Harry, Meghan and my grandmother
About thirty years ago, we had a calendar featuring pictures of the ‘royals’. It hung in our kitchen quite unremarked until a Scandinavian friend asked, ‘What is a royal calendar doing in this ‘leftist’ house?’ Many conversations with international friends since have made me aware of the perceived incompatibility between what people might see as the British unthinking support of the monarchy and a deep commitment to the values of equality and social justice.
One way of explaining it for me, is by reference to what my beloved grandmother used to say. She died when I was seven but my mother and her four sisters kept her very much alive in our family conversations.
As Mary Ann Crack, my grandmother left Suffolk as a young woman to work ‘in service’, to various wealthy and/or aristocratic families somewhere in west London. She had a lot of experience and very decided views about her wealthy employers. She distinguished very clearly between ‘the real aristocrats’, as she called them, and the ‘nouveau riche’ types whom she met in the course of her work. ‘You can tell the real ladies,’ she used to say, ‘because they don’t look down their noses at anyone. When you’re with them they put you at ease and talk to you as if you’re one of them.’ To her, the real ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ were the ones who were so secure in who they were that they modelled a kind of equality. For her, it was a kind of service, different from what she was doing – public service. ‘The toffs’ were to be judged by whether they used their wealth and position – not to aggrandize themselves but to ‘serve’. My grandmother’s family – and probably the vast majority of the country - were very clear that King Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne for love in 1937, betrayed what they saw were the truly aristocratic principles of service. In their minds, aristocracy, monarchy and public service should be synonymous.
The present Queen’s extraordinary commitment to that tradition is legendary. But it’s clear that members of her family have sometimes paid the price for that. (Anyone who has watched The Crown has seen an imaginative account of how that price may have been paid). But there is plenty of real-life evidence of the tensions between royal public service and a more modern value – self realisation.
Before they were a couple, both Harry and Meghan gave evidence of commitment to public service of different kinds – he to the INVICTUS games and she as Global Ambassador for World Vision. In the interview, they spoke about their continuing commitment to the idea of continuing the royal tradition of modelling public service
As I listened to their interview this week, I thought about my Grandmother’s observation and asked myself, ‘Are the Sussexes in it for themselves or are they really, as they claim, seeking to continue the royal family’s values of service – in an unconventional new way outside the bounds of the traditional ‘Firm’? Who knows?
The dilemma in which Harry and Meghan claim to find themselves – that of balancing the ideals of service to others with self-realisation for them and their children is familiar to many contemporary people. I’m sure I’m far from being the only one who is fascinated to see whether and how they can model a combination of public service and self-realisation in the 21st century.