Prince Harry has left the zoo, so why is he being treated like a caged animal? | Catherine Bennett

Early signs are that Prince Harry’s revelations may not, frustratingly for experts and republicans alike, seriously threaten the monarchy. Even if he’d wanted to, he probably picked the wrong moment, the public still being in an exceptionally forgiving mood.

For all his divulging, to seriously “stain” or “trash”, as alleged, the royal brand, Harry needed to produce something meatier than, say, Charles’s well-documented self-pity, his teen bride, protracted infidelity, black spider memos, choice of valet, honour-seeking donors, magical thinking, property empire, political interference and dreadful taste in mentors, all of which faults were instantly forgiven the day he succeeded. It’s one of the historic bonuses of a hereditary monarchy that sound personal references are not a condition of employment. Even GB News is more demanding than this. With just a little care for appearances, a royal idler, boor, sex addict or fool can enjoy the exact same benefits as a more deserving predecessor.

From a staining point of view, Harry’s confessional tour has turned out, then, quite shockingly unhelpful. Aside from the king’s stinginess and unwillingness to challenge the press – a far from incomprehensible decision – Harry’s is perhaps the fondest, most rounded version of Charles yet presented to the public. Even the doting Jonathan Dimbleby recorded, alongside once-celebrated “Action Man” exploits, his subject’s “intemperate response to even a minor disruption of his own plans”. As for Camilla, and his other longtime pal, Teddy, we’ve heard more about both from, respectively, Diana, Princess of Wales and Wendy Berry, author of the fascinating, and alas banned, The Housekeeper’s Diary.

In Spare, the king’s emotional shortcomings are balanced with his efforts to overcome them, including the admission that he should have got Harry (always addressed as “darling boy”) help sooner. Compared with the sulky object-thrower depicted in other accounts, Charles, now Inaction Man, is almost endearing, feebly begging his squabbling sons: “Please, boys – don’t make my final years a misery.”

References to William, including the physical attacks and rival claim to the continent of Africa, have been harsher, but again not to the point of being, for anti-monarchists, remotely promising. British polls are still pro-Willy. Assuming Harry remains out of reach and the heir can stop himself assaulting another chatterbox, there seems less chance of him being identified with anger issues, in the long run, than with stupendous, unreadable dullness, a peerless qualification for royal office.

It was not, presumably, Harry’s intention that the three of them should appear in important ways similar: each damaged by being born a British constitutional asset. All struggle with ungovernable rage, “this red mist”, he told Tom Bradby, a weakness occasionally attributed to genes, more likely the result of growing up massively indulged but restricted in Windsor wonderland. Or as Harry variously puts it, a “cage”, a “surreal fishbowl”, the “Rolling Royal Melodrama”, a “death cult”, “fancy captivity” and a “zoo”, one that turns some inmates into monsters, separates all of them from normality. “Even my father reminds me,” he writes, for all the world as if they were a family of vampires, “that unfortunately Willy and I can’t be normal.”

Several ex-servants have published valuable fieldwork on palace life. Harry is not the first royal contributor, but his is definitely one of those acts of service royals are always talking about: an unmatched account of what their system requires of its high-ranking young. Including their lifetime’s surveillance by the press, a sentence certain to survive any cessation of the palace-tabloid cooperation he detests.

Other royal perks: you hear people debating you in the supermarket; you don’t know your potential girl/boyfriend isn’t suffering from “throne syndrome”. If you’re Harry, according to one disarming passage, you comprehend that people’s excitement is not based on any personal talent. Reactions, he says, “were down to my family, my title, and consequently they always embarrassed me, because they were so unearned”. Generously, given his allegedly fatal intentions for the family business, he has yet to focus on the Windsor relations who actually believe they’re worth it. Andrew is barely mentioned.

Even without the funeral trauma to which Diana’s sons were subjected, they were expected, early, to trade their privacy for free houses, stipends and being special. “As a royal,” he writes, “you were always taught to maintain a buffer zone between you and the rest of Creation.” As much as Harry is to be congratulated for quitting the zoo, his reluctance to propose its closure, even to part from the dukedom it gave him, suggests that some of the conditioning is probably irreversible: “My problem has never been with the monarchy or the concept of monarchy.”

The weirdest thing about the Cambridges-turned-Waleses, predating the Harry confessions, is their readiness as royal parents to present swaddled newborns for public inspection, subsequently to welcome the costumed, unpixellated tots into the family circus. That the practice is almost comically at odds with current ideas about children’s privacy and eventual self-sufficiency has yet, admittedly, to modify public enthusiasm for the act. Already the press have their serious miniature royal, their “bossy” one, and a naughty one, promising successor to naughty but departed Harry. “Naughty,” Harry/his ghostwriter says, “became the tide I swam against, the headwind I flew against, the daily expectation I could never hope to shake.” (Yes, Private Eye’s Sylvie Krin might want to consider a creative writing MA.)

Both royalists and their opponents can presumably agree that instrumentalising and exhibiting children is wrong, even for what adults believe to be their own good. Yet this is one definition of what the British monarchy with its symbolic, whole-family appeal, basically does. Indoctrinated and dependent members may struggle to envisage an alternative; that doesn’t excuse their collaborators, especially given the latest from the Montecito spare. If the country can’t do without the family entirely, we could surely ration ourselves, after this, to one child victim per generation.

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