Harry and Meghan want out, but it’s not the right royal disaster everyone says it is

The most striking aspect of Prince Harry’s notice to quit the royal family is his naivety which has the distinction of being both charming and reckless.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex issued their jargon-laded, obscurely phrased and hopelessly confused statement and presumably thought that was that. In the best (worst) traditions of PR statements, it raised more questions than answers.

All the buzz words and pop phrases are there, perhaps reflecting the true audience the Sussexes had in mind. There is much ado about adjustments and transitions, the search for balance and space, promises to share and collaborate. No doubt about it; these are thoroughly modern royals.

But as to the substance of the statement – such as it is – is it really so sensational? Not really. Much of the furore has been fanned by the confusion of messages, including vague commitments to become “financially independent” while “continuing to honour our duty to the Queen, the Commonwealth and our patronages”.

The message between the lines, however, is clear enough: the Sussexes want out. Or more to the point, they want to be in on their terms. (Good luck with that.)

Whatever the slant, talk that Harry and Meghan’s gambit to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family” poses an existential threat to the British monarchy is overwrought nonsense. The longevity of the British monarchy can be directly attributed to the fact that no one member of the royal family is indispensable.

The reported anger and disappointment of the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William will be more familial than institutional, although inevitably there will be some blurring of lines.

Parts of the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are gratuitous to the point of insolence. Why would you commit to “continue to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and all relevant parties” when the cause of much of the family’s anger is precisely because no such “collaboration” has occurred? At least they got to use the buzzword.

The royal family believes that duty is everything and on this fundamental principle Harry, a prince of the royal blood, has let down the family, and by extension, the nation and the Commonwealth.

When Harry wed Meghan

Harry has always been the more emotional and erratic of the two royal brothers, but in recent years he has, by sheer willpower, matured into his role as a prince of the realm. He has shown a preparedness to meet his royal obligations, to observe the rituals of monarchy, to stand in dynastic solidarity beside his grandmother, father and brother.

All that soured when Harry wed Meghan. The rabid British press, initially captivated by the royal marriage, turned on the young newlyweds, and Meghan in particular, with merciless and unrelenting vitriol.

Harry might have had the mettle and sense of duty to endure the onslaught if it was solely about him, but it was plainly another matter when it involved his wife. That’s the charming part of this messy affair: behind it is, if not an act of chivalry, certainly an act of love by Harry.

Some commentaries on social media charge that Meghan should have entered the marriage in the full knowledge of what awaited her. The life proved too much for Sarah Ferguson and Diana – both of whom believed they could modernise the monarchy – why should it not for Meghan?

It has been suggested – again on social media – that to lay the blame at the feet of Meghan is misogynistic and racist. On these terms, it becomes almost impossible to analyse what is without doubt an historic event. It is an event unique in its particulars, but containing a familiar element: the difficulty of reconciling personal desire with public duty.

Harry and Meghan’s dummy spit

Harry’s uncle, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, the youngest child of the Queen and Prince Philip, having proven by temperament and disposition to be illsuited for life as a Royal Marine, famously quit before competing his training. Instead, he attempted to fashion a life for himself outside the confines of royal norms as a television producer in the 1980s and 90s. It didn’t work out. Edward eventually settled into a full-time role as a working member of the royal family and in recent years has taken on many of his father’s duties.

More famously, in 1936, Edward VIII preferred to abdicate rather than abandon plans to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson, “the woman I love”.

The British monarchy survived the seismic event of Edward’s abdication – considered the ultimate failure of duty by the royal family – and it will survive Harry and Meghan’s dummy spit.

If Harry and Meghan had been less impetuous and negotiated an accommodation that satisfied family honour and institutional stability – as well as address their own issues – the current angst would have been mostly avoided.

Unfortunately, Harry and Meghan appear to want the best of both worlds: the cachet of being royals (albeit part-time) while pursuing “a progressive new role within this institution”. That might not be so easily done when “this institution” has been so right royally dissed by the two royal hotheads.

Harry has caused his grandmother unnecessary disquiet in the twilight of her illustrious reign. We might all ask, “What was he thinking?”, even as we sympathise with the frustrations that proved too much for him and his wife.

We can’t know how it will all end. Harry and Meghan may well make good their promise, vague as it is. They may or may not become part-time residents of “North America”. Harry might even end up Governor-General of Canada, a compromise no doubt being explored.

Beyond momentary fascination, it doesn’t really matter what the end result is. The British monarchy will get through this. It always does.

As for claims that Harry and Meghan’s “resignation” will prove a fillip for the republican cause in Australia…talk about naivety.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Malcolm Turnbull the fair-weather republican: a lack of leadership stalls Australia’s coming of age

Malcolm Turnbull’s dithering on the Australian republic is almost as frustrating as the monarchists’ irrational ties to the British Crown.

Turnbull’s clumsy aside that a postal survey may be in order on the subject is another example of the procrastination which has marked his prime ministership.

Turnbull either believes in the republic or he does not. If he does, he must show leadership on the issue as Paul Keating did before him. Keating needed no postal survey to convince him of the case for a republic, nor did he hide behind the cowardly pretence of waiting for the “right time” before bringing the issue to the fore. If not for Keating’s leadership on the republic there would have been no referendum in 1999, an historic opportunity scuttled by the wrecking-ball politics of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, who cynically (but skilfully) used the issue of the model for choosing a president as a wedge to favour the status quo.

Most Australians will recall Turnbull’s damning epithet for Howard as the prime minister who “broke this nation’s heart”. History will also recall that Turnbull not only forgave Howard’s calumny but came to regard the former prime minister as his greatest mentor.

The argument that the timing of another referendum on the republic should be determined by a groundswell of public sentiment for change is bogus. In the absence of leadership once more placing the republic on the political agenda – at which point Australians will become engaged on the issue – the status quo will simply simmer under the flickering flame of indifference.

Waiting for the Queen to die (begging your pardon Ma’am)

To further assert, as Turnbull has done, that the matter of the republic should not be considered while the Queen remains on the throne is gutless procrastination.

The inference that the Queen would somehow be insulted were the issue to arise once more during her reign is the real insult. As a model constitutional monarch Elizabeth understands that this is an issue for Australians to decide on, irrespective of who the monarch may be. The other inference to be drawn from this weak-kneed proposition – more insulting than the first – is that Charles will be an unpopular monarch and therefore will be a boon to the republican cause.

The argument for a republic has nothing to do with what we may think of the reigning monarch. There is no reason to suppose that Charles won’t in time prove as popular as his mother, and even if that were not to be the case, the allure of William coming to the throne may prove too irresistible for a celebrity-addled populace, ensuring that the “right time” remains ever-elusive.

The principal arguments for a republic are so fundamental that it beggars belief that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy well into the 21st century. The historical, cultural and sentimental ties between the Crown and Australia are simply not what they were.

Australia’s maturity as an independent nation and our irrevocable and ever-deepening composition as a multicultural society demands a system of government that is uniquely and unambiguously Australian and which reflects who we are today and will likely be in the future, not who we used to be.

Much of remaining monarchical sentiment is based on a lazy attachment to the status quo, where change is viewed as something to be avoided, whether because it’s best stick to “the devil you know” or that to do otherwise is just too much bother.

Then there’s the celebrity fandom disguised as loyalty to the Crown. What if becoming a republic stems the tide of royal stories in the Australian media? And won’t Wills and Harry stop visiting if we become a republic? Monarchical sentiment based on royal celebrity reduces Australia to a nation governed not by the Constitution but by New Idea.

Mythology surrounding the role of the Crown

Most frustrating of all in support for constitutional monarchy is the mythology that surrounds the role and influence of the British Crown in Australia.

There is the argument that the current constitutional system with the Queen as titular head of state has “given Australia a very stable and workable system of government” and has “contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century”. (These quotes are from John Howard’s 1999 statement in which he outlined his reasons for voting ‘no’ in the republic referendum. His arguments remain the case against the republic.)

Despite such a seminal role that the monarchy ostensibly plays in bringing stability to Australian democracy, it has never been explained exactly how the monarchy has achieved this.

Further arguments against a republic (again taking from Howard’s statement) include the warning that “some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under a republic” and that “the president could be less secure in his or her position than is the Governor-General”.

The tenure of the Governor-General is in fact absurdly fragile and the very antithesis of order and stability. He or she can be sacked on a prime ministerial whim, without reason or premise, and without recourse to the “Queen of Australia”, who is obliged to follow the advice of her Australian prime minister, regardless of how egregious his or her actions in dismissing the viceroy might be.

One of the more ridiculous arguments used by monarchists

Which brings us to one of the more ridiculous arguments used by Australian monarchists for preserving the status quo: the Queen is actually powerless and doesn’t have much to do with Australia. This from fervent monarchist Howard:

“The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.”

Having explained that the monarch is little more than a token symbol one might wonder how the monarchy has proven so effective in safeguarding Australian democracy.

Australian monarchists also disclaim the idea that Australia needs to be a republic in order to ensure that the head of state is an Australian. Here the purportedly loyal subjects of the Queen bend over backwards to explain that Elizabeth isn’t really the head of state at all, that the Governor-General is the effective head of state, and that since 1965 he or she has been an Australian. Take it away Johnny:

“It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian,” Howard explains.

“Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives.

“The Governor-General…exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone. His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.”

So again the argument for remaining a monarchy is that the monarch has been so comprehensively sidelined that – wink, wink – we are already a republic in all but name.

One might think this would prompt monarchists to ask the obvious question: ‘Why remain a monarchy when the monarch has so little function or purpose in Australia?’ But apparently not.

Junior Minister Alex Hawke, in response to the latest Keating-inspired stab at igniting debate on the republic, predictably insisted that, “Constitutional monarchy continues to serve Australia well as does our Queen”.

Arguments for a republic, he continued, “always fail to outline any improvement to our structure of government that would benefit Australians”. Hawke may be right. The structure of government might not change at all – given that, as monarchists have argued so comprehensively, Australia is already a de facto republic, but for the incongruity of kinda-sorta having the Queen of England as our head of state.

As for the “improvement” that Hawke seeks: that would be Australia finally growing up.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher