Seeing is Believing
As The Royal Family navigate the chaos from the Oprah interview with Harry and Meghan, the Queen's traditional approach ensures that the monarchy is far from down and out.
MARCH 21st, 2021
have to be seen to be believed,” is a long known claim made by the Queen. So founded is her belief in this approach that she purposely wears outfits with bright colours to ensure that the public can pick her out from a large crowd. Whilst there may be an understanding that this is simply for attention purposes, it is actually for far deeper reasons. The Queen is a symbolic figure of an entire nation. She is, in effect, a walking Union Jack, but she is also the most famous and recognisable woman in the world. Because of this, she has become her own greatest PR machine, and that machine works best when physically seen. Ironically, the Queen is also her own ultimate weapon, and it is one which she uses only if needed.
Over the last few weeks Her Majesty – and the entire Royal Family – have been plunged into the middle of a royal storm. The sensational interview by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex alongside Oprah Winfrey actively and willingly threw grenade after grenade into the very heart of Buckingham Palace. With allegations of racism, suicidal thoughts and inner family turmoil, it has left some thinking that the Windsor’s could be on the verge of collapse – that the entire institution which has stood for over a thousand years could imminently topple, and that the Queen’s beloved Commonwealth could fracture forever.
If these possibilities were to happen then the upcoming series’ of The Crown would make explosive viewing. Yet, the reality is this eventuality won’t happen. Yes, Harry and Meghan’s deeply personal and, some would argue, flawed interview has certainly tainted the guild of the monarchy, but it won’t send it crashing down.
Throughout her long reign, the Queen has seen many scandals which have come far closer to prematurely ending her time on the most famous throne of all. And yet she and her beloved institution has endured, battle-scarred but never abolished, and it all comes down to her simple approach – seeing is believing.
In 2002, Her Majesty celebrated her Golden Jubilee. To mark the occasion she, alongside her trusted Iron Duke Prince Philip, toured the length and breadth of the UK. Her tour would bring her to the unglamourous streets of Whitkirk, Leeds, and specifically to the road at the top of my childhood street. At the time I was eleven and on a school residential trip so I wasn’t particularly interested in the whole thing, yet my parents were. I was away for five days and when I returned I was more than surprised at how desperate my family, including my older brother, was to regale their tale of “meeting the Queen”.
The irony of that meeting was that it wasn’t a meeting at all. The Queen’s limousine had simply driven past them and a small crowd of people – that’s it. It couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds and yet my family recited the interaction as if it was the grandest blockbuster movie you’d ever seen. My brother, who isn’t prone to grandiose recitals, was beside himself claiming proudly that he had shared a “wave” with the Queen. For days afterwards – much to my own annoyance – he would stare wistfully into space claiming that “I can’t believe I’ve met the Queen.” I would happily – and perhaps cruelly – remind him that he hadn’t; just waved at her whilst she drove by.
At the time, it’s easy to disregard these types of interactions. “So, the Queen’s famous and you were starstruck,” is a common thought. But that isn’t what the Queen does to you. As if similar to a mythical hero sitting within the confines of a novel, Her Majesty sometimes doesn’t seem real. Her presence has been so constant that she exists in your world, but always on the precipice. Thinking back to my family’s five seconds with the Monarch puts into perspective the impact her physical presence can make on members of the public. The myth quickly becomes real.
It is doubtful that the Queen fully comprehends her impact on her public, and if she does you’ll never hear her comment on it. But Her Majesty’s influence is unrivalled and shines brighter than any celebrity on earth. Why? Because it endures; because it is bigger than the latest trend or fashion statement. It is ever-present. It is duty.
In the aftermath of Harry and Meghan’s interview, the Royal Family responded by physically returning to public life – though not before releasing a brief and extremely savvy statement – yet, once again they were out performing public engagements. This physical tactic further highlighted the Sussex's distance from the public’s interpretation of royal duty. And with the most recent revelation by Gayle King of Prince William and Prince Charles’ private conversation with Prince Harry being briefed as “unproductive”, it seems as if the couple are fully entangled in the roots of the poisoned chalice that is celebrity, which is far more fickle than the family “firm” of the monarchy.
What the Royal Family have cleverly done in the last few weeks is tentatively and subtly remind the public how monarchy and celebrity differ, and ultimately why the two should never mix. In essence, celebrity and drama always has a sell-by-date, monarchy and duty is long-lasting and the Queen is the proof. But furthermore, by being publicly visible they can actively send a wider message of continuity and stability. This may explain why Harry and Meghan perhaps seem so frustrated with the lack of public acknowledgement of their complaints contained within the Oprah interview, as it is becoming worryingly clearer that the couple potentially want to continue airing their dirty laundry in public.
For the Queen this is a route she will adamantly refuse to take, and ultimately her family will follow her lead – if not provide a small amount of pushback; take Prince William rightfully answering a journalist’s question last week over how his family is “very much not racist”.
However, what the Queen understands is that engaging in a tit-for-tat battle with her grandson and his family won’t help anyone and will effectively tarnish the entire institution, which includes Harry and Meghan too. Instead her approach will remain, “seeing is believing”, and it has been stated that her public engagements, whether over Zoom calls or not, will pick up pace over the next few weeks as the UK slowly exits lockdown. On those engagements will she address the fallout from the Sussex’s interview? No. Will she show any angst at the state of her family’s relations? No. Will she smile, wave and make it seem as if the world has moved on and there are more important things to tackle in the future? Yes, and not because the monarchy’s private challenges don’t exist, but more so, the challenges faced by the public she vowed to serve her entire life must always take precedent.
In her public presence, the Queen and the Royal Family can convey their messaging far clearer than the overzealous wording of a press statement. By “getting on” with their work and orchestrating a minimal and confined response to the explosive interview they’ve managed to perpetuate a message that, whilst some of the allegations are concerning and although “some recollections may differ”, the public work continues.
It is a message which is resonating, specifically amongst the British public. Recent polls have found that the public are behind the Queen and the monarchy, unambiguously rallying around the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whereas Harry and Meghan’s popularity has plummeted to its lowest level. It proves that the Queen understands her people perhaps more than anyone, and that even at ninety-four she can still cast her spell over us. Simply put, Her Majesty’s sheer presence is the greatest PR statement out there.
The future looks secure for the Royal Family, and whilst polls show the younger generations aren’t perhaps overly receptacle to a constitutional monarchy, it is also worth remembering that attitudes actively change as you get older, wiser and become more accustomed with the workings of the world. The question you are left asking is will five seconds with an elected President provide the same response my family felt in their five seconds with Britain’s longest serving monarch? The answer is no.
Whether Harry and Meghan come to regret their interview with Oprah Winfrey will be a discussion which will take place years from now. For the Queen and the Royal Family, if there is regret we will rightly never know, though I’m sure we can all take a reasoned guess. Irrespective of the approach the Sussexes take in the future, the Queen and her monarchy will continue onwards as before. They’ll show up, shake hands, smile and wave, with public royal duty guiding the way. They may get battered and bruised, but it is the way it has always been done – and it works. Why? Because seeing is believing, and the Queen has shown us for sixty-nine years that it works, and it works well.
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