Miss Markle is not the first commoner to be hailed as a 'breath of fresh air' for the monarchy but being a media darling is no guarantee of success in the royals' arcane world, writes Sinead Ryan
There's an old best man's line that jokes about marriage being an institution… but who would ever want to live in an institution? When - with the kerfuffle over her father's plans behind her - Meghan Markle walks back down the aisle alongside her new husband today, with a new title and tiara, she will indeed have married not just the man, but one of the oldest institutions in the world.
It has existed for a thousand years and will probably continue long after she is gone, but to what extent, if any, can she reshape it to avoid it becoming a 21st-century anachronism?
The royal family, or The Firm as it’s known to insiders, is run much like a country, by a coterie of civil servants, or courtiers. The monarch is not as important as the continuation of the establishment. The current Queen, now 92, has sailed a steady ship for 65 years, saying nothing of any consequence whatsoever.
She has reigned seamlessly through several wars, the loss of empire, overseen republics reformed from colonies, side-stepped politics and created a line of succession which will see three kings proceed in her wake over the next century. A wry and dry wit in private, she is known to firmly ground any smart-alecky new prime minister by reminding them that Winston Churchill was her first and her favourite. There have been 13 since and she has outlived nine of them.
No pressure, then.
But for Harry, marrying his love today, there never was the same pressure. A ‘second son’, the ‘spare’ to the heir, he is bound to have an easier, less scrutinised life than his brother, born to rule. But second sons pose a problem. What are they to do with themselves? Get a compliant wife from the upper orders, have children and spend their days cutting ribbons is the time-honoured tradition.
So what role then, for an ambitious, classless, independent American divorcee used to speaking her mind and getting what she wants?
The last one who ticked all those boxes almost brought down the entire monarchy. Meghan is no Wallis Simpson, but there must be more than a few courtiers quaking in their stockings at the prospect.
Royals across Europe prefer their consorts acquiescent and dutiful, and in the televisual age, beautiful. Above all, apolitical and never destabilising. Clever is fine; smart is not. The Duchess of Cambridge, Queen Letizia of Spain and Princess Mary of Denmark set the bar high. All ‘commoners’ before their marriage, they understood the expectations made of them.
But former media darlings like Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson who became argumentative, divisive and ultimately too troublesome to be handled, were both at first considered a ‘breath of fresh air’ into the stuffy royal dynasty. Just like Meghan.
Where will she fit in this dysfunctional and paradoxical realm that is to be her new family? It is one which is an anachronism of the modern era, an oxymoron to contemporary Britain. Yet in poll after poll, the latest held in 2015, the British need their royals. The last YouGov research revealed a robust 71% wanting to keep (and pay for) the institution with just 18% preferring an elected head of state. Some 62% believed the Crown would exist in the next 100 years.
Brand Finance, a UK business valuation consultancy, calculates the royal family to be worth £67.5bn to the economy, earning £1.8bn a year. It costs 56p per citizen per year to fund, a price people seem happy to pay.
But do people see their new princess as a symbol of badly needed diversity or merely an alternate cover girl for Hello! magazine? To be sure, there are street parties today in Brixton and other melting pot towns which weren’t evident when William married Kate and commentary as she tentatively carried out her early public engagements focused on her easy chit-chat and penchant for hugs — both Diana attributes which tagged her as ‘different’ nearly 40 years ago.
In Meghan’s case, there is the added curiosity of race.
When she was small, struggling with her identity in a (literally) black and white world, Meghan’s father gave her a gift of a Barbie doll family to mirror her own: a white Ken, a black Barbie and a baby of each colour. He did so by buying two packs and mixing them up, encouraging her to ‘draw her own box’ when asked to tick on forms whether she was ‘Caucasian’ or ‘African American’.
It imbued her with a fierce feminism, a loud voice to call out inequality and created a zealous political animal. But this is a surfeit of powerful attributes in danger of tipping over the sense and purpose of monarchy. Soft power has always been the bedrock of royalty with forthrightness discouraged.
Intriguingly, Brexit has created paradoxical opportunities for Meghan. The British public, in voting to leave the EU did so overwhelmingly on a nostalgia-driven, anti-immigration wave. Meghan is surely the ultimate immigrant; a biracial republican. She even has to pass a citizenship test before she can join the ‘family’ which sets the tone for others.
She has been called the N-word online, slammed for ‘polluting’ the royal line and has seen the wrath of middle England heaped upon her.
Yet, in a move of singular genius, the Queen recently created Harry as her youth ambassador to the Commonwealth — the 53-strong ‘family’ of nations of which the Queen is titular head and the 16 of which she is Constitutional monarch, many of them poor, black countries. That means Meghan will be bowled over with opportunities to accept flowers and hugs from children of colour which, if she does it well, cements the misty-eyed nostalgia Brexiteers yearn for. Without the immigrants themselves.
But Dr Kehinde Andrews, sociologist with the University of Birmingham’s Black Studies programme, is dismissive of her impact.
“The idea that this is good for race relations is frankly offensive”, he told The Guardian. Meghan Markle is a beautiful woman but the royal family doesn’t change because you have a splash of coffee, she isn’t a dark-skinned woman with an Afro, she looks like Pippa (Middleton) and dresses like Diana.”
Asked whether Meghan has the capacity to be a binding force, bringing into the fold women who feel ostracised as Britons because of their colour, he said: “It doesn’t change anything. It just shows Harry has good taste in women.”
Meghan of course, has more immediate concerns. Her life, already extraordinary in any number of ways from other royal wives, is about to change in a way she cannot, no matter how carefully steered, ever imagine.
Court life is insufferable in many ways; almost feudal. There are strict rules on entering rooms, curtseying, sitting by hierarchy, making conversation and greeting lines, even for non-public family events. She will always get second billing to her husband, and forever to her sister-in-law who will one day be Queen. “Equality” is an unknown convention.
There is no possibility of her ignoring it, laughing at it or changing it. It just is.
Charles is even more a stickler for protocol than his mother, so any notion of the ‘Swedish’ or ‘Dutch’ model where the royals wheel around on bicycles in jeans is not an option. Meghan will need to confine any changes she wants to Harry’s wardrobe and her safe causes. She will be treated with suspicion and hostility if she attempts to do otherwise. Her job will be to support the Crown in trust for the people.
But can she be more than a clothes hanger, albeit one to champion the British fashion industry? Can she carve out a meaningful role for herself and her husband which side-steps politics but makes a difference? Her walking of this fine line will be crucial.
It is absolutely not her job to save the world, or even a tiny part of it. It is her job to support her husband, however anachronistic that seems in 2018, because her new firm is steadfastly rooted in the tradition and habits of a former time.
Can she handle scrutiny not just to her public life, with which she is already accustomed, but to her every waking moment?
Will she completely wig out like Diana or trim her impulses? Is she in danger of her celebrity overshadowing the dull but worthy workload and will people tire of the Californian gushing sentiment which she is wont to display?
The British public can be two-faced. On one hand they claim to want modern men or women-of-the-people in the royal family, wearing high-street clothes and visiting the East End. But in truth they have a burning desire for the mystery of royalty, the pomp, ceremony and tradition. The palaces, regimental guards and ribbon-cutting.
Meghan, who grew up straddling both sides of every fence, may just be the one to get the balance right.