At the risk of stating the obvious, the monarchy is one of the key national institutions that define British public life. Others include Parliament, the courts, the BBC, Civil Service and a free press. One of the remarkable features of public life is how many of these institutions appear to be in an almost perpetual state of crisis (feel free to insert your particular favourite crisis here – I’ll choose the MPs expenses scandal).
The monarchy is not immune from this. The period from the Annus Horribilis in 1992 to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was marked by a series scandals: which were marital , financial and just plain embarrassing (those of a strong disposition may wish to Google “Duchess of York” and “toe-sucking”).
There is no grand scheme, but these public institutions rub up alongside each other, reforming and adapting at their own speeds to the changing times. Yet, they all feed into a defining national characteristic: accountability. As Roger Scruton explains, accountability “originates in no particular person, no particular office, no particular procedure or institution: it grows in the place we are” (Where We Are, p 8). The very fact that our national institutions are so routinely embroiled in difficulty highlights their very accountability, often being held accountable by each other.
The distinguishing feature of the monarchy above other national institutions is that it provides the stability that facilitates accountability. Challenging Parliament or government does not mean challenging the very notion of the state. This stability depends on the monarchy eschewing any political decision making, which has been a key feature of the Queen’s reign. Indeed, this is the whole point, by establishing clear lines of decision-making it furthers the accountability of elected politicians. At least that is the basic model, any kinks or challenges to this are for another day.
In marrying Prince Harry, the Duchess of Sussex provided (and still does) an opportunity for the monarchy to look and feel a more like the country it represents. The key challenge for the new Duchess was how to accept the limitations that come with being a “Senior” member of Royal Family, particularly the narrowing of campaigning methods that are available, in order to avoid straying into political territory. The remaining options may appear feeble to the Duchess who before marriage, was seen to agitate for immediate action.
This under appreciates the stability the monarchy provides, which creates the room for change. The ceremony, ritual and routine of monarchy wraps change within the comfort blanket of familiarity. This would also require taking on a share of the more “routine” engagements that Princess Anne (for example) undertakes. The departure of Prince Andrew from the scene created a gap that could have been partially filled by the Sussexes. Perhaps a version of Pitch@thePalace for female entrepreneurs?
For it to function, and to be seen to function, the monarchy needs to be accountable. This takes place primarily through the press, and a feature of the modern monarchy since 1997 has been radically improved press relations. Social media has fed into this. Yet some press coverage has risked drifting from accountability into bullying. The Palace, similar to other public institutions, has struggled to tackle the nasty edge of social media. Inevitably, this has caused significant problems for both Harry and Meghan.
The calculation appears to be that the limitations and media scrutiny that comes with being a senior royal is simply not worth it. With charitable work, the Sussexes intend to create ‘a charitable entity that will … advance the solutions the world needs most’ in the belief that, ‘through local and global community action, progressive change can be achieved far quicker than ever before’. Although existing patronages will be retained, it’s clear that they wish to depart from the traditional approach.
Their intention is to limit, control and bypass much of the official media. This is by withdrawing from the Royal Rota system (effectively a pool of national newspapers which cover the Royal Family as of right), instead choosing to work with specialist and grassroots media and ‘young, up-and-coming journalists’. I’m no media expert, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this boils down to simply inviting those journalists they like. Their interpretation of the financial situation is also problematic, which I’ve discussed here.
The paradox behind the proposal is that the more assertive the Sussexes wish to become, the greater the demand for accountability through the media that they are attempting to limit. The compromise sought between no longer working as full time ‘senior’ royals, but without withdrawing from public life strikes at the very heart of the accountable nature of our public institutions. This is why it has generated so much controversy.