Royal Corner

A Politically Royal Gamble

As Meghan faces backlash over her political comments, are the royals heading into perilous partisan waters?

AUGUST 24th, 2020

© Getty Images


n 2015, after a 10-year, £400,000 battle had played out in the Supreme Court, Buckingham Palace aides were worried. The Guardian newspaper had been in a formidable struggle with Clarence House over twenty-seven unpublished letters by Prince Charles, which they believed showed the heir-to-the-throne breaking the politically neutral stance that the Monarchy had become accustomed with. The Supreme Court Judges had just dismissed the Attorney General’s appeal to keep the letters out of the public realm, and thus on 13 May, 2015, the infamous ‘Black Spider memos’ were published by the Cabinet Office for the world to forensically dissect.

In the run-up to the release of the letters – written between 2004 to 2005 – the media had alluded to what the contents could contain. Leaks had emphasised a focus on the environment, but the early letters failed to provide any major scandalous examples of political bias.

Prince Charles meeting with David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband - © Getty Images

Yet, Buckingham Palace went into crisis mode, unsure of how the letters would be received. Like in most PR scandals faced by members of the Monarchy, the palace tackle them with a “worst-case scenario” approach. This impending scandal was no different. The letters, upon release, showcased how the Prince of Wales had been lobbying governmental figures over subjects such as, architecture, the environment, badger culling and the Patagonian Tooth fish.

As aides looked over the newly released memos from the PR offices in Buckingham Palace, they breathed a sigh of relief. It was fair to say, that for the palace, the contents were not “worst-case scenario”. The early morning headlines adorning the newspapers added to the sense of reprieve.

“Underwhelming”, “overexaggerated”, “a failed attempt by The Guardian to embarrass the Prince of Wales”, and “a smoking gun without any bullets”, were just some of the comments made by journalists across all spectrums of the media.

Whilst Buckingham Palace had been relieved, Charles and his staff weren’t problemed to begin with. “‘Sanguine’, is how I would describe the Prince’s team,” said one royal source at the time. And although the public supported Prince Charles and little, to no criticism was sent his way, the determined actions to make his letters public had unsettled the future king.

It also disconcerted his mother, The Queen.

One of Charles' letters to Government officials - © Cabinet Office

This was of no surprise. Her Majesty has made it her upmost mission to ensure that no person but herself is aware of her political leanings. She has forcibly and ruthlessly safeguarded any personal opinions with an iron will unchanged since her coronation in 1953. In her son’s perceived “meddling’s” with matters of state, the Queen had grown worried that – as king – Charles would fail to do the same.

Those fears were eased in 2018, when in a landmark documentary to mark his 70th birthday, Charles admitted his political “interest” would end upon his ascension to the throne. “You know, I've tried to make sure whatever I've done has been non-party political,” he said. “And I think it's vital to remember there's only room for one sovereign at a time, not two.

“So, you can't be the same as the sovereign if you're the Prince of Wales or the heir.

“But the idea somehow that I'm going to go on in exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two - the two situations - are completely different.”

Although the public seemingly didn’t mind Charles’ letters, their tolerance wasn’t fully unanimous. Many felt that the memos didn’t cross the line of bias, and that instead of focusing on a political agenda or allegiance to the then Labour government, they highlighted unimportant, or “bizarre” issues which didn’t affect the daily lives of the public, and that was tolerable – for now. Put simply, whilst Charles had moved perilously close to the partisan line, he hadn’t crossed it. But if he, or any other member of the Royal Family, did, then the public wouldn’t be as understanding.

Charles’ “Black Spider memos”, although harmless, demonstrated why the Royals don’t discuss politics. It is a simple rule, with a simple explanation. An unelected, hereditary institution whose power stems from the sovereign, cannot comment on the government elected to lead in the Monarch’s name. Why? The Royal Family is, in most parts, a symbolic institution, guided by the unseen constitution of monarchy. For the Queen her role is universal, not political. As Head of State she must represent Britain as a whole; including the entirety of the political spectrum. To “pick a side” would undermine the very nature of her role, and in turn her standing within public life. This outlook continues across the Commonwealth, and the same protocols are bestowed to her family, who are seen as an extension of the sovereign’s power.

Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex addresses the "When All Women Vote" event - © Telegraph

It is this position, which is why Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has found herself at the centre of criticism recently. In a conversation featured on the “When All Women Vote” event, the Duchess found herself in hot water when discussing the upcoming US Presidential Election. In a video call, Meghan stated: “we all know what’s at stake”, alluding to the potential re-election of President Trump. The backlash seemingly confused some in America, who failed to see the issue with an American Duchess, discussing American politics, on American soil.

Now, there is nothing untoward for Meghan to impress upon her fellow Americans the need to vote in any given election. The democratic process of politics is vital to our way of life; it’s a right which countless lives have been lost to preserve. But in effectively taking sides in a political election as an unelected public figure, this is where things become problematic. In showing partisan political opinions, Meghan crosses that most sacred of royal lines; one labelled: ‘don’t pick a side’.

Furthermore, the “When All Women Vote” event took place in the middle of the DNC (Democratic National Convention). If Meghan’s political comments are truly bipartisan, then it will be interesting to see if she makes an appearance at the RNC (Republican National Convention), and has similar discussions with conservative, republican women.

Somehow, that seems unlikely, and here is where the Duchess begins to lose balance on the perilous political tightrope.

There is a difference between American Meghan Markle discussing politics, and the Duchess of Sussex – a British title connected to the British Monarchy. In using her royal status, Meghan effectively became an unelected figurehead – whose global influence stemmed from the words “I do” – dictating who Americans should vote for in a democratic election. That goes above the expectation of a member of the royal family, even one who has stepped back from royal duties.

The Queen and Prince Charles at the Opening of State Parliament, 2019 - © Getty Images

Many will argue that Meghan, alongside Harry, are no longer “working members of the Royal Family”, that they’ve “found freedom”, and therefore the rules no longer apply. That is partly true, but Harry still maintains his position in the line of succession. There is still a chance – a miniscule one – that he could be King, and as time moves on, Harry will rise to fourth-in-line to the throne within the reign of King William V. No matter whether he and Meghan are working royals or not, they are still the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and those are titles they continue to willingly use and benefit from.

Others will also argue that Meghan is being singled out, perhaps alluding to the reaction of Prince Charles’ interest in politics. Yet these two instances couldn’t be further removed from one another. One is actively giving precedence to a political stance, the other was lobbying politicians to help with his charitable work. One crossed that consecrated line, the other one did not.

Meghan also isn’t alone in facing the scorn of the public when it comes to airing political opinions. Take Lady Amelia Windsor, who faced backlash for sharing an Instagram post quoting: “Say it loud, say it clear: ‘Refugees are welcome here.’” in protest at President Trump’s travel ban. The media attention the post received resulted in Buckingham Palace aides shutting down her account and removing the post, although she has since returned to the popular social media site.

Unlike Amelia Windsor, Meghan’s profile is much bigger, but there is one simple solution she could enact, if she so chooses, to avoid any further fallout. Give up the royal title. If a future in political matters is where the Duchess’ attention is focused, then her connection to the Royal institution must end. It isn’t about punishing Meghan and Harry or targeting their willingness to pursue complex issues. It is simply about distinguishing between the realms of elected politics and unelected institutions; two worlds that should walk parallel to one another, yet never hold hands.

Meghan has received backlash for her perceived bias comments on the US election - © Getty Images

To protect diplomatic relations; to ensure that the Monarchy stays above all politics, both at home and abroad, Meghan cannot continue to hint at any political bias. Yes, she may have removed herself as a working senior member of the Royal Family, but she still falls underneath the umbrella of the institution and certain protocols, whether she likes it or not.

The Queen, and the wider royals are seen as the gatekeepers for unifying the country. At a time with such political unrest; seeing a royal Duchess actively participate in the divisive commentary of politics whether American or not is ill-advised. Many within the public will be left asking, if she can attempt to influence the US election, then what about any future elections in Britain, or Canada, or South Africa, or Australia? On and on, the snowball started by Meghan’s comments at the “When All Women Vote” event has the potential to grow bigger and bigger the faster it rolls down the political hill. If it gets too big, then she’ll never be able to stop it, and all hell will break loose.

Politics is a unique subject for the Royal Family. It’s a taboo to talk about it, and any indication of political opinion is quickly and forcibly shutdown. Take the rumoured report that the Queen was in favour of Brexit. The headline appeared across the newspapers and was quickly denied by the palace. These swift actions are taken for the benefit of both Queen and country. We look at our Monarchy as the steady ship guiding us all to prosperity and peace. They are the antidote to the often-poisonous maelstrom of politics. To wade into its furious and murky waters is a dangerous move, even for Meghan and Harry, not to mention the Monarchy.

Maybe the Sussex’s will see sense? Perhaps they’ll realise what damage could be done to the institution they both rely on if they continue trekking down the political path. If not, then Buckingham Palace could find itself once again planning for “the worst-case scenario”, although this time, Meghan’s future potential memos could live up to the expectations, and it won’t be pretty.

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