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Opinion

Commentary: Do Harry and Meghan want to have their royal gateau and eat it, too?

Meghan and Harry at a May 2018 Buckingham Palace garden party.
Meghan and Harry, the duchess and duke of Sussex, attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace in May 2018.
(Dominic Lipinski / Associated Press)

… So tune in next time to watch “As the Tiara Turns”:

Do Harry and Meghan want to have their royal gateau and eat it, too? Could the family matriarch kick them out of the palace before they can leave on their own? Will little Archie grow up with an American accent, or even a Canadian one, eh?

If this were almost any other family, the story would be “30-Something Couple Leave Home, Look for Work.” But this is the British royal family, and from inside the palace looking out, the conscious uncoupling of Harry and Meghan from other “senior royals” probably looks unsettlingly revolutionary.

Harry and Meghan were to be the new, fresh image of the royal family — British and American, a royal duchess of mixed race who brought the experience of a career and the wider world to an insular institution. Could their semi-departure undo all of that? It seems the duke and duchess of Sussex want “a progressive new role within this institution” — but only part-time.

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Even a Windsor can try to plow a slightly different furrow in life — within limits. More than eight decades ago, King Edward VIII practically danced away from throne and empire to become the third husband of an unremarkable American woman. That went beyond the limits. It made people think, if sovereignty is not for life, then it’s just a job, and if it’s just a job, what makes a monarchy so special, anyway? From that, it’s just a short walk across the red carpet to questioning why anyone needs a royal family at all.

Madame Tussauds, the renowned London wax museum whose founder got her start by making death masks of freshly guillotined aristocrats in revolutionary France, moved swiftly to demote them from senior royals, carting their two figures away from the royal nuclear family cluster. Doing it in real life isn’t going to be that clean.

As reasonable as the Sussex announcement sounds to American ears, it’s a seismic shake to what undergirds the monarchy itself.

Where to start? How about the fact that they made it public on Instagram, where any royal junkie may have found out before HM the Queen got wind of it?

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The couple said they still planned to “fully support Her Majesty The Queen,” but this sure was a strange way of showing it. You’d expect more consideration for Harry’s 93-year-old grandmother, whose 98-year-old husband had to be taken to the hospital last month and whose favorite son, Andrew, the duke of York, is in disgrace for cavorting with Jeffrey Epstein.

The queen and her heir, Prince Charles, Harry’s father, had reason to think that something like this might be in the works; back in 2017, Harry told a reporter he’d already considered bailing on his Windsor job.

But he could at least have coordinated his announcement across a united family front instead of via this blindsiding broadside. Buckingham Palace’s public response took a couple of hours to cobble together, and the BBC’s royal correspondent described the palace as “disappointed,” which is royal-speak for “what the bloody hell?” It must have felt like being abruptly fired on Twitter by Donald Trump.

The last time the palace was blindsided like this might have been Princess Diana’s secretly taped interview with the BBC. Harry’s mom — who was by then separated from Prince Charles — said there were “three of us in this marriage,” referring to Charles’ mistress and now-wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. She also admitted to her own adulterous affair. If Diana expected the interview to reconcile her to the family, she catastrophically miscalculated: After the interview, the queen wrote to her insisting that she and Charles divorce.

But for all that is startling about the Sussex Declaration of Independence, let’s look at what Harry and Meghan likely will not part ways with: their just-renovated home near Windsor, and private family money from Prince Charles or Princess Diana. As for the house, it belongs not to them but to the crown, and the money they’re likely giving up is just their share of tax money called the Sovereign Grant, which is combination allowance-payroll for doing, admittedly tedious, public duties like grip-and-grin royal ribbon cuttings and hospital visits. (At one point during World War I, Queen Mary, the current queen’s grandmother, is said to have scolded a royal relative who whined about being sick and tired of visiting hospitals. “You are a member of the British royal family,” the queen said severely. “We are never tired, and we love hospitals.”)

When they say they will be carving out new roles “within this institution,” it appears they won’t be surrendering their royal status as prince and princess of the United Kingdom.

Whatever else in this decision may look rash, that part at least is wise. Being a British HRH is as rare as radium and every bit as luminous. If it’s the bowing and scraping the Sussexes don’t like, they also must weigh up the plus side of HRHitude. Because if they are serious about doing serious good in the world, nothing pulls money out of people’s pockets like a royal title. Royal patronage of a charity commands attention and makes the difference between raising mere thousands of dollars and raising hundreds of thousands or millions.

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More critical to Harry and Meghan’s health and welfare, they’ll probably keep their professional royal security, which is no trifling thing. One of the worst decisions Diana made after her divorce was giving up royal security. She was afraid of being constrained and spied on, but without it, she was left to the haphazard care of a drunken hotel security man at the wheel of a speeding Mercedes.

As for the press, the Sussexes have good reason to be angry and wary of “news” that has run from the fanciful to the offensive. After Harry and Meghan’s son was born, a BBC radio host was fired for tweeting “Royal baby leaves hospital” above a black-and-white 1920s photo of a baby chimp holding hands with a human couple. Harry has sued a couple of tabloids over alleged phone hacking, and the couple found themselves accused of photoshopping their own Christmas card.

But it’s unreasonable to expect that tabloid bile and social media snark will diminish with their self-demotion. To the contrary: “Harry and Meghan Bail on Brit for Colonies!” creates a brand-new story line in a new setting, which any producer will tell you is worth at least a couple of extra seasons on even the longest-running show.

Anyway, if the couple stops showing up to be photographed at official events, then the scrummage for any photos and news nuggets of them in their new unofficial lives will be even wilder.

As for that plan for financial independence — well, there’s a reason royals don’t and shouldn’t try to punch a clock. Even earning an honest buck may look like it involves flaunting royal influence. Remember the embarrassing episode involving the queen’s daughter-in-law Sophie. The countess of Wessex delivered intemperate remarks during a secretly tape-recorded meeting with a reporter who was posing as an Arab sheik who wanted to sign on with Sophie’s PR firm. It was one illustration of how “working royal” didn’t work out well.

Buckingham Palace is going with the stiffest of upper lips, managing to get out these words: “We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”

Things move faster in this country, though, and we’ll know the outcome of this royal bust-up pretty quickly: if the next Disney princess is called “Frozen Out.”


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