In his new book serialised in The Times this week, Robert Lacey unpicks the Sussexes’ Oprah interview — and says Meghan was right to cry foul when she discovered her father-in-law might not make Archie a prince.
In November 1961 Queen Elizabeth II, then 35, shocked the world by dancing the “high life”, a popular West African reggae shuffle, in white gloves, tiara and sash in the arms of the controversial President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, 52. The couple boogied and joked happily together for the best part of ten minutes in a striking image that challenged bigotry around the globe.
“This spectacle of the honoured head of the once-mighty British empire dancing with black natives of pagan Africa is extremely scandalous,” complained the apartheid newspaper Die Oosterlig in South Africa – “a pitiful outrage of the dignity one associates with a white royalty”.
No one in America ventured openly to criticise the Queen, but the picture must have shocked more than a few. At that date interracial marriages were still prohibited by law in 31 of the 50 states.
In a racially prejudiced world, Elizabeth II stood for diversity before her time.
Now one single person, Meghan Markle, had brought the same multiracial dimension into Elizabeth II’s own blood family. This was one of the reasons why the Queen had welcomed Meghan so warmly into her grandson Harry’s life early in 2017 — and why she was alarmed to hear two years later that her granddaughter-in-law was not settling into the family as smoothly as had been hoped.
Love it or loathe it, the mass-audience confessional TV interview is a modern art form. Oprah Winfrey has made herself the ultimate grand master of the genre with her mixture of personal empathy seasoned with forensic analysis – and her Meghan and Harry interview of March 7, 2021 would surpass all others.
It was a coordinated theatrical production from the get-go, and at the heart of the interview’s credibility lay the variable nature of “Meghan’s truth” — abetted by the failure of her interrogator to probe the factual basis of the succession of explosive stories being produced.
Oprah’s concern, though, was not to recount banal details of what did or did not happen. Her objective was to lay out the fairytale of what her friend Meghan felt — and felt very intensely — about what had happened when she entered the palace of her beloved prince. And on the delicate question about Archie’s skin colour — well, on that subject, Oprah did do her job quite forensically. Meghan was telling “her” truth again, after Oprah had asked her “why they didn’t want to make Archie a prince” — thus depriving the baby of both status and security protection, as Meghan and Harry saw it. “I can give you an honest answer,” replied Meghan. “In those months when I was pregnant, all around this same time . . . We have in tandem the conversation of ‘He won’t be given security. He’s not going to be given a title’ — and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he is born.”
“What? There is a conversation?” Oprah asked. “Hold on. Hold up. Hold up. Stop right now . . . There’s a conversation with you?”
“With Harry,” Meghan admitted. Here was the first moment of truth-truth — so let’s go over to Oprah now. While sympathising with Meghan’s vulnerable feelings at that particular moment, the interviewer also established quite clearly that what Meghan was saying was not actually true. Meghan had certainly been in the advanced stages of pregnancy sometime early in 2019, and she was apparently scared at that time about the safety of her baby for complicated reasons of royal precedence. But when questioned by Oprah, Meghan admitted that no one in the royal family had ever asked her personally about the colour of Archie’s skin — neither then, when she was pregnant, nor at any time.
This delicate question had not been put to Meghan but to Harry, and when Oprah later put it to him directly, he almost shrugged his shoulders. Pushed for details, he admitted: “That was right at the beginning . . . Right at the beginning.” The skin colour conversation, as Harry described it, had actually taken place before the couple had even got engaged, at quite an early stage of their relationship — and it had been in general terms. The question had not been asked specifically about Archie, but about any babies that Harry and Meghan might possibly produce. “Yeah,” said Harry, repeating the question that some unnamed person had put to him years earlier — “What will the kids look like?”
“What will the kids look like?” repeated Oprah, emphasising the plural, and the striking difference between Meghan’s reporting of an Archie-based conversation and what Harry was now telling her. Nobody had had “conversations” with Meghan about Archie while she was pregnant, nor asked her “how dark his skin might be when he is born”. She made that up — though that is not to say that it did not matter.
The problem lay in Meghan’s having linked the question of her son’s skin tone to the question of his royal status. Had racism played a role in whether Archie was or was not a royal prince? At the time of Archie’s birth in May 2019 both Harry and Meghan had been refreshingly dismissive about royal status. But by the time the couple were talking to Oprah in 2021, their thinking appeared to have changed. “There’s a convention,” Meghan explained to Oprah. “I forget if it was the George V or George VI convention – that when you’re the grandchild of the monarch . . . automatically Archie and our next baby would become prince or princess.” Archie was not a prince at present, in other words. But he would become a prince — a full HRH — the moment that his grandfather Charles became king. The convention went back to 1917 when King George V was trying to limit the hitherto traditional profusion of princes and princesses. Meghan insisted that “all the grandeur surrounding this stuff” did not matter a jot to her.
But the duchess seemed to have acquired quite a concern about the grandeur “stuff”. In pursuing his own cause of the slimmed-down monarchy, Prince Charles had been making noises about limiting the number of HRHs created by George V’s 1917 convention still further, thus cutting out Archie from his future prince-ship — and Meghan took that personally. Declining to accept that this might be for reasons of modernisation or to save money, she came to believe it was because of the colour of Archie’s skin — and she explained to Oprah why this worried her. It was partly a matter of Archie’s title and status, but it was also because of “the safety and [physical] protection” that went with Archie being called a prince.
It seems likely that Meghan’s thinking had been affected by her early months living in the Kensington Palace compound in a veritable rookery of the Queen’s cousins and their spouses who were all royal highnesses under the 1917 convention. The “junior royals” enjoy such royal perks as KP’s prestigious, if sometimes cramped, historic palace apartments, and those who choose to carry out royal work also receive a financial subsidy from the Queen. Harry and Meghan seem to have viewed this profusion of HRH-titled relatives as an option that Archie might choose at some time in the future if he was so inclined. It was certainly the model of what they thought they might negotiate for themselves when they had first thought of stepping back — but when they were not, in those early stages, planning to go abroad or remove themselves entirely from royal life. Meghan and Harry were particularly focused on the question of security and “protection” — a word that, with “protect”, came up no fewer than 19 times in the course of their conversation. The problem is that royal protection is paid for by the British taxpayer, and it is not related to royal inheritance or title. It is strictly a matter of royal work. If you are carrying out royal duties at the Queen’s request, the British taxpayers will pay for your protection. If you are not carrying out such duties, they will not — and they will certainly not pay to protect you or your children if you choose to go and live in Canada or California, whether your son Archie is a prince or not.
Harry appeared to have some difficulty grasping this. “I never thought that I would have my security removed,” he confessed to Oprah, “because I was born into this position. I inherited the risk.” It was a fair point. Meghan seemed to suffer from the same confusion when it came to Archie — no title, no security — and in this context, of course, it seemed to her particularly unfair, and even life-threatening, that Archie’s title and status should apparently be a matter of his skin colour.
Oprah’s precise questioning — and Harry’s evasive answering — about when and how the poisonous issue of race entered this complicated equation made clear that while somebody’s query about the possible skin colour of any Sussex offspring might have been offensive, it had not been linked to Archie’s princely status.
Prince Charles’s thoughts that he might alter the so-called 1917 convention about his HRH grandchildren, however, did have a bearing on the situation.
Charles seems to have shared with them the plans he was nursing for changing the rules. For Archie to be saddled with an elevated HRH title could be “just a burden”, explained one senior aide who was close to the couple. The possible abolition of Archie’s future HRH was all part of Charles’s mildly obsessive desire to create a slimmed-down monarchy. His moment of triumph had come when, in the absence owing to illness of his father Prince Philip in 2012, the Prince of Wales had managed to clear all the Kents and Gloucesters — not to mention his own sister, two brothers and all their families — off that Diamond Jubilee balcony.
But to what effect? Many royal fans said they rather enjoyed seeing all those uncles and cousins and aunts — and especially the children — lined up and waving cheerily along the balcony. And who wanted to look at no one but Charles and Camilla?
Charles had opposed his nieces Beatrice and Eugenie becoming prominent figures in the working royal family — to the considerable annoyance of their father Prince Andrew — though it was now obvious that these two lively and intelligent young women (great friends of both William and Harry) could have played quite useful public roles in the post-split, Sussex-deprived royal family. And now the future King Charles III was, apparently, set on eliminating Harry and Meghan’s two children from full HRH prince and princess status for reasons of what — economy and modernisation?
It was surely a false economy. And how “modern” was it to consider denying full HRH status to the only members of the British royal family who, with their mother Meghan, were of mixed race?
In 2012 the Queen had changed the rules of the 1917 convention by new letters patent extending HRH status to all William’s children — and not just to George, who received his HRH automatically since he was in direct line of succession. So at the time of the Oprah interview in March 2021, Charles already had three HRH grandchildren, but had seemed ready to get the rules changed in order to deny HRH status to his two mixed-race grandchildren by Harry and Meghan.
No wonder Meghan cried foul, and Oprah cried “What?” The failure of imagination and empathy was staggering.
The most hurtful in the roster of sharply honed accusations that Meghan and Harry levelled against his family came when Oprah asked Harry — “Your relationship with your father? Is he taking your calls now?”
The media explanation of why Charles had stopped taking Harry’s calls was all about money — the long-suffering father was apparently tired of being “treated like a cash dispenser”, as one royal source put it. But there were more profound issues at stake.
“There’s a lot of hurt that’s happened,” said Harry, before turning to talk about his family as a whole. “They only know what they know . . .” he said sadly — and a tad patronisingly. “I’ve tried to educate them through the process that I have been educated.”
Harry’s “process” of education had been his new life with Meghan — “living in her shoes,” as he put it to Oprah. With all the zeal of a convert he was referring to the concept of “unconscious bias” — an idea that had come to consume him since he started experiencing life through the eyes of his mixed-race girlfriend.
“If you go up to someone,” he had explained to the anthropologist Jane Goodall in May 2019, “and say, ‘What you’ve just said, or the way that you’ve behaved, is racist’ – they’ll turn around and say, ‘I’m not a racist’.”
Harry had clearly encountered this sort of reaction from his family — and from his father in particular.
“Your unconscious bias,” he explained to Goodall, is “because of the way that you’ve been brought up, the environment you’ve been brought up in … That you have this point of view – unconscious point of view – when naturally you will look at someone in a different way.”
Harry was talking about racism.
“My God,” he said to Oprah, “it doesn’t take very long to suddenly become aware of it.”
Popular British reaction was virtually unanimous. UK tabloids branded Harry and Meghan as “selfish” and “nauseating” in their litany of complaints, deploring the harm and pain that they had caused the Queen by reducing the thousand-year-old institution of monarchy to “celebrity talk show fodder”.
America could hardly have reacted more differently. Former first lady Michelle Obama and singer Beyoncé both applauded Meghan for speaking so openly about race and mental health — and White House press secretary Jen Psaki made clear that President Joe Biden felt the same.
A mixed-race American woman had stepped forward to enter this fantasy world that appeared to offer such glamour and comfort, and 29 million Americans had got up at dawn in May 2018 to share Meghan’s dream — only to discover, via Oprah, that it was all, apparently, a poisonous nightmare. This was bad for the image of the hitherto sainted monarchy, and it was bad, in an international sense, for Brand Britain as a whole.
The royal family’s rejection of Meghan was “part of the whole legacy of colonialism”, declared Jamaican professor Carolyn Cooper, in disdainful reference to her country’s bond to the British crown. “It’s a disreputable institution. It’s responsible for the enslavement of millions of us who came here to work on plantations . . . We need to get rid of it.”
Harry and Meghan had gone out to the world on a Sunday night. On Monday morning, Buckingham Palace went into crisis mode. The three royal households representing the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William were locked in discussions that lasted all day.
By the end of Monday the combined efforts of the three households had hashed out a statement — a very short statement — and the press was panting at the gates. The media wanted and expected some reaction in time for the evening TV news.
But Elizabeth II — in touch with all the family and palace discussions that day via telephone and video conference from Windsor — decided they could wait. The Queen wanted “to sleep on it”. And the interview had not yet been seen by most people in Britain, since it was not scheduled to go out on ITV until 9pm that night.
When the four-sentence statement of just 61 words was finally released the following afternoon at 5.26pm — nearly 40 hours after the Sussexes had first gone on air in the United States — it started and ended in the now traditional way, with an expression of the Queen’s personal concern for the feelings of her grandson and his wife.
The meat — sentences two and three — lay in the middle of the sandwich: “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
In the days that followed it became clear that the word “privately” referred only to the resolution of the specifically family-based disagreements. On March 14, palace guidance revealed that “independent external investigators” from “a third-party law firm” were now being brought in to conduct a review of the human resources issues — specifically the allegations lodged by the joint communications secretary for Kensington Palace, Jason Knauf, that staff had been bullied by Meghan.
A week later another leak revealed the planned appointment of a “palace diversity tsar” to handle the racial matters. “We haven’t seen the progress we would like,” admitted a senior royal source, “and [we] accept more needs to be done. We can always improve.”
Diversity! Diversity! Meghan and Harry had delivered some low blows in talking to Oprah in a thoroughly non-familial fashion, but it was impossible to swat away their essential truth. When Meghan had arrived in Buckingham Palace some three years earlier and had walked down any corridor — or the corridor of any other palace — to enter any office, the face of virtually every senior official whom she encountered had been white.
Across St James’s Park the stuffy old Tory government had a non-white chancellor of the exchequer (Rishi Sunak) handling the wealth of the nation, with a non-white home secretary (Priti Patel) handling many other vital aspects of national life — including the police. But Elizabeth II, head of the multiracial Commonwealth, was still running her show with a virtually all-white team. What had happened to the brave diversity principles established and championed so boldly more than half a century ago by the colour-blind young monarch who had danced in the arms of President Nkrumah of Ghana? In 1961 Elizabeth II’s diversity principles had shocked, challenged and inspired the world. Now her palace was the object of worldwide scorn — and even horror.
The monarch who “never put a foot wrong” had taken a misstep. Elizabeth II might feel she had nothing to prove when it came to accusations of racism, but she had entrusted the essentials of her reign to the custody of those clubby white father figures who comforted her as her private secretaries over the years — from the grave and grey-suited Tommy Lascelles and Michael Adeane to her current private secretary Edward Young. None of them had had the vision to shake up the white Anglo-Saxon system inside the palace to reflect the diverse modern world outside, and here were the sad consequences — which the Queen now had to deal with at the very moment she had lost the support of her husband, the man on whom she had always relied in moments of difficulty like this.
© Robert Lacey 2021. Extracted from Battle of Brothers: William, Harry and the Inside Story of a Family in Tumult by Robert Lacey, to be published by William Collins on June 24 at £9.99
● Extract one: Prince William ‘split his household from Prince Harry after Meghan bullying claims’
● Reaction: Charles ‘can’t stop Archie taking title of prince’