Inside Story

Harry, Meghan and the republic 

On Netflix and in print, the couple’s story has been informed by a historical perspective with implications for Australia

Ann Curthoys, John Docker and Lyndall Ryan 7 February 2023 2647 words

Harry and Meghan visiting Waves for Change, a mental health charity, in Cape Town in September 2019. DPPA/Sipa USA

The conflict between the British media and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has gripped — and split — the English-speaking world in recent months. There are those who have eagerly watched the Netflix series Harry and Meghan, released in early December, and/or read Harry’s autobiography, Spare, released last month. And there are those who believe Harry and Meghan’s action are ruled by a desire for money and refuse to watch the series or read the memoir.

We find ourselves in the former group. We were deeply moved by the Netflix series, directed by the critically acclaimed American documentary film-maker Liz Garbus, and were absorbed by the book. It isn’t simply the human drama that gripped us, or our sympathy for Harry and Meghan. We also see significant implications for Australia in the way the debate over their actions has played out.

Any account of these recent events must begin with Princess Diana, for it is increasingly apparent that her rebelliousness lives on strongly in Prince Harry and is evident in Meghan’s attitudes and behaviour. When Diana was alive, many people saw her as the best thing going for a stodgy and rapidly fading royal family. What’s often forgotten is that before her death in August 1997 she had become a prominent social activist.

We were particularly struck by footage in the BBC documentary, Heart of the Matter, showing her walking in protective clothing through a recently cleared minefield in Angola earlier in 1997. “I’d read the statistics that Angola has the highest percentage of amputees anywhere in the world,” she explained to the camera. “That one person in every 333 had lost a limb, most of them through landmine explosions. But that hadn’t prepared me for the reality.”

We were also struck by another TV image: Diana sitting by the bedside of an HIV/AIDS sufferer in a hospital. During a visit to Cape Town to see her brother, Earl Spencer, in 1997 Diana had met with Nelson Mandela, who praised her dedication to helping those infected with HIV/AIDS. “We saw her sitting on the beds of AIDS patients and shaking hands with them, and that changed perceptions dramatically with regards to AIDS,” Mandela recalled. He also expressed his appreciation for Diana’s visit to children in Angola crippled by landmines, observing that she had helped inspire the campaign to destroy South African landmines.

An important feature of Diana’s social activism was its internationalism. As well as AIDS awareness and prevention, she supported charities and organisations committed to battling poverty and homelessness, visited charities in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Nepal, India and other countries fighting leprosy, and opposed the stigma surrounding mental illness.

In the last year of her life, Diana began dating Dodi Fayed, an Egyptian producer whose well-known films included Chariots of Fire. Perhaps her attraction to an Egyptian man partly reflected a desire to extend her consciousness beyond England with an act of love that was also a rebellious act. After all, Egypt had been the scene of perfidies and infamies characteristic of the British Empire, especially the crushing (with the help of Australian soldiers) of the gathering movement for Egyptian independence in 1919.

The open grief of the British public after Diana’s death led us to believe that the tabloids had learned their lesson and would no longer harass, intrude on and exploit the royal family. We are astonished by our naivety.

Despite his decade-long career in the British army, Harry undoubtedly carries on his mother’s tradition of rebelliousness and internationalism. He is patron of a leading landmine-clearance charity, the Halo Trust, and has called for the world to become free of those weapons by 2025. Twenty-two years after Diana, he retraced his mother’s footsteps in Angola.

After walking along the suburban street that was once filled with explosives, he said it was “quite emotional” to retrace Diana’s steps “and to see the transformation that has taken place, from an unsafe and desolate place into a vibrant community of local businesses and colleges… I’m incredibly proud of what she’s been able to do and meet these kids here who were born on this street.”

A news agency photo shows Harry sitting beneath the Diana Tree, which marks the spot where Diana was pictured in the minefield. “Landmines,” he said, “are an unhealed scar of war.” In 2014 he had established the Invictus Games to support soldiers permanently injured in combat.

Harry and Meghan have also taken a leading role in drawing attention to the needs of people with mental illness. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2021, Harry revealed his own difficulties with mental distress while Meghan discussed her depression, experience of a suicidal state and the shocking refusal of the Palace to offer mental health support when she asked for it during her time in England. Under royal protocol, Meghan was compelled to give up her keys, passport and driver’s licence and only got them back when she returned to the United States.

In the same year, 2021, Harry and Oprah made a series of educational programs entitled The Me You Can’t See exploring mental illness and suggesting ways of alleviating it. In Spare, Harry provides considerably more detail about his struggle with mental illness over several years and how, in therapy, he finally came to terms with his mother’s death.

Throughout these years, the tabloid scrutiny of the couple was intense. In his interview with Oprah, Harry compared his relationship with Meghan to the hounding of his mother “while she was in a relationship with someone who wasn’t white.” He feared that history would repeat itself, that like Diana they would be “followed, photographed, chased, harassed” relentlessly. This fear, and the extent of the persecution of Meghan, is described in much more depth in both Harry and Meghan and, especially, Spare.

Among the key points to emerge in the Netflix series is the relationship between the tabloid press and “the Firm.” Harry’s explanation of how the London tabloids work with the royal family’s media staff to produce stories for the front page is dynamite; in his view it was the Firm as much as the tabloids who sought to destroy the Duchess of Sussex. The underlying racism of the tabloids and the royal family are laid bare.

Spare follows up with a great deal more detail on the toxic interdependence of the Firm and the tabloid media. We learn how the relationship between Meghan and William and Kate seemed to start well enough (William and Kate had loved Meghan in Suits) but soon deteriorated, going from one small conflict to the next.

For Harry, the problem of the British media and the royal family goes back a long way, to his mother’s death and the events preceding it. He is horrified that the paparazzi who chased her until her car crashed stood around photographing her, rather than trying to help, as she lay dying. He is shocked that no attempt was made to arrest the paparazzi involved, a failure he believes has only encouraged the tabloids to intrude into his own and his family’s private life.

Spare is, in fact, a great autobiography, a j’accuse that accumulates damning details to intensifying, almost unbearable effect until Harry and Meghan escape.

As historians, we were surprised by Harry and Meghan, which we hadn’t expected to be so thoroughly informed by recent historical scholarship. But the two people chosen as key commentators give a clue to its quality. David Olusoga, a professor of public history at the University of Manchester, has written, produced, directed or appeared in a string of TV documentaries, including Black and British: A Forgotten History and, most recently, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. Afua Hirsch is a journalist with the Guardian and author of Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Between them, supplemented by archival footage and narrative commentary, they bring the British and world historical context to life.

In episode three of the series, Olusoga comments that “this little island off the coast of Europe was at the centre of the biggest empire the world has ever seen” and goes on to ask at whose cost, pointing towards Britain’s history of slavery. Hirsch comments that “Britain had a ‘deep south’ that was just as brutal, that actually enslaved more Africans than the United States of America did.” Britain’s deep south was the Caribbean, overseas, far away, “out of sight and out of mind.”

After an unseen narrator points out that slavery fuelled the early British Empire in North America, Hirsch says that the first-ever “commercial slave voyage conducted by Britain was personally financed by Queen Elizabeth I. And it continued to be financed by kings and queens, right up until its abolition.” Even in its abolition in the 1830s, Britain sided with the slave owners, many of whom were also members of the British parliament, by compensating them at huge cost.

Olusoga and Hirsch are drawing here on the scholarship of the Legacies of Slavery Project, based at University College London and led by historians Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper and Keith McClelland. The project’s extensive research has helped change British public awareness and understanding, and stimulated among historians a greater interest in the consequences of the end of slavery in the British Empire. Jane Lydon, Zoë Laidlaw, Emma Christopher and others have been tracing how, after abolition, people, ideas, and finance were transferred from the Caribbean to Britain’s settler colonies. Australia was obviously among them, as recent research by Christopher and Lydon highlights.

Harry and Meghan also considers the more recent historical context. Olusoga draws attention to the migration of many Black and Brown people to Britain from the mid twentieth century — so much so that London “began to look, for the only time in its history, like it actually was the centre of an empire that was mainly made up of non-white people.” When Harry and Meghan became engaged, he says, the royal family seemed at last to have begun catching up with modern British society.

We see Harry and Meghan at a memorial service to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, the eighteen-year-old boy killed by white racists. Only two of his attackers were ever brought to justice. Hirsch says that Harry and Meghan’s attendance was highly significant, speaking to “the pain that many people still feel as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.”

Olusoga and Hirsch reappear in episode five to argue that the failure of the Palace to defend Meghan from press persecution was a huge disaster for the future of the monarchy. “Here was a woman,” says Olusoga, “who just looked like most of the people in the Commonwealth, and they somehow, for some reason, couldn’t find the capacity to protect her, to represent her, to stand by her, to take on vested power in her name, to fight for her.” For Hirsch, the departure of Harry and Meghan “felt like the death of a dream” that a truly inclusive Britain could form and flourish.

In Australia, coverage of the series and the memoir gradually shifted from a kind of can’t-watch-it, won’t-read-it scorn to a very mixed but more earnest consideration of the issues the series and the book raise. One of those issues is the future of the monarchy in Australia.

In Spare, Harry reveals a continuing interest in the Commonwealth, and especially the countries that still regard the British monarch as also their own. He writes about the outstanding success of his and Meghan’s royal tour of South Africa in September 2019, the first since that country returned to the Commonwealth in 1994. They were welcomed there as representing a new direction for the royal family and for the Commonwealth, and they both felt that in this shift they had an important role to play.

Yet the role of the monarchy in the Commonwealth has come into increasing question. The final episode of Harry and Meghan shows the monarchy in trouble in the Caribbean, as member nations continue to reject a past shaped by slavery within the British Empire. With reparations increasingly on the agenda, and aware of the royal family’s historical role in the system of slavery, some Commonwealth nations no longer want the British monarch as their head of state. Barbados declared itself a republic in November last year and Jamaica has declared its intention to become a republic by 2025.

What about Australia? What should our future relationship be with this dysfunctional British family? Does the Harry and Meghan story have any implications for us?

While the Australian republican movement has so far said little about the couple, commentary on their significance for an Australian republic has been growing. We agree with Jenny Hocking when she writes, “This now openly feuding family provides our head of state, imposed on us and fourteen other Commonwealth nations by dynastic succession and inherited title alone, in which we have no say and no relevance. It inevitably reignites questions about why Australia is still a constitutional monarchy.”

Apart from the difficulty in imagining a popular and workable alternative, one of the main obstacles to the move to a republic in Australia has been the popularity of the royal family. We grew up in that environment. John Docker remembers his English mother listening to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on radio. Ann Curthoys recalls keeping a scrapbook in 1953 of the coronation, as most schoolchildren did, and being one of the 50,000 schoolchildren marshalled in the Newcastle Showground to spell out Welcome (she was in the W) when the Queen and Prince Philip visited Australia the following year.

Lyndall Ryan remembers that the biggest event in her life until she started high school in 1955 was the Queen’s first visit to Australia in 1954. The Australian Women’s Weekly then kept her up to date on the royal family, and in particular their tours to other parts of the Commonwealth. She didn’t seriously consider becoming a republican until after the Whitlam government was dismissed by the governor-general on 11 November 1975, and until Jenny Hocking published The Palace Letters in 2021 she was convinced that the governor-general’s action had nothing to do with the Queen.

But republicanism has had a chequered history in Australia. It gathered increased support after Whitlam’s dismissal, reached a peak during the 1990s and subsided after the defeat of a referendum on the question in 1999. It has been undergoing something of a revival in recent years, especially as Queen Elizabeth’s reign was drawing to a close. Our prime minister is in fact a republican, though he is insisting right now that the matter of the Voice to Parliament, and indeed the Uluru Statement from the Heart generally, must take priority.

Alongside the essential debates over the Voice and a Treaty, it is time to step up public debate about Australia’s becoming a republic. Indeed, the question of the republic is not entirely separate from those debates: they are all part of a necessary reshaping of modern Australia. While Indigenous commentators have focused on the Uluru statement and its proposals, support has been evident for an Australian republic that truly recognises Indigenous sovereignty.

Harry and Meghan and Spare demonstrate with great clarity how the monarchy continues to be shaped by British history, British concerns and British symbolism, and not at all by Australian or indeed Commonwealth ones. The evolution of the monarchy as an institution is clearly outside our control and always will be. The tabloid British media have deeply compromised the monarchy and the royal family, and sections of the Australian media, especially those that are Murdoch-controlled, have too often joined in. With several Caribbean nations forging new republican paths for themselves, surely it is time for Australia to do the same. •