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The Left made fools of themselves endorsing the Sussexes as paragons of progressive virtue. They’re a brand, not a cause.

Since the French Revolution, the default position of the left has been rejection of hereditary monarchy and contempt for the flummery and waste of royal families. Spend the money on food banks, was the line.  Tony Benn, the patron saint of Corbynism, regarded royals, rightly, as a “feudal anachronism, the apex of privilege”.  He thought the Queen could stay in Buckingham Palace, financed by the tourist board,  but the rest of them should be sent packing. 

But times change. Harry and Meghan, we are told, are now adored by Millennials, seen as role models, icons of modernity.  The Guardian sees the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as representatives of a “socially progressive younger generation”.   Far from condemning the behaviour of these soon-to-be-ex royals, many left wing commentators, and Labour MPs, have been leaping to their defence.

 In a furious piece in the New York Times, the Guardian columnist, Afua Hirsch, blamed deeply ingrained British racism for Meghan’s decision to ditch the Firm.  Her treatment” she wrote, “has proved what many of us have always known…in this society racism will still follow you”.  Social media is fizzing with indignation at the allegedly racist treatment of Meghan under the #whiteprivilege tag.  Oprah Winfrey has been fanning the flames across the pond.

There is actually very little evidence of racism in the media treatment of Ms Markle. The oft-quoted headline, “(almost) straight out of Compton”, may have been silly and wrong, but it wasn’t racist. The social and family background of a new member of the royal family is a legitimate matter of public interest. I don’t know if she is descended from a slave, but there is nothing inherently racist in speculating about the humble origins of a future princess.    

The other allegedly racist headline about Meghan’s “exotic DNA” wasn’t a headline at all.  It came from a column by Rachel Johnson, the PM’s sister, celebrating the entry of this mixed-race actress into the whiter-than-white royal family.  She was celebrating her genetic inheritance, not disparaging it.  It cannot surely be racist to say Britain is becoming more racially diverse.

The instant sacking of the disc jockey, Danny Baker, after his “monkey” tweet, shows just how intolerant of racism the UK media has become.  He was excoriated, even though there’s evidence he was being stupid not racist.  Criticism of Harry and Meghan’s hypocrisy in lecturing on the environment, while relying on private jets, is certainly not racist.

The comparison of headlines apparently showing that Meghan has been treated more harshly than Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is specious.  Even if she had been getting rougher treatment, that doesn’t necessarily denote racism.  The tabloid press is notoriously harsh on minor celebrities like Meghan, whatever their racial origins.

But this headline war conveniently ignores the decade in which “waity Katie” was often dismissed as too lower class to marry a future king.  “Camilla thinks Kate is too common” read one famous headline. Columnists sneered at her suburban diction, her lack of social graces.  She is, after all, the daughter of…an air hostess.  William was reportedly “horrified”  over royal courtiers whispering  “doors to manual”.

The headlines are all there if you care to look. In 2012, Kate was photographed naked on her honeymoon by a French paparazzo and the images were free to view for everyone with a lap-top.  There’s a whole on line genre of up-skirting photographs of the Duchess.  Her sister Pippa’s bottom became an endless object of tabloid fascination.

By contrast, Meghan Markle was lionised by the press when she arrived on the scene three years ago. The media was fascinated and enchanted by this woke princess who was bringing the stuffy royal family into the 21st Century.   The coverage in all newspapers was little short of adulatory.  Her feminism was widely praised; she adorned the front page of Vogue; her wedding had the full 36-inside-pages treatment. 

Meghan’s marriage into the royal family was seen as a significant moment in the progress towards equality and diversity in Britain. It was indeed, a fantastic story.  Those pictures of the Queen with Meghan’s African-American mother really did capture the public imagination.  The press couldn’t get enough of it.

 Her treatment may have become more critical, but that doesn’t make it racist. In the Sussexes’ resignation epistle there is no mention of racism. They clearly don’t like their treatment by the press. But their court actions agains the media are about phone hacking and copyright, not race.  Her departure comes as a blow to minority groups who saw her as a torch-bearer for anti-racism and anti-sexism.  As a Royal she had a unique platform; now she is just another self-obsessed celebrity.

 In the words of Queen – the pop group that is – they want to break free. To which the British public says: fine. Do what you gotta to do. Polls show that the British public wish the Sussexes well in their new life. However, the deal is that if they want to escape the paparazzi and the responsibilities of royalty, they must also give up its privileges.They must give up their royal titles and stop consuming vast amounts of public money. 

 The renovation of their grace and favour home, Frogmore Cottage, cost the taxpayer £2.4m.Their security costs around the world costs millions more. They will now repay much of this and will have to rent it in future, like everyone else. But their security will remain a costly burden on the British tax-payer for the foreseeable future. 

 They will continue to receive millions from the revenues of royal estates, via Harry’s dad, Prince Charles. That will be at his discretion.  But the financial taps should really be turned off.   There is no need, since Harry’s personal fortune is estimated at £30million and Meghan is also wealthy.

  To most of us this seems self-evident. And you’d expect Labour to have been calling them out most loudly.  But in their desperation to be liked, following the disaster in December, Labour MPs  and the left in general have been lining up on the side of the Sussexes hoping a little of their stardust will fall on them.  But they are not paragons of progressive virtues. They are a brand not a cause.  They deserve precisely what they’ll get – which is a lucrative future as a kind of vaguely royal version of the Beckhams. 

The Queen has still commands a great deal of respect in the UK.   Mrs Windsor has done a pretty good job in her half century on the throne, not just representing Britain but negotiating the dismantling of the British Empire in the 1950s and 60s. Say what you like about Britain’s colonial past, but nothing became the Empire so much as the ending of it.

She had the wisdom to realise, in the 1960s, that to make the monarchy relevant, and justify the prodigious amounts of public money spent on its upkeep, that there had to be a quid pro quo. The “Firm” as she calls it had to be seen to be “giving something back” through intense charitable activity and the grind of diplomatic intercourse. And of course, simply “being there” for the opening of bridges and hospitals, and for moments of national tragedy, like Aberfan.

But the Queen is a product of a bygone age of deference, of patronage, of noblesse oblige. She embodies the virtues of duty, hard work, responsibility that defined the post war ruling classes. These are anachronistic qualities in the age of celebrity.

 The Sussexes departure from “senior” royal life has absolutely nothing to do with duty and everything to do with worldly avarice.  They clearly want to remain in the public eye, their celebrity wedding guest list confirmed that. They believe they can make a lot of money as influencers and sponsors.

They listen to people like David Heigh of Brand Finance who says that the Sussexes could be a billion dollar brand.  We’re talking Caitlyn Jenner here. But they have found the duties and responsibilities of being part of the Royal Family uncongenial to this ambition.

At the apex of celebrity culture are the “global and noble” celebrities like the Clintons, the the Clooneys and Oprah Winfrey who ensure their image is expensively curated by brand consultants to include tax deductible charitable activities.  Their publicists arrange interventions on gender, LGBT and environmental causes precisely to immunise them from criticism.  To present them as the good guys of the international elite. 

This world has long held a fatal attraction to minor members of the royal brood, who aspire to this lifestyle while lacking the means. They are hindered by the mundane restrictions of royalty and its aristocratic attitude to wealth creation – which is seen as rather vulgar. They want to be financially independent. The Sussex Royal brand has already been copyrighted.  Meghan has relocated her finances to the state of Delaware, the Switzerland of the USA.  Voice-overs and fashion sponsorship is on the way. 

The “abdication” of the Sussexes, following the Epstein scandal, is a serious blow the Firm. It can’t go on like this.  It should be clear anyway that the Monarchy, as it stands, is no longer viable. It will have to down-size to immunise itself from scandals like this in future.  Questions about the anachronistic constitutional role of the Queen can no longer be avoided. 

At present, the Queen is head of state, a formal role of course, but one that nearly became highly political during the Brexit crisis last year. There was a real possibility that she might have had to decide whether or not to endorse a caretaker prime minister.  

This monarch should be the last to have any formal role in the constitution. The Crown should no longer be seen as above politics.  The hereditary principle should play no part in our democracy. Minor royals should be ordinary citizens like the rest of us. 

It should without saying that there’s no place for royalty in Scotland. The Scottish National Party needs to reassess its historic support for the Queen.  Alex Salmond called her the “Queen of Scots”, and the 2013 White Paper envisaged a role for the Monarch in Scotland after independence. This is surely no longer tenable.

Queen Elizabeth may be popular in Scotland, but there is no evidence that this extends to the minor members of the the royal family.  The SNP’s monarchism was anyway tactical, a posture intended to avoid alienating those Scots who still respected royalty, especially those connected to the Scottish regiments.

That made sense while the head of the  Firm was a figure of veneration, but the descent of the family into soap opera makes it redundant.  If Scotland is to become independent, there should be no question of a hereditary head of state. And there is surely no place for celebrity airheads like the Sussexes. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?

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