Now there’s no doubt Meghan and Harry had to leave

Zoe Williams
·9-min read

A seldom remembered fact about the royal family is that, before the death of Princess Diana, it was not normal to be interested in them. Tabloids were fascinated, but it was more of a convention than news – like a splash about tomatoes causing cancer, it was the out-of-office auto reply of the industry, a fallback. The family (I seriously dislike the affectation of calling them “the Firm”) survived while there was nothing to see. They were caught between two irreconcilable forces – their own culture of discretion, on one side, and intense, 24-hour scrutiny on the other – and they navigated that with a studied blandness. What did they actually care about? Manners, duty, causes, the Commonwealth. Whatever curiosity surrounded them, they simply did not reward it, and the regular response to that, after a few centuries and whatnot, was to not be terribly curious.

You may recall David Blaine, the magician who lived in a glass box above the Thames for 44 days in 2003: people really wanted to know what he was doing, even though we could see what he was doing – and that was mainly nothing. There grew a peculiar resentment of gawping at something that was only interesting because it was untouchable. But we could see for ourselves that it was not interesting – and then everyone got annoyed and some of us (not me) threw eggs. Eventually, hawkers started selling eggs. That pretty much sums up the experience of the royals pre-1997.

The death of Diana changed all that, but in a counterintuitive way. Curiosity had driven a woman into a pillar, so you might expect a generalised reflection on the nature of it – what were the paparazzi hoping to see? A divorcee, going about her business, with a gentleman caller. Was there not a case for just giving it all a rest, especially given that the core traits of royalty, the bits that made them so unusual – restraint, self-abnegation, respectability – had been more or less torched by Prince Charles’s generation, anyway (it wasn’t just Camilla and Fergie and their antics; Prince Andrew, who, of course, was then still just a buffoon with no Jeffrey Epstein taint, had added to it with It’s a Knockout).

Instead, the opposite happened: far from posing difficult questions about whether all this invasive scrutiny was warranted or humane, the tragedy seemed to elevate it, to usher in a belief that this obsessiveness between a society and its head of state and her offspring and in-laws was somehow natural. The post-rationalisation of Diana and her place in culture is almost hallucinatory at times.

If you are of a certain age, you might recall that before she died, we were not all trying to dress like her. She was not our people’s princess; we may have watched Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview but with an idle rather than passionate interest. She was neither a feminist nor any other kind of icon. Fair play, it was a decent thing, when she held hands with HIV patients, but generally speaking, she was just a Sloane in an egalitarian age, a pretty relic. Her death should have sparked a conversation not just about an intrusive press but about what the family represented, whether its hierarchies and rules could survive any more contact with living, sentient modern souls.

Instead, it catalysed quite a cunning, self-justifying switcheroo from the gutter press: we had to hound the woman because the public demands it, the public is just so interested. This buried a landmine that has detonated a quarter of a century later, upon contact with that other fixation of the same media, race: or, more specifically, dog-whistling racist tropes.

Harry and Meghan in 2018.
Harry and Meghan in 2018. Photograph: Neil Mockford/GC Images

And so we come to last night’s interview. It’s possible, of course, in any clash between two factions, for everyone to be in the wrong. It’s possible, for instance, for the royal family to be inhumane, hierarchical to the point of lunacy, snobbish and racist – and simultaneously for Prince Harry and Meghan to be spoilt and high-handed. On the eve of the Oprah interview with the couple, which aired on CBS on Monday at 1am GMT, it was indeed fair to expect that the impartial viewer would come away thinking: “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” For those who were already Team Windsor, there were aspects that would grate enough to confirm their views: Oprah’s faux toughness, the mad opulence of the garden backdrop, the very carefully choreographed frankness. But in the end what swung it so far the other way certainly wasn’t the cute gender-reveal (the couple are expecting a girl). Instead, it was something much darker: Meghan’s disclosure that she “didn’t want to be alive any more” at one point, while pregnant with their first child, Archie. “That was a very clear and real and frightening, constant thought,” she said.

Related: Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview: the key quotes

When I spoke to Katie Nicholl, royal reporter and the author of Harry and Meghan: Life, Love and Loss, before the broadcast, she had said, judiciously: “I think she perhaps didn’t give it long enough. Within 18 months they were off – that was no time at all. Fergie and Diana both gave it longer than that.”

That made sense when we spoke: what’s 18 months to get used to your in-laws? It’s the blink of an eye. But making the briefest survey of the kind of coverage Meghan received, the vehemence and double standards are breathtaking. It also goes some way towards explaining why she couldn’t just give it another year: the press seemed to be whipping itself into a frenzy; every negative story generated 10 more. If she ate an avocado, she was “wolfing down a fruit linked to water shortages, illegal deforestation and all-round general environmental devastation”. If she used lily of the valley in her bridesmaid’s flowers, she was potentially risking the lives of tiny children. She was portrayed as having bullied Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, to the point of tears over flower girl dresses for the wedding (the opposite was true, she told Oprah, God knows what was the root of all that) and routinely disregarded the Queen. And before very long, she was in despair. So you have to wonder, what is a reasonable amount of despair for a person to live with, and to what purpose? When were the smears ever likely to end? Do you have to be Californian and touchy-feely to ask whether that intensity of hatred is worth it, just to have people who will open your curtains and run you a bath?

Harry put it surprisingly strongly, when he said he’s “acutely aware of where my family stand and how acutely scared they are of the tabloids turning on them”. In this he gave the kindest possible reading of the situation, not a family closing ranks against its own, but one cowering in terror and simply not strong enough to protect itself. Whatever the truth of that, the individuals and their possible shortcomings are less interesting than the central question, which is not why Meghan and Harry left, but why any of them stay.

Certainly, the most shocking part of Oprah’s interview were the revelations that Harry was asked by unnamed members of his family how dark his first child’s skin was likely to be – and that, whether relatedly or not, they discovered that Archie would not have a title or, accordingly, any security. So. Many. Questions. Not least, how was Harry supposed to make a guess at his unborn son’s skin colour? But panning out to the general vilification of Meghan, the she-said-he-said mysteries that remain become more or less irrelevant. Irrespective of which earrings she wore and who she got on with or didn’t in the royal household, it was impossible to ignore from the start of the couple’s relationship that she had become the cipher for racial slurs that were, in general terms, unsayable.

Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, traces the timeline: when they first met, the Daily Mail imagineered a “satirical” scene in which the Queen meets Meghan’s mother, who’s “straight outta Compton” living in a “gang-scarred home”. Upon the occasion of their marriage – another revelation of the interview is that they actually married three days before that ceremony; I’m not sure how important that is in the grand scheme of things – there was an outpouring of colour-blind celebration. That “just showed how little understanding we have of racism,” Andrews says, “if you think that Meghan Markle would make any difference at all. The monarchy is probably the primary symbol of white supremacy in the world; the idea that one black woman could make a difference to that is just facile.” He compares her fall from grace to that of Barack Obama, “the early celebration, racism’s over, which then switches to: ‘This isn’t about race, this is about you being problematic.’”

Related: Meghan and Harry: 12 things we learned from the Oprah special

When you look at the build up of negative press, it was focused on Meghan as aggressive, bullying and angry, with a secondary motif of her being inauthentic and devious and having hoodwinked Harry, who is typically portrayed as the hapless idiot in what has unfolded. “No one’s called her a racial slur,” Andrews says, “but you can see the stereotypes, she’s basically being treated like most black people in elite white institutions.” She doesn’t belong there, so she must have used cunning to get there, and naturally she wouldn’t know how to behave once she arrived.

Here the idea that her predicament was in any way similar to Diana’s or Fergie’s comes apart. Yes, it would be a difficult adaptation for anyone, to suddenly be subject to protocols in which their individuality counted for nothing and all that mattered was the birth order of their spouse. But there was a particular timbre to the coverage of Meghan, that she was matter out of place – and what you’re dealing with there is not so much a hierarchy as a caste system.

In the end, Prince Charles probably emerges worst from the interview, with Harry’s disclosure that his father stopped taking his calls. Prince William comes off relatively unscathed; the Queen, likewise. The damage done to the institution is that one person leaving breaks the spell, and you wonder why, if they are all “trapped”, as Harry says, they can’t just … change. But the hangover from the affair is the tenacious media vindictiveness that, once it finds its target, doesn’t seem able to let go. We accept it as a caper, a game, but the despair it causes is real.