A British Constitution Expert Explains Why Prince Harry Was “Quite Right” to Say the Royals Are Trapped
ERIN VANDERHOOFMARCH 18, 2021 1:15 PM
Because the perks of being a royal are so public—throngs of well-wishers, an extensive family jewelry collection, and if you’re lucky, a home and title gifted by Queen Elizabeth herself—it came as a surprise to many that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were willing to give it all up when they announced their royal exit in January 2020.
Even when Harry told Oprah Winfrey that his brother Prince William and father Prince Charles are “trapped” within the monarchy, Hazell was not surprised. “Royals have no freedom of speech, and the others accept that,” he said. “Harry was quite right when he described the other members of the royal family as trapped. They’re trapped in a system which allows them very, very little freedom.”
It makes sense that the monarch, who works closely with prime ministers of various parties, might be restrained in her speech. But in his book, Hazell points out that in constructing the idea of a public-facing royal family that interacts with citizens and world leaders, those restrictions are more sweeping than you might imagine and touch many more members of the family. As much as Harry and Meghan opened up about a familial divide, some of their complaints in the Oprah interview were direct consequences of the system they were inside.
Vanity Fair spoke to Hazell about the purpose of the working members of the royal family, the royal family’s “gilded cage,” and why this affair isn’t the existential crisis that some commentators have worried it might be.
Vanity Fair: Meghan and Harry’s plight has played out in public, but in your book you documented similar disputes and issues in other European royal families. Why does the system impose so many costs on members of the family that likely won’t ever become the monarch?https://4ed380cb1323dcfcd6608fccf6b90c03.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
Robert Hazell: The problem in essence is this: Monarchies all depend on hereditary succession. Prince Harry is a good exemplar. When he was born, he was much closer in the line of succession as Prince Charles’s second son. We all know the phrase “the heir and the spare.” He was the spare, and he was needed in case anything happened to the heir. But, as the heir grew older, got married, had children of his own, Harry’s place moved down in the line of succession and he was no longer needed. So he became redundant, and that’s a familiar problem for minor royals in all the other countries. It’s a genuine problem because they, when they were younger, had to train potentially to become the monarch, and so they are ill qualified to do anything else in what you or I might call normal life.
In the British sense, being “made redundant” means what Americans would call layoffs, and that’s an apt way of thinking about the different paths that William and Harry are on. In that case, why is it that the “team” of working royals is much bigger than necessary to fulfill the basic constitutional purpose of the monarchy?https://4ed380cb1323dcfcd6608fccf6b90c03.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
There are strong arguments for keeping the team as small as you can, for obvious reasons. The smaller the size of the team, the less the risk that one of them will go rogue or get into trouble. But the British royal family’s team is large because of the size of the country and because of the very strong tradition of royal engagements. They need a large team to service the demand. Talk to any lord lieutenant—they’re the queen’s representatives in each county, who organize the bids for royal visits. I know our local lord lieutenant very well, and he says that the demand for royal visits far exceeds what the palace can supply. I have no doubt that it’s similar in other counties. That’s the dilemma that they face. That’s why, although Prince Charles has said that he would like to slim down the size of the royal family, by which he means have a smaller team, in practice he’ll find that quite difficult when he becomes king.
Take Norway, which has a population of 5 million. Their royal team is four people. The king and queen, and the crown prince and crown princess, and a team of four people can service a population of 5 million. The population of the U.K. is 66 million, so it’s 13 times larger than that of Norway, and one of the main functions of the royal family is to get out there and be seen. You need a much bigger team, and the British royal family team, when I wrote that, was 15 people. It’s now shrunk by three. It lost Prince Andrew at the end of 2019, and it lost Harry and Meghan at the beginning of last year, so it’s now down to 12.
It’s as though the monarch has the constitutional role while the rest of the family is a small business providing charity experiences! Do you think we would have the same issue if Harry had married, say, a British aristocrat who knew that is what would be expected of her?
Well, that was Meghan’s dilemma. You know, she was a successful actress who had her own career, had her own voice, and as she said in the Winfrey interview, she went into this marriage possibly rather naïve, thinking that she could retain an independent voice. The freedoms that you and I take for granted, the royals don’t have. They don’t have freedom of speech, they have next to no privacy, for the reasons you’ll be very familiar with, they have no free choice of career. There are other lesser restrictions, and the British royal family and the Scandinavian royals have no freedom of religion. They have to be Protestants.
Those born into the family grow up in a gilded cage. They don’t know a different life, but as they grow up, they come to understand the reasons why it is a cage. The queen is a highly intelligent, and as everyone who meets her in private says, a very witty woman. But in public, in her scripted speeches, she had never said anything interesting or amusing, because in effect she has no freedom of speech. They’ve long had difficulties with the press, and the British press are exceptional in that once they’ve decided to go for somebody, their claws are really sharp. Prince Charles has felt that most of his life. I speak with no inside knowledge, but I suspect that Prince Charles, who has suffered from bad press for most of his adult life, feels you just have to live with it. It goes with the job.
I’ve read some commentators say that this could represent an existential threat to the monarchy. Do you think that is the case?
No, nowhere near—the royal family are so popular, and that’s very different from a real threat to the monarchy as an institution. If by “a threat to the monarchy” people mean that the U.K. might want to give up the monarchy, which is democratically perfectly possible and conceivable, because monarchy is not a given, and it does rest on the continuing consent of the people. But the British monarchy, like the other monarchies of Europe, is extraordinarily popular. There’s been endless polling about this for decades and decades, and it’s one of the stablest polling results you can find.
When people say it’s the worst crisis since the abdication crisis of 1936—it’s not. That led to the monarch abdicating. I think it’s a crisis rather similar to the difficulties with Princess Diana in the 1990s. The popularity of the monarchy, as an institution, did not dip very much even in the 1990s. Most families have someone who’s got divorced, or someone who’s not speaking to their brother or their mother or whatever, and it’s perfectly familiar as a part of family life, and I think most people can distinguish between a family difficulty and a threat to the institution.
Do you think the issues with Meghan and Harry might cause the other official members of the royal family to think twice about their loss of freedoms?
Those who are official members of the royal family, they’ve been members of the team now for a long time. Some of them are my age, and I’m in my early 70s, and some of them are even older. They’ve accepted years, decades of public service—they’re not going to change.
Do you think it might change the calculus for someone in the future? Or have potential spouses always been wary of this sort of outcome?
Prince Charles had a number of girlfriends before Princess Diana, and I don’t know for certain, but I think he would have liked to have married at least one of them who knew very well what that would have involved and said no. The loss of freedom is immense. Let’s just fast-forward 20 years and think of Prince George being in his 20s and marriageable. Any woman whom he might want to marry would, one would hope, be sufficiently well informed that they would think very hard about it.
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