The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, leave Windsor Castle in a convertible car after their wedding in Windsor, England. File/Associated Press
Hugo Vickers, The Independent
Under normal circumstances, there would be considerable interest as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex step down as ‘senior royals’. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the world, the activities of the Sussexes are very low down on the news scale.
A ping or two on iPhones revealed that Meghan Markle had made her first foray back into the performing arts, having recorded a voice-over for Disney’s Elephant documentary (made in the autumn so before they announced the bail-out plans), devoting the proceeds to Elephants Without Borders, a conservationist group dedicated to protecting elephants from poachers. The couple’s final Instagram post on their Sussex Royal account received a few mentions.
Instead, the news showed us the British demonstrating their solidarity to the pressing work of the NHS by coming out to their doorsteps, emerging onto balconies or even opening windows and all clapping in unison; a moving gesture of support. We saw scenes from all over England and then we saw how the royal family added their support. Three little children, George, Charlotte and Louis at Sandringham, clapped for all they were worth; we saw Prince Charles (reassuringly up and about and dressed, despite his then infection) and Camilla from separate rooms at Birkhall; and then another united family — the Wessexes at Bagshot Park, and it fell to Prince Edward to thank the volunteer workers in a calm and measured message.
So, where was Prince Harry? In not so un-recent times, he would have been a voice to which we would gladly have listened. He had earned the respect of the military, set up the Invictus Games, and toured the Commonwealth. We assumed he was hidden away on Vancouver Island in a ‘waterfront mansion’ with his wife and son, but on Friday it was reported that they had left a Commonwealth country, evidently in a private jet, and were settling in Hollywood, in some haste before President Trump closed the borders, in order to be nearer producers and PR people, as some have speculated. Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, also lives in LA, of course.
It can only be imagined what Prince Harry is feeling on the day – 31 March 2020, the official if now only symbolic day of the stepping down. His nonagenarian grandparents are in isolation at Windsor and his father has just recovered from a mild bout of the coronavirus. A large part of him will no doubt feel that he should be in the UK with his family. Travel is not feasible in these difficult times.
These extraordinary times will certainly set the stage for what the first 365 days outside of royal life will hold for the Sussexes.
Historical precedent does not paint an encouraging picture. The Duke of Windsor sailed away from Britain after the Abdication in December 1936. He thought he had done the honourable thing, because it had been made clear by his governments in Britain and the then Empire that marriage to Wallis Simpson was unacceptable. He may have thought he could return presently and re-invent himself as a younger brother of the King, living at Fort Belvedere with his new wife. He gravely underestimated how let down the British people felt. The Windsors found themselves effectively in exile for the next 35 years. And he who had had every hour of every day mapped out for him as Prince of Wales had literally nothing to do. Parties, travel, rounds of golf and writing out lists of his stocks and shares occupied the Duke’s days.
The Princess of Wales continued to undertake engagements of a royal nature after her separation and divorce, but for holidays, she was largely rejected by the establishment and ended up relying on rich millionaires such as the Fayed family who had private planes and a yacht, with ultimately tragic results. The Duchess of York has undertaken some charity work but also involved herself in commercial endeavours, not all of them successful.
Prince Harry could have contributed so much more in Britain and within the system, rather than issuing statements as to how to survive the pandemic: “For all of us, the best way we can support health workers is to make sure we do not make their job any harder by spreading this disease further.”
At this point it seems rather uninteresting to speculate as to what the future holds for the Sussexes, now that they have withdrawn their application to use the Sussex Royal brand. The future looks uncomfortable. It is easier to brand a genuine article. When he was an active member of the royal family, he could often be seen in a splendid uniform, beard neatly trimmed, wearing earned medals and aiguillettes, but what will they be branding now – a tired man with a rather bushy beard and a woolly hat stepping off a plane? Surely those paying large sums want the genuine article and if he is no longer a part of the royal team, he soon loses his point or at any rate his prospects of marketability decline.
In terms of financing their lifestyles many questions remain unanswered. What will the couple do? And what can they do? If large sums of money are paid to them then much will be expected in return. Hollywood directors have treated stars on the set of films, not to mention the extras who might as well be cattle the way they are herded about. Prince Harry, used to the courtesy of diplomats and government officials, might not find that he is so well treated.
At the moment we have very little evidence in the way of constructive, paying work or charitable enterprises. The duke and duchess are in the process of establishing a new not-for-profit organisation that can “best support their global charitable, campaign and philanthropic work” but there has not yet been more information shared on the plans or how quickly they will come to fruition. However, sadly, the no doubt well-meant plans could also fade into insignificance at this time of international crisis.
A lot of other questions about the next year remain unanswered and can be but speculation. For example, how frequently will they return to Britain? It was suggested that the Queen had invited the Sussexes to Balmoral for a summer holiday. She has been generous in her public statements about the decisions they have taken but with the unforeseen global problems, it is unclear when the family will next return to the UK.
At the Commonwealth Observance in 2018, the as yet unmarried Duke and Duchess of Sussex were wholly in rapport, taking everything in – an almost electric connection flashing between them. At the same service in 2019 Prince Harry looked uncomfortable, and subsequent sightings of him have only strengthened this view. He looked as though he was realising what he had taken on. In his face it is possible to read a hint of anger and obstinacy and face-saving resolve.
2020 has not started well for the Sussexes and, if the first three tumultuous months are anything to go by, making predictions is futile. Hopefully Prince Harry will come home one day and be welcomed back with generosity and understanding. We have seen what he can achieve.
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