan was the crown’s greatest opportunity for change, regeneration and reconciliation in a new era,” said American poet Amanda Gorman tweeted.
The shock waves are also being felt in the rest of Britain’s other former colonies, 15 of which have retained the Queen as head of state. In Australia and Canada, the debate has rekindled over whether it is time to move on.
“Our head of state should be an Australian citizen, should be one of us, not the Queen or the King of the United Kingdom,” former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
There was dismay among the Commonwealth of Nations in the Caribbean where Barbados was already planning to remove the Queen and become a republic last year.
“Meghan says people were talking about how dark their son’s skin would be. And it’s a lot lighter than most of us,” said Jamaican broadcaster Dionne Jackson Miller tweeted. “Could this be a turning point?”
Ultimately, it may take some time to assess the effects.
“It’s serious and could damage royals reputations,” said David McClure, royal finance expert and author of The Queen’s True Worth. “But I have the feeling it could very well be over, we’ll have to wait and see.”
History suggests that memories can be brief. Just a few months after the indignation after Diana’s death, the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, which, according to Gristwood, was “another great celebration of love”. “So it’s surprising how quickly affection for the monarchy can recover.”