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.
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this point it seems rather uninteresting to speculate as to what the future holds for the Sussexes, now that they have withdrawn their application to use the Sussex Royal brand (though at the time of publication it is still in use). 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.
It is not impossible to envisage a situation where Prince Harry accepts a lot of money and then finds himself having to do things with which he is extremely uncomfortable.
There is a difference from working for the nation and the Commonwealth as opposed to the Sussexes working for themselves. It is not impossible to envisage a situation where Prince Harry accepts a lot of money and then finds himself having to do things with which he is extremely uncomfortable. He could easily end up looking as idiotic as Peter Phillips and his Chinese milk advertisement. Wrong moves lower the bar.
The couple has announced that they don’t wish to be a burden on the British tax payer and presumably they won’t be. But who will pay for large expenses like their security remains an open question. The Canadians were shying from that responsibility and not surprisingly, President Trump has declined to take this on. The duchess made her views on him well publicised before her marriage. Nor will he have appreciated the remarks made by Prince Harry to the Russian telephone pranksters, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, pretending to be Greta Thunberg and her father. In the next year security could prove very expensive and presumably when deals are being struck, the agents will want that side of life shoe-horned into the deal.
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.
To what extent the Sussexes can maintain and support their existing royal charities and patronages from afar is also a somewhat open question. The Captain-General of the Royal Marines is not going to be much use to them if he is in Los Angeles.
The couple may well have hoped to be such global figures that anything they did would attract attention and support, but this would have been so much more effective had they been part of a well-tried system, especially at a time of global crisis. The Queen had more or less handed them the Commonwealth to work with, and they both seemed deeply committed to it, but again, their efforts would have been more effective if they were uniting the Commonwealth for its own good, rather than for their own global ambitions.
One of the things Harry said he wanted to avoid by moving away was the media attention – but this is unlikely to happen, partly since whatever they do in the next year will require media promotion. The royal family may well feel the media is intrusive in Britain but without the considerable protection they have, not least the privacy of living at – say – Frogmore Cottage, surrounded by high wooden fences, and with vast security bollards behind the railings of the Long Walk and the robust systems like the Buckingham Palace switchboard - which easily could have saved Prince Harry from the Thunberg-pranksters – I fear that the American press is less of a respecter of privacy than anything he has experienced to date.
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.