Articles - December 2017

The latest royal romance captures world attention

Prince Harry to Wed Meghan Markle

"I was brought up with a social conscience to do what I could and speak up when I knew something was wrong." So said Meghan Markle, the Hollywood actress now officially engaged to Prince Harry, fifth in line to the British throne.

The star of a popular television series, Markle had openly voiced her views on U.S. politics (no prizes for guessing who she opposed in the presidential election), women's rights, humanitarian issues, and – more recently – Brexit. But as a new addition to the British royal family, it will be goodbye to such advocacy, or most of it.

This is one of the many ways Meghan Markle's world is about to change when she marries Prince Harry. "She is going to have to be politically neutral," Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to Prince Charles, was quoted as saying following the royal engagement announcement. "Harry has probably made that perfectly clear. He knows she has been outspoken, but all that has to stop."

Queen Elizabeth II has distanced the British constitutional monarchy from direct involvement in politics, and other Windsor family members are equally expected to keep their political views private. Markle will be expected to get involved in some of the many royal charities, but only ones that are politics free – although the UN is hoping that she will remain as an ambassador for UNWomen, the world body's movement for gender equality.

In their joint press conference in November, it was clear that Prince Harry has warned his bride-to-be of the seismic changes in her life, with her now ended acting career on one side, and the protocol laden existence of a royal princess on the other. She is not likely to have that title officially, but the rules still apply, and the learning curve is steep and at times arcane. She will have to learn why her husband's aunt, Princess Anne, has the military title of Gold Stick in Waiting, and she may find herself sitting next to a cabinet minister known as the Lord Privy Seal even though he or she – as the joke goes -- is neither a lord, nor a privy, and certainly not a seal. Within days of her engagement announcement the former star of the Suits television series was in Nottingham with Prince Harry embarked on her new career of hand shakes, royal waves, tree plantings and ribbon cuttings.

And this despite the fact that the younger generation of royals, led by Prince William and Prince Harry, has considerably relaxed the behavioral patterns inside the monarch's family. For example, Prince Charles remains firmly encased in his impeccably tailored double-breasted suits, but both William and Harry are casual dressers, frequently appearing in public without neckties, and even on occasion jacket-less. At his joint press conference with Markle, Harry sported a trendy designer stubble.

The days of loveless, strategic marriages in which princes and princesses were expected to marry other princes and princesses, regardless of nationality are long gone. But if Prince William broke new ground by his choice of a commoner as his wife and Britain's future queen (that is, a non-royal and not even, like the prince's own mother, Princess Diana, a member of the nobility), his younger brother Harry has pushed the boundaries much farther by proposing to a woman described by The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, as, "a divorcee, mixed-race Hollywood actress who attended a Roman Catholic school." Such a sentence, the paper went on, "could simply not have been written a generation ago."

Given that the queen's approval was required, it's fair to say that Prince Harry's engagement to Meghan Markle was an indication that the royal family who until relatively recently barred unions with commoners, Catholics, and divorced people – not to mention nonwhites – had finally caught up with the country's racial diversity (Time magazine caused a stir by calling Britain a multi-racial country as far back as 1979).

At the end of the day the engagement was the happy outcome of two young people falling in love, as the couple strove to emphasize in their press conference. But (1) for the media the romance of an English prince and a Hollywood actress is the ultimate story of the celebrity narrative; the kind of event People magazine editors dreamed of but never imagined happening. (2) The royal family is woven into the fabric of British society, and inevitably, the announcement has sparked a debate on its broader impact.

The British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch seemed to argue it both ways. "Few will not be transformed in real terms by the arrival of a beautiful American actress in Kensington Palace," she predicted. But also, "If Prince Harry has wanted to find a way to make his role more relevant in modern Britain and … if engagements are meant to bring people together, this one is doing just that."

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are also being seen as a symbol of the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and couldn't have come at a better time to counter the public squabble between London and Washington over President Trump's re-tweet of anti-Muslim footage of highly dubious authenticity originally sent out by a right-wing British group.

Many reports have pointed out that Markle is not the first American to become engaged to a member of the British royal family. That distinction goes to Wallis Simpson, also a divorcee, whose affair with King Edward VIII led to a constitutional crisis and his decision to abdicate in 1936 when the British parliament blocked their marriage because of Simpson's divorce.

Marriage to Edward (later known as the Duke of Windsor) would have made Wallis Simpson the wife of the reigning monarch, which many Brits found unacceptable on religious, as well as nationalist grounds. Attitudes towards divorce have changed in Britain, but Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are hardly likely to ever face the same situation. Prince Harry stands fifth in the queue for the British throne after Prince Charles, his father, brother Prince William, nephew Prince George, and niece Princess Charlotte – and when the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William's wife, gives birth to their third child in the Spring, he will slip to number six.

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