It might be difficult to find new things to say about Finding Freedom by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand. The press coverage they received, rows over tiaras, and just plain score settling have all been extensively discussed already. Mostly, the book traces events that are already pretty well documented but from the perspective of Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Given the level of detail, it’s clear there has been substantial assistance from those closest to the Sussexes, and the Duke and Duchess themselves. Quite how much Harry and Meghan contributed is unclear; the authors note in the book only refers to “conversations” with them, but they seem to have a close relationship with the couple. In the ongoing legal action against the Mail on Sunday, extracts of the Duchess’s witness statement were posted on Scobie’s Twitter feed. The judge remarked that it ‘seems very likely’ that he had sight of the witness statement before it was made public.
The closeness of the authors to the Sussexes means that, lurking in the background, there are, perhaps unintentional, insights into the modern monarchy, which this blog post seeks to explore. You do have look hard for these insights because, at first glance, the closeness of the authors to the Sussexes results in some properly laugh-out-loud moments. Are we are meant to be wowed by the fact that Meghan, “before taking on a commitment, likes to be fully prepared”? I take that to mean that she does some reading up beforehand, which is hardly revelatory. Yet, this preparation has resulted in projects that “have broken all records”, but it’s not explained which records have been broken. As has been well reported, we also learn how “delightfully surprised” Harry was by Meghan’s willingness to go to the toilet in the woods. Finally, even the most royalist reader would chuckle at the idea that the 94-year old Queen is “arguably the busiest woman in the country”. The Queen’s work rate is indeed astonishing, but I know some single, working mothers that the authors could meet.
This lack of perspective and closeness to the Sussexes is the weakness of the book, but it is also what gives it its value. Primarily, it’s the strongest confirmation yet of just how royalty has become intertwined with celebrity. There’s long been a Hello! Magazine element to it all, but it usually kept at least one step removed from celebrity culture. But the Sussexes’ friends and connections include sport stars, people from the fashion world, actors, and people with “ambassador” in their job title, only they tend to be ambassadors of brands, not nations. In a typical section, the Sussexes went to stay with the Clooneys in Italy, and who did they bump into? Princess Eugenie and her future husband, Jack Brooksbank. The view held by some, that Harry would return to the UK having got fed up with the celebrity LA lifestyle, appears misplaced. They may have moved countries, but before they met, Harry was already moving in the same world as Meghan. Now apparently, it’s a world with sixteen bathrooms.
Intrinsically, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, for the monarchy, there are problems. Largely forgotten about in the book, is the fact that the monarchy remains a central political institution, albeit not in a party-political sense. That is what justifies the position of the Queen as Head of State. This is primarily, the ceremonial, dignified aspects of the constitution. But some elements still have some substance. Particularly when it comes to elements of foreign policy, the Queen can be a trump card for governments. It’s no coincidence that a state visit from the Emperor and Empress of Japan was scheduled for Spring this year, alongside negotiations for a trade deal. There is no real understanding from either the Sussexes themselves or from the authors of the book that, however worthy the Sussexes’ latest cause was, it was always going to be secondary to the core business of the monarchy.
Similarly, there’s little understanding when it comes to other aspects of monarchy. It is an institution that no one votes for. This is the root of its biggest strength; in that it provides the space for a concept of the “state” that is separate from the government. It’s one reason why, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Queen received a far warmer welcome than Theresa May, the then Prime Minister. To achieve this, it has to command as broad an appeal as possible. To use the Queen’s words, it has to “be seen to be believed”. Being seen means that the Royal Family conduct engagements around the country and meet people from a wide variety of voluntary organisations, business, and public service. Achieving this objective is more of an art than a science, but the basic idea is that there is meant to be something for everyone. Meghan’s visits to Chester and Nottingham suggested that she would excel in this. Yet, these are barely mentioned in the book, and there’s little indication at any stage of the Sussexes thinking that these would return.
Perhaps this was due to a lack of interest. Clearly, Meghan would want gender diversity and female empowerment, to be her main focus, but there’s no discussion in the book of how that could be combined with more traditional royal duties. Opportunities arose in a variety of different ways, including Prince Andrew’s departure from the royal stage. Could she have taken on Pitch@thePalace, with sessions solely for female entrepreneurs, or some variant of that? Slowly but surely, Meghan could have changed what we could expect from a member of the Royal Family. Amongst all of the detail in the book, there is no account of any detailed discussions that plotted Meghan’s way into the Royal Family over the next few years. Instead everything seemed so rushed.
The fault may not entirely rest with the Sussexes. The different offices at Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, and Kensington Palace appear to run autonomously, primarily looking after the interests of their own principals. By now, with Harry no longer in the direct line of succession, they felt that no one could really argue for their interests within Palace walls, and ended up with a smaller team than they wished within Buckingham Palace. The result seems to be an institution that did not quite know what to do with the Sussexes.
That seems to be the biggest shame about all of this, as some give and take from all involved could have delivered benefits to both sides. The big issue is whether the Sussexes are able to achieve their ambitions outside of the structure of the Royal Family, and the natural visibility which that brings. Should they succeed, younger members of the Royal Family may well look on enviously at what their Uncle Harry has done. Then what?