• Mark Mardell

Why Meghan Matters

Oprah’s long, gripping, infinitely sad interview with Meghan and Harry was more than an outpouring of hurt. It had a purpose – to question the fitness of the Royals to rule.

If my 30 years’ experience is anything to go by, the BBC will be receiving a barrage of complaints right now from viewers and listeners who are outraged by the prominence given to a royal story, at the expense of ‘more serious’ news.

I’ve always had some instinctive sympathy for this view. But it is wrong. Megan matters – and that interview will influence a looming debate which is all but taboo.

What happens when the second Elizabethan age ends?

It is easy to dismiss it all as the trivial woes of the over privileged. It is hard to get worked up about whether flower girls should go bare legged or wear tights.

But this latest airing of the First Family’s dirty laundry sets up a new dynamic for an uncertain future.

Sooner or later this long running soap is heading for a gut-wrenching, climactic episode. Then we’ll all be on tenterhooks, wondering if the series gets commissioned for another season.

At the BBC you get a regular reminder of the mortality of monarchs and what a profound moment Reign Change will be. Every so often the word would go out that you are giving up part of your weekend for an ‘obit rehearsal’.

Play acting a “Category One death” is never any fun, rather it is fraught and nerve wracking. It used to be High Treason to ‘imagine” the death of a King and talking about it publicly is still taboo. The BBC believes that the very existence of these important rehearsals would widely be seen as insensitive lese majeste. So, they are hush hush affairs – the blinds quite literally come down, so passing visitors can’t peer into studios making fake grave announcements. Strict messages are sent out to staff warning of the dire consequences of blundering on to social media with news of your day. Every office has a big binder detailing what must happen without deviation or hesitation but with a great deal of dignified repetition. The general advice is you can’t be too slow or too solemn. The exact protocol is understandably surrounded with bureaucratic barbed wire. Recently, there’s been heated debate on how every BBC radio network should be brought together as one national broadcaster, when to play the national anthem and how often, and whether the big announcement should be made by a newsreader or presenter, how long – weeks , days - before normal programming is resumed. There’s a pervasive and justified fear that any slip will cost the BBC dear. Pray you don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt to work that day.

It all underscores the point that when that day comes, maybe not for some years, may be not soon, but eventually, it will be a momentous jolt to the national psyche.

After the initial straight forward sobriety there will be weeks and weeks of looking back at the second Elizabethan age. When the Queen came to the throne in 1952, Churchill was still Prime Minister. It was the year the UK tested its first atomic bomb and London was enveloped in the great smog. Only those well over seventy can actually remember a time before the Queen was on the throne.

Following the outpouring of grief and affection there will be reflection. On the past, and on the future. It will be a punctuation mark. If not a full stop, a question mark.

This is why Meghan’s interview matters. Not because it is a surprise but precisely because it isn’t. It plays into a narrative which has been unfolding for more than a generation.

In that, it feels less like a shock and more like the next episode of the Crown. The revelations of real royals re-enforce that series central story line – that of a dysfunctional family so obsessed by notions of duty, so haunted by ghosts from a distant past that they doom themselves to continually sin against the future, trapped in an institution which seems to have developed a malign life of its own.

Meghan described a horror show – our nominal rulers locked in an abusive relationship with that infamous bully, the British press, so aware of their own fragility, so petrified by the possibility of losing public respect, that they are frozen in the past, unable to move forward in case something breaks off.

What ever you think of the Monarchy no cold-hearted ,cleared eye strategist would have casually tossed aside the potential for renewal offered by Diana and Meghan. But that’s what happens in family firms when personal hurt is muddled in with the business. Gormenghast meets Freud in an unholy alliance against modernity.

Harry and Megan’s very existence now poses a counter point to the Royal reality.

The interview didn’t hole the Palace below the water line, but it was another heavy barrage, playing into the culture wars and a generational split of a divided Britain.

The Queen must worry ‘apres moi le deluge.” There will indeed be a flood of appreciation – but when the waters recede the landscape will not look the same. The miasma of nostalgia which clings to any debate about Britain’s future may grow thicker for a while. The trouble with golden ages is the brassy present can never compete, can only appear tarnished by comparison.

Charles will become King, but his rightness for the role will be under scrutiny from the very beginning. Immediately, more Commonwealth countries will suggest the time is ripe for a new, elected head of state.

Here at first a few lone voices will call for a Republic, but over time the debate will grow lively.

I’ve long described myself as a reluctant royalist – only a fool would invent a hereditary political system, except as sport, but the two main alternatives have problems. What about an elected figure head with no real power ? Voters might pick President Judi Dench or President David Attenborough thus promoting a national treasure to a national symbol. But it might seem a frivolous waste of effort to swap all those tourist dollars and harmless pomp for a sheen of democratic piety.

The other route, directly electing a political Head of State, would mean a complete overhaul of the British political system. Perhaps that is overdue but setting up a potential clash with the biggest party changes everything, not necessarily for the better. Concentrating yet more power in the hands of the occupant of number ten, a President Boris or President Blair, might be even more of a problem.

If that is a debate for another day, it is a day which will come. The future of the Monarchy will be more precarious after that watershed. It may not be the time to swap the black cars for bicycles but there will be loud calls to shrink the role, at the very time King Charles will want to define it anew. It will be against the background of tabloid relish, as they pit the new Prince and Princess of Wales and their offspring against the Duke and Duchess across the water and the non Prince of Santa Monica. Like the God of the Old Testament the redtops will “punish children for their parents’ sins—even to the third and fourth generations” .

It can’t go on for ever. Can it ?

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