Sean Bell: Bringing down the monarchy will require more than bad press

“Nice as it would be to be proven wrong, bad press will not bring down the monarchy. Good journalism is vital, and – easy as it might have been to overlook over the past month – it does exist, but it cannot take the place of concerted political action.”

THREE WEEKS is a long time in… actually no, screw it. Three weeks is three weeks, even when perceived through the weird sense of time dilation engendered by the pandemic. It should now be acknowledged that the latest ‘crisis’ of the British monarchy turned into a damp squib in less than a month.

This was not what we were promised. The fallout from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey on 7 March – in which the Duchess of Sussex detailed the racism she experienced after becoming a part of the royal family, and the subsequent mental health struggles she endured – had, we were told, plunged the Firm into its worst crisis in decades. Such were the seriousness of the accusations levelled against it, some wondered if the institution would survive.

What did happen, exactly? A clear view of the situation was not aided by the fact that many of us were forced to follow the controversy through the lens of the British media, much of which brings more baggage to all matters royal than a lost luggage depo. Ultimately however, there were a great many outraged headlines, a great many subsequent, self-indulgent think-pieces (not this one, obviously) and a great many Oliver Cromwell jokes on Twitter from people who should know better. Amidst all this, one could almost get the impression there were certain pundits and newspapers not all together unhappy to have such a juicy story to report – or such convenient enemies in their sights.

Because of this, many commentators – honestly or otherwise – started to lose a sense of context. Such crises of the monarchy come and go, along with their accompanying spasms of apoplexy in the fourth estate, yet the Firm itself remains. The past record of Prince Philip alone – who emerged from hospital earlier this month, after being treated with incantations from the Necronomicon – somewhat blows a hole in the contention of those with goldfish memories that the Windsors have never faced accusations of racism before. Explanations for why this time would be different were not forthcoming.

In any case, all this lasted just long enough for professional self-publicist Piers Morgan to get in front of a camera and say something stupid – a feat he is capable of achieving with the kind of speed that leaves charging cheetahs in the dust.

A few weeks later, the Guardian would reveal that the Queen had been granted an exemption from laws protecting the world’s cultural property, barring police from searching her private estates for stolen or looted artefacts. We can only speculate about why precisely such an exemption would be necessary. Reticence about what the Queen might have lying around Balmoral and Sandringham is odd, given how proudly the Tower of London displays pillaged valuables such as the Ko-i-Noor diamond, rightful ownership of which has variously been claimed by India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan (all of whose claims are more convincing than the royal family’s, whose own justification is a kind of post-imperial variation on ‘It fell off the back of a truck’).

Still, whatever reasons lay behind the latest proof that our monarchy does not expect to abide by the same rules as the rest of us, this was not the sort of move one would expect from an institution worried about its reputation or its future. Business as usual had been restored with unseemly haste.

As it turned out, the future of the monarchy was less imperilled than the career of Piers Morgan, who left Good Morning Britain following a trademark rant dismissing the claims made by Markle, whom Morgan regards with an obsessive and weirdly personal disdain. As entertaining as this exit was to watch – people can have a little schadenfreude, as a treat – I suspect Morgan has something in common with the monarchy he allegedly cares so much about defending.

As a rule, Morgan does not learn, does not grow, and does not apologise – it would probably be actively damaging to his brand if he did. Instead, he will continue to double down – as he did in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, writing that Meghan Markle was “just one of many whiny, privileged, hypocritical celebrities who now cynical exploit victimhood to suppress free speech… and seek to cancel anyone that deviates from their woke world view” – and re-emerge doing much the same as he has always done.

The monarchy, likewise, will trim sails, batten down the hatches and weather the storm. Despite reports that the royal family are considering the appointment of a ‘diversity tsar’ – please, my sides – the purpose of such initiatives is not to facilitate modernisation, but to make sure that as little of it happens as possible. The Crown does not exist to change; it exists to endure.

The royal family pursues this self-preservation because it is, by its very nature, a limited commodity. Tortuous lines of succession notwithstanding, you cannot chuck one monarch or heir to the throne and select another from central casting – unlike, say, permanently angry pundits who rail against The Kids Today, the propriety of female celebrities’ dress sense and vegan sausage rolls, who can be ordered by the dozen.

All this should tell us something about exactly what power the media does – or, more pertinently, does not – have over the monarchy. Somewhere over the past century or so, the idea emerged that one of the greatest threats the institution could face was bad press. Evidence for this contention is patchy, to say the least.

Journalism, like many professions, likes to burnish its self-image with flattering reference to its most exceptional moments. But with due apologies to Woodward and Bernstein, the press does not, in the general course of things, bring down kings and queens, governments and mighty institutions. This was sadly reinforced by the early days of the Trump administration, when much of US establishment media reimagined itself as the brave, lonely vanguard that would depose the vulgar aberration in the White House and restore sanity to America… before spending the next four years spectacularly whiffing it, and making themselves look thoroughly ridiculous in the process.

One could argue that things might be different if the press was also different. It is true that much of the British media is somewhat lacking, or at least deeply weird, when it comes to the monarchy. Following the tabloid firestorm that descended following Harry and Meghan’s sit-down with Oprah, some – not for the first time – wondered why there appears to be not a single royal correspondent with republican sympathies in the kingdom. It’s an interesting notion, but one which overlooks the difficulty that your average republican would be driven insane within weeks by the stupendous inanity that such a job entails. Covering the British monarchy requires a certain obsessive quality – a mixture of deference and entitlement that rules out most normal people.

The disdain of your average British republican for the monarchy pales in comparison to the visceral rage, the bilious sense of grievance, which those ostensibly royalist cloisters of the British media feel towards any member or adjunct of that institution who fails to live up to what is expected. Weddings, births and other photo-friendly events will be periodically delivered; everyone will smile and play their part; the headlines remain obsequious and complimentary. As far as those who have fashioned careers and identities around covering the Buckingham constellation are concerned, Harry and Meghan did not abide by the deal, and thus became fair game.

Here, the question becomes what the media will do versus what it can do, but that may be largely academic. The British press may be unable or unwilling to seriously threaten the monarchy, but it is perfectly capable of doing everything it can to make life miserable for someone they have cast as an ungrateful American interloper – especially one who has highlighted their own long-standing racism, or displays some creeping awareness that she has stumbled into the most unsettling family set-up this side of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

The Oprah interview and its aftermath also offered a further lesson, if anyone is inclined to learn it: with all due respect to Piers Morgan – which is to say, none – the monarchy’s latest PR difficulties have provided abundant proof that the malevolent spectre of so-called ‘cancel culture’ is not quite as fearsome and all-powerful as its paranoid chroniclers have made it out to be. Poised against the awesome wealth, privilege and institutional power of Buckingham Palace, it has instead had all the impact of a banana cream pie hurled against a Sherman tank.

Nice as it would be to be proven wrong, bad press will not bring down the monarchy. Good journalism is vital, and – easy as it might have been to overlook over the past month – it does exist, but it cannot take the place of concerted political action. 10 Days That Shook The World is a great book, but John Reed did not bring down the Tsar. The Russian people did.

An honest appraisal of where republicanism in Britain stands is therefore necessary. According to polling, support for a republic in the UK is consistent – “flatlining”, as the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland puts it, at around 20 per cent. Those who dismiss this constituency not only remind me of all those years when complacent unionists would reassure themselves that Scottish independence was supported by ‘only’ a rough third of the voting public, but ignore the question of why this sizeable minority can find no representation worth a damn within British politics.

As I wrote last year, the SNP leadership has long indulged the consistent strain of republicanism that exists within its ranks, but at the same time has kept it safely neutered by steadfastly refusing to engage in any debate which might give pro-independence republicans a platform.  

Labour no doubt has a similar anti-royalist contingent, but they will be used to disappointment; while many centres of power and privilege felt threatened by the possibility of a Corbyn government, the monarchy – putting aside confected controversies over the national anthem – was not one of them.

I suppose it’s possible that some republicans exist within the Liberal Democrats, the same way it’s possible one might find a diamond bracelet at the local charity shop – it begs the question of whether the search would really be worth the time and effort.

None of this is meant as an insult to those who have campaigned long and hard against the monarchy and in favour of a sane alternative: Republic are the best known, have done fine work, and as recent days have shown, are significantly less excitable than headlines that speak of an institution in crisis, or those swivel-eyed royalists who perceive perfidious threats around every corner. Actual republicans know, from bitter experience, that things are not that simple.

As tempting as it would be to think otherwise, all of this matters. In recent weeks, Scotland saw a great deal of debate, much of it disingenuous, over the integrity of its devolved institutions and what exactly constitutes a ‘failed state’. Few wondered if such a designation might accurately describe the British state, the institutions of which bend in service to its ruthlessly survivalist ‘constitutional monarchy’ far more than vice versa, and where sovereignty rests with the Crown, not the people.

The endurance of the monarchy is not only an offence to democracy itself, but a symbol of Britain’s obsessive need for continuity with the past – the neurotic belief that institutions can only ever be reformed or emerge naturally from what already exists, rather than being created through political will and imagination. Meanwhile, in France, they’re on their fifth republic. It’s hard not to be a little jealous.

Such imagination will need to be embodied in a mass republicanism capable of articulating itself – of making itself understood not just as an opposition to monarchy, but a distinctive and credible political philosophy – in a political culture and media environment that ignores and disdains any hint of it. In Scotland, there are those who are beginning to do so.

It will be long, hard work, but every person convinced by a dedicated movement, as opposed to briefly diverted by headlines, brings the birth of a republic that much closer. Should you require encouragement, try imagining how Piers Morgan would react to that.

Picture courtesy of dconvertini