The divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from Britain’s royal family has been negotiated with a speed that may prove ill-advised. However impulsive, even crass, the couple’s behavior, given their global popularity there was a case for the monarch to be seen to show forbearance, to keep talking. As with all soap operas, it is rash to kill off cast members without considering the possible impact on the ratings.
It is interesting to speculate about how much advice the Queen and her heirs sought before embarking on the course that led to last weekend’s announcement of the removal of the couple’s cash drip and H.R.H. titles. Precedent suggests not much. Members of the royal family sometimes solicit the views of friends, courtiers, lawyers, and even of journalists. Very seldom, however, do they heed the counsel of outsiders, unless it coincides with their own instincts.
As a newspaper editor in the 1990s, I was a privileged spectator during the last series of Family crises, meeting all the principals. I can boast that my own advice—to say as little as possible publicly about their split—was dismissed by both the Prince and Princess of Wales. Diana nodded attentively and fluttered those famous eyelashes when I urged discretion—“Yes, Max, absolutely, Max”—during a 1995 luncheon à deux at Kensington Palace. Unbeknownst to silly me, however, that very afternoon cameras were setting up next door for her “tell-all” BBC TV interview in which she laid bare her every love—and hate.
Very seldom do members of the royal family heed the counsel of outsiders, unless it coincides with their own instincts.
One evening, a year or so earlier, I had dinner at St. James’s Palace with the Prince of Wales and our mutual friend Nicholas Soames, a member of Parliament and Winston Churchill’s grandson. It was a few months after the Prince’s separation from his wife, and he treated his two guests to a howl of self-pity, the familiar cry that nobody understood him.
After an hour or more of royal monologue, I suggested that he was quite wrong in supposing that nobody was on his side. Both he and Diana commanded tremendous public sympathy. All three of us around the table had suffered broken marriages ourselves. I urged, however, that the Prince should not lose sight of the fact that he remained an immensely privileged person.
Charles, unmoved, banged his fist on the table, rattling the silver and crystal. “Nobody but me,” he said, “can understand how perfectly bloody it is to be Prince of Wales!” Soames, to his undying credit in my eyes, said, “No, sir, Max is absolutely right. We must box on, sir! We must box on!”
That conversation was the last I have ever had with the heir to the throne, though there were plenty more with Diana and Palace staff, such as they held with several other editors and journalists. Going through the mail one morning, I opened a letter from the Princess of Wales, which began, “Dear Max, I read the Editorial about me in today’s Telegraph with interest (as you might imagine!). Though in many ways a model of good sense, I feel it suffers for being based inevitably on incomplete knowledge. I wonder if you might find it useful to come and talk to me privately at Kensington Palace. Your next pronouncement on the subject might then be even more authoritative! Yours Sincerely, Diana.”
Those exchanges left me with abiding reflections. First, members of the royal family perceive themselves as different from the rest of us to a degree that renders them exempt from the rules which govern ordinary human behavior.
This helps to explain an egoism which afflicts even the Queen, and even in conversation with those whom she considers personal friends. Beyond “Have you come far?,” she, like other royals—with the notable exception of Princess Alexandra—finds it difficult to show the sort of interest in others that, among lesser mortals, passes for good manners. I say that as an admirer of the monarch.
It is hard to overstate the difficulties the Family experience in communicating with each other in good times, never mind bad. On returning from accompanying a royal tour—of India, I think—Britain’s former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd recounted to me a long conversation he’d had with the Queen. They discussed courses for the monarchy’s future, prompting her to say more than once, “But I don’t know how Charles will feel about that.” Douglas said that he yearned to respond, though did not dare, “Why don’t you ask him, ma’am?”
One day in 1994, I was lunching with a senior Palace official, to whom I suggested that the forthcoming divorce between Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles and his wife Camilla would pose problems. He gaped, and demanded, “What Parker Bowles divorce?”
I told him it was common gossip that the couple’s separation was about to be formalized, freeing Camilla to establish a public relationship with Prince Charles. My friend was both shocked and disbelieving. He rang me two days later, to apologize. He said that he was now fully briefed about the divorce, which came as news not only to him but also to his employer. Extraordinary as it might seem, the Prince of Wales had not warned his mother about a development with momentous implications for both her and the monarchy.
All this happened a generation ago, but some of its lessons still seem relevant. Britain’s monarchy cannot survive and prosper without more disciplined management. It is impossible to expect that the natural inclinations of all members of the Family will lead them to pursue wise courses. They need to follow the practice of every commercial family enterprise that passes from generation to generation, even multi-billion-dollar ones. While retaining ownership or dominant shareholdings, the inheritors appoint bright people with authority to manage and protect their interests.
It is hard to overstate the difficulties the Family experience in communicating with each other in good times, never mind bad.
Some royal private secretaries have had clout. As the Queen has grown older and some of her children wayward, however, it has become progressively more difficult for any mere functionary to exercise influence over the extended family. Christopher Geidt was an outstanding private secretary, and during his tenure (2007–17) he sought to impose some discipline and direction. For his pains, he was brutally evicted from his job at the behest of an unusual alliance of Princes Charles and Andrew. The latter especially resented Geidt’s resistance to conceding royal privileges to his two daughters. The former, meanwhile, bridled at any attempt by Geidt’s office to infringe—as the Prince of Wales saw it—his authority as heir to the throne, and to influence the running of his household.
Both princes were conspicuously absent from Geidt’s farewell party at Buckingham Palace, an occasion attended by the rest of the royal family, who valued the private secretary as he deserved. What Geidt understood is that much of the grief which periodically besets the monarchy derives from the refusal of some members of “the Firm” to recognize their own limitations, and to accept the counsel of advisers who have a better grasp of the outside world than they do.
A related issue is money. The royal family does not receive sufficient income to keep its humbler members in the style to which, quite wrongly, they think themselves entitled. The consequence is that they accept hospitality from unlovely people, and cash from folk whom it is wise to count one’s fingers after shaking hands with. Even the Prince of Wales has been guilty of the former practice: remember the borrowing of yachts from Greek shipping tycoon John Latsis.
Some lesser royals accept largesse from socially ambitious people whom they repay by inviting them to the Royal Box at Wimbledon, the Queen’s afternoon at the Chelsea Flower Show, or—in the case of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, as guests of Prince Andrew—parties at Windsor Castle and Sandringham.
Family members are unwilling to acknowledge a truth obvious to everybody else, that any yacht-owner eager to lend them his gin palace is, ipso facto, somebody whom it is rash for them to be indebted to. That they will do so anyway is one near certainty about the Sussexes’ future in North America. The earnings that royals or ex-royals can generate from their talents, as distinct from their celebrity, would scarcely cover the services of Meghan’s manicurist.
Once again, the keyword is “discipline”: the need for somebody acting as chief executive—even if no monarch would countenance conceding that title—to establish and set before the Family a template of conduct, especially financial conduct, for all those who wish to remain royal.
The Queen herself has seldom, if ever, mishandled money matters—hence the jokes about her using every postage stamp twice. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, may not have been born royal, but she has not put a foot—or, more important, a word—wrong since marrying Prince William, and indeed is perhaps the best thing to have happened to the Family in this century. Almost all the rest of the tribe, however, have false-stepped in various degrees, tarnishing the Crown.
Ah, you now say, but what if a new, disciplined regime is imposed, and a prince or princess kicks against the pricks, rejecting advice or instructions from whomsoever it comes? It is a good question. The Prince of Wales has a history of dispensing with the counsel and, indeed, friendship of people who dare to say boo to him, even though the rest of us know that the most important people in our lives are those who offer tough love. The Sussex train wreck has been only a matter of time ever since Prince Harry unwisely quit the army, which provided some much-needed structure. It would nonetheless be a start if somebody within the Family established guidelines, set rules for the royal game, as the Queen has never done.
The royal family does not receive sufficient income to keep its humbler members in the style to which, quite wrongly, they think themselves entitled.
Some readers may suggest that the above strictures show a lack of compassion for the royal predicament. I am reminded of a conversation with the theater director Trevor Nunn, to whom I once moaned about the appalling behavior of some film stars at an awards ceremony I chaired. He said, “Unless you have experienced the extremities of fame, it is hard to imagine what it does to you.”
That is supremely true for those related to a Crown. Anyone who has witnessed the fawning servility which otherwise intelligent and sensible commoners can display on encountering royal persons will comprehend what receiving such treatment can do to not-very-bright princes and princesses, especially when compounded by media frenzies.
Almost 70 years ago my mother, herself a journalist, was asked on the BBC radio chat show Any Questions? who she would like to be, if not herself. She replied unhesitatingly, “The Queen.” She was soliciting a studio-audience laugh, but in those days it was an understandable dream for a humble subject: to win a role in a royal fairy tale, ride in a glass coach. Today, by contrast, which of us with any sort of decent life would aspire to gilded bondage? If a child or grandchild of mine started dating a royal, I would have them rushed into counseling.
So, yes, one feels a profound sympathy for the Family, and especially for the Queen, who deserves none of the current Sussex melodrama—or, for that matter, the horror story of Prince Andrew—at the age of 93. The British columnist Matthew Parris observed recently that the succession poses greater perils than some people understand, because among the British people there are more Elizabethites than monarchists.
I agree. Some of us who care passionately about the survival of the institution believe that unless or until some of the royal family’s foremost members can learn to take advice, acquire discipline, and reduce their financial expectations, its future beyond the second Elizabethan age looks precarious indeed.
Max Hastings, a journalist and historian, is the author of many books, most recently Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945–1975