A centuries-old institution survives not only through the accumulated weight of tradition, but through the ability to make sharp adjustments to its course when it finally realises it must. The British monarchy, by temperament a tortoise, has just put on a turn of speed again. Saturday’s statements from the Queen and the Sussexes will not halt the storm surrounding the couple, but are designed to let the worst of the tempest abate.
Less than two weeks before, Prince Harry and Meghan had announced their untenable desire to partially step back, operating half-in and half-out of the institution. Instead, they will effectively stand down, giving up royal duties and relinquishing their share of the sovereign grant from the Treasury. They will also repay the £2.4m public funds used to refurbish their Windsor home, Frogmore Cottage. In a classic establishment compromise, they will keep the right to be styled HRH on the understanding that they will not exercise it. In theory, this retention would allow them to return as working royals should they change their minds. But while the arrangements are due for review in a year, the deal looks more like a decree nisi than a trial separation.
Despite the palace’s evident desire to draw a line beneath the matter, briefings at least purportedly on behalf of the players may well perpetuate the drama. Plenty of questions remain unanswered: notably, who will pay the sizable bill for the security they will need, and how they will cover their other costs. Not many commoners would understand “financial independence” to include seven-figure sums from a father who enjoys his own wealth through the same accident of birth that will make him king. But they will need additional income to maintain their current lifestyle. In reality, the glamour of royalty will remain their strongest suit, whatever their formal status. They could not retain royal funding while cutting commercial deals, however respectable – yet the cutting of pursestrings means that oversight will consist of the Queen’s indication of approval or otherwise, rather than a formal vetting procedure.
This is not what the Sussexes wanted. But it is what they have chosen. Their story has often been compared to that of another duke and duchess: Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. They spent the rest of their lives bitterly and ingloriously. But this is a very different – and much more sympathetic – couple in very different times. They have already shown a degree of courage as well as naivety. They will still enjoy a life of immense privilege. They should enjoy it. That looks easier said than done, given the racism and misogyny the Duchess has faced, as well as the broader criticism they have received and their ongoing battles with the media, legal and otherwise. The Queen’s acknowledgment of the intense scrutiny they have faced and her expression of pride in Meghan is surely intended to check the excesses, but is likely to have only limited effect.
Nor is this what the palace wanted. Concerns about duty are compounded by the understanding that the UK’s monarchy is a matter of showbusiness too. The royal family is losing the members most attractive and appealing to a younger generation, while the long reign of its respected head approaches its end. Yet even those who do not share the Guardian’s republican views may agree that other countries have established more credible and creditable versions of the monarchy for the modern age. Slimming down the institution may well be in its best interests, however it plays out for those exiting the stage.