The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s historic decision to give up their royal titles and duties has turned these two thirty-somethings into a lightning rod for some of society’s most pressing concerns, including the generational divide.
Critics and advocates have weighed in with their champion causes for what went wrong. In fact, like most things in life, it has been a mix of reasons. Family and courtier rivalries fused themselves with childhood trauma and personal insecurities to strangle this modern couple with its modern needs.
Social media trolling and visceral, sometimes racist and misogynistic tabloid coverage undoubtedly contributed to their anxiety and sense of victimisation. But the main catalyst was the clash between their personal desire for 21st-century individual freedom and the family’s need to seal, rather than resolve ongoing tensions within the demands of monarchical duty. Faced with these contradictory pressures, Harry and Meghan refused to stiffen their upper lips to a lifetime of silent commitment to the crown.
It can be a peculiarly British trait for members of an extended family to live in relative shallowness, sharing decades of conversations about the weather in order to paper over a variety of ills, from personal incompatibilities to PTSD. After all, love and intimacy can still grow around much that is unresolved.
But few millennials do long-suffering, particularly when it gets in the way of fairness and self-fulfilment. Schools and public mental health campaigns – including one by Prince William and Harry themselves – encourage the importance of talking, self-revelation and reflection in order to understand one’s own and each other’s differences. Not surprisingly, a majority of 19 to 37-year-olds backed the couple’s decision to leave for fresh pastures.
So, it was a national wish that the union of these two people with such different backgrounds would push the royal household into this century’s more life-affirming outlook. But, like any corporation that is adapting today to environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles, success depends on changing the culture. And when American self-determination looked British self-sacrifice in the eye, modernity failed.
The Duchess of Cambridge, then Kate Middleton, also entered the royal fold as an outsider, in her case as a member of a lesser class. And, although the press was largely respectful, she has experienced some cruel ribbing. Her humility towards the institution, however, remained profound; knowing her place, she has subsumed herself into the greater entity of the crown. While she may one day become queen, it will be as the highly regarded consort.
In contrast, a professionally successful, egalitarian-minded American woman of 36 approached the royal relationship expecting evolution. It was Meghan’s efforts to graduate from the role of privileged servitude to the crown to one of independent thinker and potential trailblazer for women’s empowerment on the world stage that turned the press and the in-laws against her. Her lifestyle choices and charitable efforts became seen as examples of vanity and self-advancement, even though they were often on behalf of the very same things for which her sister-in-law was admired and praised.
Ultimately, Harry’s clumsy effort to promote Meghan’s voiceover skills to the Disney CEO at a recent reception, and the media picture of them as churlish figures simmering with resentment in a corner of royal life, made their position as high-profile and telegenic royals untenable. Particularly when the palace remains steadfast that there is room but for one leader or future leader, and that all other members, however well equipped, including with emotional intelligence, cannot be allowed to shine brighter.
What distinguished Meghan from other women at “the firm” was not her mixed-race heritage, but her ambition; naked, and uncomfortably self-serving in light of the royal family’s bigger remit. What she had yet to discover was that, even in the age of thought leadership, the royal platform is not to be commandeered, and the rewards and attention of being a royal must be pooled into the family tips box.
Almost 23 years on, the two versions of Princess Diana that her sons chose in Kate and Meghan continue to be irreconcilable inside one family. The Duchess of Cambridge’s quiet grace and fortitude, beholden to the constraints of an institution in which she tacitly carves out her own demands by leveraging her role as devoted mother, stand in sharp contrast to Meghan. She is the post-Charles Diana, eyes burning a hole in the entombing stoicism of royal protocol with a voice that shouts out loud on behalf of victims of shared injustice, whose hearts beat with her own.
Though the global platform of working royal patronage is not to be for Meghan, her and Harry’s unwillingness to put up with the ways of the past will save them from the financial and social fate of the self-exiled Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson.
Harry and Meghan start their new life as a formidable team of equals aspiring to build something of economic and personal validation. Regret, realism and heartfelt fondness among millions of Brits should help keep the family doors open to them. Harry, above all, must be given ways to engage with the country of his soul and help mitigate any hollowness or sorrow that may grow over time. Only in this does he resemble his great-great uncle; he is giving up a lot in the name of love.
Trisha De Borchgrave is a freelance writer and a senior associate for the Global Women Leaders Strategic Partnering and Philanthropy