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How the Royal Family's Glorious Decade Went So Wrong

Everything started so well, and ended so badly.
January 27, 2020, 5:35pm
meghan and harry
Photo: Chris Bethell

You have to assume the Royal Family did not expect that they would be starting this decade the way they have.

The fallout from Prince Andrew's now-infamous Newsnight interview in November of 2019 included his relinquishing of all Royal duties, including 230 charity-related patronages. Then, a week into 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced that they will be stepping back from their position as senior Royals. A statement from Buckingham Palace ten days later confirmed that the pair will drop their Royal titles in spring and will no longer receive public funds.

The 2010s began on quite a different note for the Monarchy. William and Kate tied the knot in fairy-tale fashion in 2011, closely followed by the Queen's hugely successful Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and two Royal babies in 2013 and 2015. The public were onside and loving it.

But the joys of the early years didn't last. In 2016, Prince Harry unexpectedly issued a statement attacking the tabloids for their treatment of his then-girlfriend, Meghan Markle. Following a slight pause in negative coverage when they married in 2018, the press continued to publish stories that angered the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Trouble in paradise was brewing.

royal family tumultuous decade

Image: VICE

What do the public think of the Royals now?

At the start of the decade, surveys of the public generally yielded positive results for the Royals. In 2012, just before the jubilee celebrations, an ICM/Guardian poll revealed that 69 percent of Britons thought the UK was better off with a monarchy.

It's difficult to gauge attitudes towards the entire institution in light of current events – reliable pollsters haven't been asking that particular type of question recently. However, a YouGov survey found that just 6 percent of the public believed Andrew's account of his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, and half thought it damaged the Monarchy.

YouGov also revealed a fortnight ago that 63 percent of Brits think Meghan and Harry should stop receiving funds after stepping back as senior Royals – although the same poll found that 45 percent of people support their decision. Whatever the polls say, recent events have elevated existential questions about the Monarchy to the forefront of public debate.

How have the Royals have responded to the crises?

The pressure on the Monarchy right now feels unprecedented. The Daily Express' Royal Correspondent, Richard Palmer, told me that "in 16 years as a Royal correspondent, I can't remember a busier period than the last couple of weeks".

But is this all just business as usual for the Palace?

"There have been crises from time to time," explained Dickie Arbiter, Royal commentator and Buckingham Palace press spokesman between 1988 and 2000. "Everyone remembers the 1992 annus horribilis… the breakdown of the marriages of both Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, then Princess Anne's divorce in 1992… but they manage these crises. They're a blip at the time, but they always come out of it."

In many ways, then, the current turmoil isn't that shocking. The Monarchy periodically has challenging periods, and in these situations it's the Queen, according to Dickie, who takes control of the Palace's response. "It was the Queen's decision to fire Andrew, saying, 'You can't carry on,'" he told me. "In this latest episode with Harry and Meghan, it was the Queen that took control and said, 'Something's got to be sorted out at a pace.'"

Importantly, the Palace's most recent responses have essentially been exercises in damage limitation – the Queen only decided to fire Andrew after his disastrous interview, and Prince Charles' subsequent "stern words" with his brother strongly implied a lack of prior consultation. "Tough decisions have had to be made about Andrew that should have been made years ago," said Richard.

That said, the Queen only took control of the Harry and Meghan situation after the unexpected public announcement that they would be taking a step back. "Clearly errors have been made," said Professor Adrian Bingham, author of Tabloid Century. "But the family and press team learn from their mistakes."

Or do they? It doesn't seem like much effort has been made to adapt to the modern media landscape, or to learn from previous episodes of turbulence. Recent haphazard responses come down to the same old issues: that, among themselves, the Royals aren't the best communicators.

"The problem with the family is they each have their separate households," explained veteran Royal correspondent and biographer Penny Junor. "They have a whole series of separate bubbles, and communication has never been their strong point."

Penny recalled that, before Charles proposed to Diana, "he was sent a memo by his father saying, 'You need to make your mind up about this girl – either ask her to marry you or let her go, because you are going to damage her reputation,' and Charles misinterpreted the memo and thought his father was telling him he must marry Diana. All the misery that followed could have been avoided if father and son could just have a conversation with each other."

Penny agreed that this same failure of communication was evident when Harry failed to inform his grandmother that he was going public with the stepping back statement. So you could say recent events have just been business as usual – it's just that the Royals aren't particularly good at this type of business.

In terms of resolving this ongoing saga, Dickie revealed that it is "the private secretaries of the Prince of Wales, the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that are sitting down and thrashing out a deal that will work for both parties". With a complex web of staff and rotas packed full of events, it's unsurprising that cohesive responses rarely materialise.

Nevertheless, the Royals do seem to be able to weather these periods of chaos. Besides, the current situation is "nothing in comparison to what happened to Diana", said Penny. "There were people spying on her in the gym, with a camera through a hole in the wall – that was horrible."

meghan markle wedding

Photo: Chris Bethell

Will the media lose interest in Prince Andrew or Harry and Meghan?

Not for a while, especially in the latter case. The press controls the size and shape of Royal scandals, as well as the time it takes for a furore to end. "The Palace has limited control here," said Professor Adrian Bingham. "So while all news cycles die down eventually, the Andrew and Harry stories will continue to run with temporary flare-ups."

Historian Dr Ed Owens, who has written extensively on the British monarchy, is also doubtful that the tabloids will let up any time soon. "It will be some time yet… until Meghan and Harry have fully established their new 'Royal routine', whatever form that may take."

New decade, new King?

It's incredibly likely that, at some point in the next ten years, Prince Charles will become King. But what do the public think of the Prince of Wales?

A poll last year by the Independent found that almost half of all Brits would rather Charles step aside and hand the throne to Prince William, while YouGov rates him the seventh most popular royal, behind both of his sons. But Royal experts seem to think he's made more of a recovery than the surveys suggest.

"His entire public image has undergone a renovation," said Ed. "He's best known as a dutiful father figure and a conscientious environmentalist. He can look to the future with optimism."

Might the heir-apparent, motivated both by the popularity of his predecessor and the public's ambivalence towards him, attempt to make some changes to prove his worth?

Ed predicts that "events of the last couple of months will lead to a long-overdue 'slimming down' of the Monarchy". Streamlining the enterprise would certainly help construct a narrative that Charles understands the Palace's role in the 21st century. If you believe the tabloids, he's been plotting this for years.

That said, Charles' desire to streamline the Royal Family might not end well. Dickie pointed out that a slimming down operation might hinder the institution's ability to fulfil their only real positive purpose – helping charities to secure funding. The top team's schedules are stretched as it is; trimming the fat any further could lead to the Monarchy dieting itself out of existence.

The wait begins

It might be naïve to think that Prince Charles has not foreseen this possibility. After all, he has been heir-in-waiting since he was three years old. As Penny put it, he's the best prepared monarch in history – and he truly believes in the institution's power to create positive societal change.

The Royals will inevitably experience more press pressure and scandals over the next decade. How they react to this – especially, potentially, without the stabilising presence of the Queen – will be key to the Palace's future. At times like these, it's anyone's guess what that may entail.

@aarondrapkin

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.