Cancelling the monarchy

April 11, 2021

As the West reconciles its history of imperialism, slavery and racism, it must also recognise the plutocracies of large corporations (particularly tech companies and the corporate media) that silence certain narratives while amplifying others, often for self-serving purposes

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s incendiary interview with Oprah, in which they broke their silence about their separation from the royal family, has sparked a firestorm of backlash, with some sympathising with Markle’s account of being mistreated by both the British press and what she rather ominously referred to as “the institution” (the royal family and their handlers). Those sympathetic with her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts (she claimed that her pleas for mental health help fell on deaf ears in Buckingham Palace) and her accusation that her race was a factor in the way she was treated, find in her echoes of Princess Diana, who Harry himself compared her to in the interview and whose eating disorder was ignored for years by the royal family to safeguard its public image. Markle’s critics feel that she is a fame-seeking starlet, making a cynical move because a career in Hollywood would be more lucrative than life as a royal, now that her marriage to Prince Harry has made her a household name.

The most shocking allegation in the interview was that during her first pregnancy, there were conversations with Prince Harry about how dark the baby’s skin would be. Some commentators, like Piers Morgan, expressed disbelief that the royal family could be racist. The 60-word statement issued by the royal family in response to the interview says that this is a family matter that will be handled privately. Though the statement acknowledges that the racism allegations are troubling, it says “some recollections may vary”. But is it so difficult to believe that a monarchy that enslaved, plundered and oppressed black and brown people for centuries could be racist?

In our part of the world, and in other former colonies, conversations about the skin tone of an expectant mother and worries that the child may be dark-skinned are not uncommon. The prejudice against dark-skinned people in former British colonies is an internalised inferiority complex, which is an offshoot of centuries of being ruled by white-skinned invaders. The gora sahib culture of the British Raj entrenched this complex in our collective consciousness. The Raj maintained its control over India primarily through a local military force. It would not have subsisted for as long as it did without the complicity of the locals, particularly those patronised by the British. Today, despite our repudiation of Western cultural values, we still aspire to and idealise the West, particularly white people.

Prince Harry told Oprah that his relationship with his grandmother is now strained. And though she did not outright forbid them from separating from the royal family, her disapproval was clear, both from news reports at the time of their departure and the interview with Oprah. Therein lies the reason for the lack of sympathy with audiences in the UK; it is difficult for ordinary people to sympathise with millionaires decrying their victimhood in the middle of a pandemic that has caused millions around the world to lose their homes and livelihoods. The perception that they are oblivious to their privilege also does not help the royal family’s current PR predicament. The Queen is the richest woman on earth. And during her reign, she has struggled to keep the monarchy relevant amidst calls for the abolishment of what some view as an obsolete institution that costs the British taxpayer dearly.

Queen Elizabeth’s duty to the crown in a constitutional monarchy, in which she barely has a practical political function, has largely been a public relations role. She has had to convince the British government and her people that the monarchy is not a vestigial remnant of a colonial past. As such, she (with the help of what Markle terms “the institution”) has cultivated relationships with several generations of journalists and celebrities, often putting the family’s public image ahead of the well-being of her own family members. She opened Buckingham Palace to tourists to strengthen the argument that the cost of the royal family’s upkeep and pageantry is offset by the tourism revenue that it generates for the UK.

While trying to be relatable to the public, the royal family must simultaneously maintain the myth of their birthright. They do this through extravagant, star-studded weddings that draw millions of pounds worth of press. Queen Elizabeth’s own marriage to Prince Philip was the first publicised royal wedding, attracting a radio audience of 200 million – unprecedented at the time. The British press, once enamoured with their young queen and her handsome Prince, are now no longer passively deferential to their symbolic figurehead. A report published by The Guardian in February regarding the Queen’s veto, an obscure constitutional provision that allows her to veto any law she deems detrimental to the monarchy, revealed that she wields more power in the British government than the public may think.

The mythology requires them to remain mysterious and elusive. But, at the same time, they must humanise themselves so as not to appear too elite and out of touch. Hence, the staged, obligatory post-natal photo-shoots and press conferences upon the birth of a prince or princess – a tradition that Markle famously refused to participate in, to much media furore. The briefness of the statement regarding Harry and Meghan reflects the persona that Queen Elizabeth has to maintain in her symbolic role – the stiffest of stiff upper lips. And yet, within those 60 words is the same balancing act that she has engaged in throughout her life. Harry, Meghan and their children are referred to as “beloved family members”, which makes it seem as though this is a personal, human clash and not the inevitable confrontation of the representative of a historically barbaric and oppressive colonial power and a woman of a disenfranchised race.

Is it so difficult to believe that a monarchy that enslaved, plundered and oppressed black and brown people for centuries could be racist?

On a personal level, the central contradiction of being a royal is one that is particularly challenging for most people to relate to: to be one of the most privileged and influential families in the world while being destined to live preordained, rigidly limited and relentlessly scrutinised lives. A gilded cage is still a cage. From the interview it seemed that Meghan felt isolated, suffocated and lost in her role within the royal family. And though the claims that her expectations for that life were not in line with the reality of it are rather incredulous (she said that she had no idea that she would be expected to courtesy to the Queen), the constricting nature of royal life has been well-documented. The Queen’s own sister, Princess Margeret, struggled with depression and substance abuse. She too, like Diana and Markle, became a casualty to the royal family’s public image.

Regardless of whether her efforts to keep the crown alive were patriotic or self-serving, Queen Elizabeth’s efforts to balance the public’s conflicting demands of the royal family have been nothing short of herculean. Her handling of Princess Diana’s death can be simultaneously seen as a master class in navigating a PR nightmare and as heartlessly pragmatic.

But, perhaps, she is both matriarch and monarch. British sociologists and psychologists have suggested that the death of the current monarch will inevitably be an event that inspires a period of collective natural grief because it is impossible for the public not to be moved by the loss of a maternal figure, whose presence has been ubiquitous for decades, without being overbearing.

The archetypal story, the emperor has no clothes, reflects the importance of the narrative versus the reality when it comes to maintaining power. Whether the naked truth of the emperor is acknowledged or not makes all the difference. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview is yet another event that has disrupted the myth of the crown.

One cannot separate the monarchy as it exists today from the colonial enterprise that it once was. Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, was like a father to Prince Phillip. And this is why Piers Morgan’s disbelief and horror at the accusations of racism is offensive. It is yet another post-colonial attempt to sweep centuries of subjugation of black and brown people by the British monarchy under the rug. This history is the root cause behind geopolitical disparities that persist until today. Take the case of the Koh-i-Noor diamond. In recent years, there have been conversations in India and in the UK about the return of the diamond. But, on the part of British politicians, there was a complete refusal to acknowledge that the diamond had been stolen or, at the very least, misappropriated.

After railing against Markle and defending the Queen against what he considers the woke mob for weeks, Piers Morgan quit his job at Good Morning Britain (GMB). The idea that Markle is a woke activist, who has taken American cancel culture to the other side of the pond, has been echoed on Fox News and in the US conservative media because it fits into their narrative against the Left. Oprah’s interview sparked headlines that read “woke princess cancels the Queen.” Morgan, who many on the Left saw as a Trump-apologist, has also bemoaned cancel culture and the rise and dominance of the woke Left in political debate, Hollywood, social media, college campuses and corporate America. Since his departure from GMB, he has positioned himself as a victim of cancel-culture, even though he stormed off the set in the middle of a debate with his co-hosts regarding Harry and Meghan’s interview. His departure was televised and it is clear that he was not asked to leave. Yet, he is claiming victimhood in the same self-serving and cynical approach that he accuses Markle of taking.

Sharon Osbourne’s removal from The Talk, on which she had been a co-host for eleven years, for supporting Morgan is a different story. Her departure from the show, unlike Morgan’s, was less willful. And she has since recognised that and apologised for the fact that she overreacted to her co-hosts questioning her friendship with and allegiance to Piers. Osbourne’s cancellation is part of a new trend of guilt by association. There is a burgeoning consensus amongst the woke and the neo-liberal Left that being friends with a racist makes one a racist. Public figures are asked to condemn whoever is embroiled in the latest scandal and, if they fail to do so, they are cancelled by association.

Perhaps because censorship has traditionally come from right-wing forces, liberals and the proponents of free speech do not recognise censorship when it comes from the Left. It is fair to disagree with Piers Morgan, but it is fascistic to assert that Osbourne is not allowed to agree with him. The toxicity of the social media mob-mentality that ensues whenever a public figure is embroiled in a controversy goes ignored by left-wing circles. The sanctity and defence of free speech are increasingly in decline. In this era, it is more disturbing that attacks against free speech emanate from both sides of the aisle, based on whatever suits the narrative of the day. As the West reconciles its history of imperialism, slavery and racism, it must also recognise the plutocracies of large corporations (particularly tech companies and the corporate media) that silence certain narratives while amplifying others, often for self-serving purposes.

The writer is a staff member. She can be reached on instagram @amar.alam_literally

Cancelling the monarchy