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Harry-Meghan and the British royal family narrative

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One of the distinct features of our global village is the rate at which news of all types hit us on the airwave every second of the day. These news items have varying level of insistence, and the capacity with which they command our attention. Trump is impeached and is about facing trial; Operation Amotekun has been declared illegal; the arctic poles keep melting at an alarming rate; the Australia wildfire is getting out of control; the Supreme Court of Nigeria nullifies Ihedioha’s election; Harry and Meghan exit the senior rank of the British royal family; Serena Williams wins her first major trophy in three years; Netflix wins five Golden Globe awards; the list is endless. These news items can be classified into hard or soft news, with regard to the effects they have on us. The hard news are those we take serious because they have serious implications. For instance, the recent news that the Buhari government has increased VAT from 5% to 7.5% is one such hard news for Nigerians. However, most Nigerians may not even follow the achievement of Netflix at the Golden Globe awards.

The recent flurry of news about the British royal family is one news item that is difficult to categorize. While on the surface, it may count as a soft news to most people, its ideological and philosophical imports are anything but soft. Over the centuries, philosophers and political theorists have been concerned with the fundamental issue of how governments are constituted to manage the human community. The question has been that of what constitute the best form of government by which humans could achieve their best form of existence. One of the most significant answers derived from Aristotle. According to him, reflection on how the human society could be organized yield six different ways depending on two fundamental issues—who rules and on behalf of whom. When the society is organized in favor of the common interest, it produces (a) the monarchy (rule of one), (b) aristocracy (rule of the few), and (c) the politeia (rule of the many). However, when the society is organized in favor the ruler, what emerges are (a) tyranny, (b) oligarchy, and (c) democracy.

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That Aristotle favors the monarchy contributes an insight into why it has remained a distinct feature of human historical advancement over time. And yet, Aristotle’s recommendation that the politeia—or constitutional democracy—deserves the label of the best form of government seemed to have weighed heavily on the historical travails of the monarchy. Out of the 195 countries in the world, only 44 operate a monarchical government. And this number is further divided into constitutional monarchies, absolute monarchies and mixed monarchies. In other words, the fortune of the monarchical form of government is fast depreciating in the contemporary period that increasingly keeps embracing democratic and constitutional forms of government. Britain remains a constitutional monarchy, and it is the most important monarchy in the world. And this is for so many reasons: its evolution affected the histories of more than half of the entire world; its manifestation as the British Empire inspired imperialism and colonization; its present travails has captured the world’s interest.

More importantly, however, its continuing resistance to imminent disruption makes for an interesting study in the evolution of ideas and social practices, as well as the resistance of institutions to social change, and the role of the elite in social formations. Space will not permit a timeline of significant events in the existence of the royal family. It suffices to note, however, that such events date back to the sixteenth century when the mercurial King Henry VIII reigned (1509-1547). Henry’s notoriety is not only due to the number of his wives (two of whom he beheaded), but the changes he made to the constitution which enlarged the power of the monarchy. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution led to a significant decrease in the power of the monarchy vis-à-vis that of the British Parliament. This realignment turned the monarchy into a ceremonial one.

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The British monarchy displays the essential features of an aristocracy, tinted by the famous English imperial snobbery and the racism that subdued the world. The aristocracy is defined by its characteristic in-breeding—the need to preserve the famous blue blood from adulteration by the commoners. And yet, it is the very commoners—the Others—the royal family has snubbed for centuries that began to gnaw at its inner coherence. In 1981, Diana Frances Spenser got married to Prince Charles, and that marriage opened up the floodgate for the paparazzi intervention in the closed dynamics of the royal family. Princess Diana uncharacteristically dirtied her hand with tasks and responsibilities that were unbecoming a princess. The scandals that rocked her marriage were too much for the royal family to bear. And then her death in 1997 shocked the entire world, and shot a hole through the monarchy.

Interestingly, the next shock to the system of the royal family would come twenty-two years after the death of Princess Diana when her younger son, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, would break all royal protocols, to marry a “commoner”, Meghan Markle—an actress, a black, a divorcee, a feminist, an American, and very outspoken as a leftwing commentator on politics! These are all characters that seem to intrude into the quiet, composed and privileged dynamics of the British monarchy. First, she is the only woman of color, so far, that has managed the incredible feat of penetrating the white and privileged armor of the royal family. Those who watched the wedding at the Buckingham Palace would practically have seen scandalized faces as blackness invaded the sanctuary that has known only whiteness for ages. Second, we have a Duchess of Sussex who is not only consciously fashionable, globally popular, but also fierily opinionated about politics. Anyone who endorses Noam Chomsky is certainly leftist. She is the real version of the fictional Lisa McDowell in Coming to America. With her, the classic American irreverence collides with the classic British royalty.

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And then Megxit happened! On January 8, 2020, Harry and Meghan announced, to the consternation of the Queen, Buckingham Palace and the larger British society, that they were ready to relinquish their status as senior members of the royal family. This implies, among other things, that they would no longer be regarded as “royal highness”, they would no longer draw salaries from the family, and they would essentially be independent. Several speculations suggest themselves: Did Meghan and her American sense of individuality put Harry up to this? Is it the Diana gene that is at work in Harry? This is almost the last straw in a long list of woes that Buckingham Palace had to contend with in the last one and a half years—Prince Andrew’s friendship with the sex offender, Joe Epstein; Prince Philip had an accident that brought media light on him and his attitude especially to the lady that was in the car with him; the Queen herself was dragged into the Brexit crisis when she rubber-stamped Boris Johnson prorogation of the British Parliament; and the marriage of Harry and Meghan has opened a flurry of social media and press campaigns around racism, elitism, tradition, sexuality, and many more.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the British monarchy? This is significant because Harry is the sixth in the succession line to the throne. The British monarchy is one of the most tenacious of all monarchies in the world. It has faced series of troubles over the decades and it has remained durable. And Meghan Markle is cast, by the negative reports on social media and the British tabloids, as a destroyer of tradition; a deep threat to the monarchy. This should not be strange. All spaces react to change, and to difference. “‘Deviant’,” says Jamie Arpin-Ricci, “is the weapon of the normative to discredit and demonize the Other.” Meghan is an Other unlike any the British royal family has seen before; a black and liberal Other who is making strenuous attempt to belong but who does not belong. To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, Prince Harry has brought something incomprehensible into Buckingham! Could this incomprehensible Other be the very source of unraveling that the Palace will not be able to cope with? Individuality, the metaphysical basis of American liberalism, projects an autonomous existence that rejects constitutive attachment to anything, especially traditions. One can then begin to imagine the unease that would have characterize someone who is the very soul of outspokenness and political incorrectness to be housed in a traditional context that stultifies her and her agency, especially as a woman of color.

Prof. Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary is Executive Vice-Chairman, IbadanSchool of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Bodija, Ibadan.

Meghan Markle’s position is not enviable. She might be in the fight of her life. On the one hand, she is bound to her husband by a chord of love that has produced a beautiful offspring. On the other hand, she is married into a constraining context that is far from her liberal existence; a context her blackness insists she must fight consistently to resist. And she is standing against a very sturdy institution, made strong by decades of traditional encrustations that had withstood many incomprehensible matters. Only time will tell what the end of this contestation will produce!

Prof. Olaopa, retired Federal Permanent Secretary/Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Bodija, Ibadan.

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