Can she carve out a mean­ing­ful role for her­self and her hus­band which side-steps pol­i­tics but makes a dif­fer­ence? Her walk­ing of this fine line will be cru­cial

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - AL­TER­NA­TIVE COVER GIRL

There’s an old Best Man’s line that jokes about mar­riage be­ing an in­sti­tu­tion… but who would ever want to live in an in­sti­tu­tion? When — with the ker­fuf­fle over her fa­ther’s plans be­hind her — Meghan Markle walks back down the aisle along­side her new hus­band to­day, with a new ti­tle and tiara, she will in­deed have mar­ried not just the man, but one of the old­est in­sti­tu­tions in the world.

It has ex­isted for a thou­sand years and will prob­a­bly con­tinue long af­ter she is gone, but to what ex­tent, if any, can she re­shape it to avoid it be­com­ing a 21st-cen­tury anachro­nism?

The royal fam­ily, or The Firm as it’s known to in­sid­ers, is run much like a coun­try, by a co­terie of civil ser­vants, or courtiers. The monarch is not as im­por­tant as the con­tin­u­a­tion of the es­tab­lish­ment. The cur­rent queen, now 92, has sailed a steady ship for 65 years, say­ing noth­ing of any con­se­quence what­so­ever.

She has reigned seam­lessly through sev­eral wars, the loss of em­pire, over­seen re­publics reformed from colonies, side-stepped pol­i­tics and cre­ated a line of suc­ces­sion which will see three kings pro­ceed in her wake over the next cen­tury. A wry and dry wit in pri­vate, she is known to firmly ground any smart-alecky new prime min­is­ter by re­mind­ing them that Win­ston Churchill was her first and her favourite. There have been 13 since and she has out­lived nine of them. No pres­sure, then. But for Harry, mar­ry­ing his love to­day, there never was the same pres­sure. A ‘sec­ond son’, the ‘spare’ to the heir, he is bound to have an eas­ier, less scru­ti­nised life than his brother, born to rule. But sec­ond sons pose a prob­lem. What are they to do with them­selves? Get a com­pli­ant wife from the up­per orders, have chil­dren and spend their days cut­ting rib­bons is the time-hon­oured tra­di­tion.

So what role then, for an am­bi­tious, class­less, in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can di­vorcee used to speak­ing her mind and get­ting what she wants?

The last one who ticked all those boxes al­most brought down the en­tire monar­chy. Meghan is no Wal­lis Simp­son, but there must be more than a few courtiers quak­ing in their stock­ings at the prospect.

Roy­als across Europe pre­fer their con­sorts ac­qui­es­cent and du­ti­ful, and in the tele­vi­sual age, beau­ti­ful. Above all, apo­lit­i­cal and never desta­bil­is­ing. Clever is fine; smart is not. The Duchess of Cam­bridge, Queen Le­tizia of Spain and Princess Mary of Den­mark set the bar high. All ‘com­mon­ers’ be­fore their mar­riage, they un­der­stood the ex­pec­ta­tions made of them.

But for­mer me­dia dar­lings like Diana Spencer and Sarah Fer­gu­son who be­came ar­gu­men­ta­tive, di­vi­sive and ul­ti­mately too trou­ble­some to be han­dled, were both at first con­sid­ered a ‘breath of fresh air’ into the stuffy royal dy­nasty. Just like Meghan.

Where will she fit in this dys­func­tional and para­dox­i­cal realm that is to be her new fam­ily? It is one which is an anachro­nism of the mod­ern era, an oxy­moron to con­tem­po­rary Bri­tain. Yet in poll af­ter poll, the lat­est held in 2015, the Brits need their roy­als. The last YouGov re­search re­vealed a ro­bust 71pc want­ing to keep (and pay for) the in­sti­tu­tion with just 18pc pre­fer­ring an elected head of state. 62pc be­lieved the Crown would ex­ist in the next 100 years.

Brand Fi­nance, a UK busi­ness val­u­a­tion con­sul­tancy, cal­cu­lates the royal fam­ily to be worth £67.5bn to the Bri­tish econ­omy, earn­ing £1.8bn a year. It costs 56p per cit­i­zen per year to fund, a price they seem happy to pay.

But do the Bri­tish see their new princess as a sym­bol of badly needed di­ver­sity or merely an al­ter­nate cover girl for Hello! mag­a­zine? To be sure, there are street par­ties to­day in Brix­ton and other melt­ing pot towns which weren’t ev­i­dent when Wil­liam mar­ried Kate and commentary as she ten­ta­tively car­ried out her early pub­lic en­gage­ments fo­cused on her easy chit-chat and pen­chant for hugs — both Diana at­tributes which tagged her as ‘dif­fer­ent’ nearly 40 years ago.

In Meghan’s case, there is the added cu­rios­ity of race.

When she was small, strug­gling with her iden­tity in a (lit­er­ally) black and white world, Meghan’s fa­ther gave her a gift of a Bar­bie doll fam­ily to mir­ror her own: a white Ken, a black Bar­bie and a baby of each colour. He did so by buy­ing two packs and mixing them up, en­cour­ag­ing her to ‘draw her own box’ when asked to tick on forms whether she was ‘Cau­casian’ or ‘African Amer­i­can’.

It im­bued her with a fierce fem­i­nism, a loud voice to call out inequal­ity and cre­ated a zeal­ous po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal. But this is a sur­feit of pow­er­ful at­tributes in dan­ger of tip­ping over the sense and pur­pose of monar­chy. Soft power has al­ways been the bedrock of roy­alty with forthright­ness and can­dour dis­cour­aged.

In­trigu­ingly, Brexit has cre­ated para­dox­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties for Meghan. The Bri­tish pub­lic, in vot­ing to leave the EU did so over­whelm­ingly on a nos­tal­gia-driven, anti-im­mi­gra­tion wave. Meghan is surely the ul­ti­mate im­mi­grant; a bira­cial repub­li­can. She even has to pass a cit­i­zen­ship test be­fore she can join the ‘fam­ily’ which sets the tone for oth­ers.

She has been called the N-word on­line, slammed for ‘pol­lut­ing’ the royal line and has seen the wrath of mid­dle Eng­land heaped upon her.

Yet, in a move of sin­gu­lar ge­nius, the Queen recently cre­ated Harry as her youth am­bas­sador to the Com­mon­wealth — the 53-strong ‘fam­ily’ of na­tions of which the Queen is tit­u­lar head and the 16 of which she is Con­sti­tu­tional monarch, many of them poor, black coun­tries. That means Meghan will be bowled over with op­por­tu­ni­ties to ac­cept flow­ers and hugs from chil­dren of colour which, if she does it well, ce­ments the mistyeyed nos­tal­gia Brex­i­teers yearn for. With­out the im­mi­grants them­selves.

But Dr Ke­hinde An­drews, so­ci­ol­o­gist with the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham’s Black Stud­ies pro­gramme is dis­mis­sive of her im­pact.

“The idea that this is good for race re­la­tions is frankly of­fen­sive”, he told The Guardian. Meghan Markle is a beau­ti­ful wo­man but the royal fam­ily doesn’t change be­cause you have a splash of cof­fee, she isn’t a dark-skinned wo­man with an Afro, she looks like Pippa [Mid­dle­ton] and dresses like Diana.”

Asked whether Meghan has the ca­pac­ity to be a bind­ing force, bring­ing into the fold women who feel os­tracised as Bri­tons be­cause of their colour, he said, “It doesn’t change any­thing. It just shows Harry has good taste in women.

Meghan of course, has more im­me­di­ate con­cerns. Her life, al­ready ex­tra­or­di­nary in any num­ber of ways from other royal wives, is about to change ut­terly in a way she can­not, no mat­ter how care­fully steered, ever imag­ine.

Court life is in­suf­fer­able in many ways; al-

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