In a career spanning decades, Alastair Campbell has seen it all — politics, royalty, scandal and intrigue.
As former British prime minister Tony Blair’s communications chief when Diana, Princess of Wales, died after a car crash in Paris in 1997, Campbell is used to managing controversy and tackling communications crises head on.
And yet, the explosive interview Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, did with Oprah Winfrey, watched by more than 60 million people worldwide still left him “fairly shocked.”
“Normally these things never quite live up to the hype, but it actually sort of did,” Campbell said.
Revelations from the interview included allegations from the couple that an unnamed family member raised “concerns” about how dark their son Archie’s skin would be before his birth, as well as claims by the duchess that life in the palace was so difficult she had contemplated suicide, and had received no help when she reached out.
In the face of this latest controversy, the monarchy still seems likely to survive. But any changes to adapt to the times will be subtle and slow.
Echoes of another crisis
Campbell documented his insight into the Royal Family in detailed diary accounts after Diana’s death. He said listening to Meghan talk about her own struggles inside the palace brought back memories.
“I was quite sad,” Campbell said. “I know Harry a bit. I knew Princess Diana, and I kind of heard echoes of Princess Diana, to be honest. When Meghan talked about not being supported when she was trying to get help and when Harry spoke about feeling that his father let him down, I could kind of hear those echoes.”
They are echoes of a similar time when Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles, the next in line to the throne, and later her death, rocked the monarchy to its core, forcing it to look inwards and examine its role in a changing society.
Meghan’s interview with Winfrey also carried echoes of the 1995 interview Diana gave to BBC journalist Martin Bashir for the BBC’s Panorama program, which was kept secret from Buckingham Palace.
Charles Anson, press secretary to Queen Elizabeth from 1990 to 1997, said the parallels between the two interviews were clear.
“I had similar sorts of feelings both of interest and also concern about how much it would touch on family and private matters, which perhaps will be better discussed within a family circle,” Anson said.
But is it simply a “family issue” to be resolved privately, or are there wider questions to be asked on just how damaging this is for the monarchy?
No impact on ‘the constitutional situation’
Robert Hardman, royal reporter for the Daily Mail and author of the book Queen of the World, said this is a serious situation for the Royal Family, but that ultimately, this too shall pass and the institution will survive — “as it always does.”
“This is a fallout between members of the family. It doesn’t have a direct impact on the constitutional situation.
“I mean, clearly, there’s reputational damage here. But you know what? The Diana interview in 1995 was making more important points going right to the heart of the monarchy. The abdication crisis of 1936 was an existential crisis.”
Public opinion seems to support Hardman’s view. A recent YouGov poll of 1,672 people between March 8 and 9 found 63 per cent of respondents want to retain the monarchy. That’s down from 67 per cent in October 2020, but still a majority.
Meanwhile, the interview didn’t bode so well for the royal couple. A YouGov poll on Friday found that 48 per cent of 1,664 respondents had a negative attitude of Harry compared to 45 per cent with a positive view. That’s the first time his net favourability rating has been negative. Fifty-eight per cent had a negative opinion of Meghan and only one-in-three had a positive view.
“They’re relevant because they’re seen as relevant,” Campbell said. “There’s no other royal family in the world that gets this sort of attention for anything. None. I think it’s partly history, it’s partly tradition. It’s partly that they are an important part of our soft power.”
But is a stamp of public approval enough to keep the monarchy relevant moving forward? Royal observers say change is inevitable. The question is, how much change and how fast?
“Any institution that refuses to move with the times is doomed. They know that,” Hardman said. “But they are not a brand of soap powder or something. They can’t rebrand. You can’t suddenly change the formula. You’re dealing with a human institution and it moves at a different pace.
“It moves outside the political cycle. Politicians have to worry about being re-elected every few years. Monarchy doesn’t work like that.”
Experts generally agree that the monarchy is in no real danger of becoming obsolete. However, the issue that there are claims of racism within the family has resonated beyond palace walls in the U.K. and beyond.
On Thursday, while visiting a school, Prince William was asked by a reporter if the Royal Family were racist, to which he replied: “We’re very much not a racist family.” It was the first direct response from a senior royal after Meghan’s allegations.
Royal commentators who have been following the royals for years said it’s extremely rare for any member of the Royal Family to respond to questions thrown at them by reporters. But Prince William clearly felt compelled to reply.
The 61-word statement from Buckingham Palace in response to Harry and Meghan’s interview, issued almost 40 hours after it first aired, did little to douse the fire.
“The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately,” it said.
Lisa Bent, a British author of Jamaican descent, said the statement was not enough.
“This again shows that the monarchy doesn’t have the know-how of how to deal with such issues in today’s society. It’s a different world right now, and their traditional ways aren’t cutting it with what we need for today’s society.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, said wider discussions on race in British society are relatively recent compared with North America.
“The defensive mode is normalized, whether it’s the monarchy, whether it’s the tabloids, whether it’s major British institutions, the mood is to hit back rather than say: ‘OK, let’s have a serious conversation.'”
As for the monarchy, Campbell has theories about how we might see subtle changes to show that the royals are in tune with the times.
“I’m just guessing now, but I think you’ll see things like possibly more Black people employed there. They’ll be starting from a pretty low base,” Campbell said.
“I know the Queen’s not doing so many public events, but maybe if she’s at a public event and the military are there, they might just make sure that there’s a few soldiers of colour who are there. I think you’ll see that kind of thing.”
Campbell, along with most long-time royal observers, point out that any sign of modernizing the monarchy, or adapting to the times wouldn’t be in the form of grand gestures.
The Queen is “like an enduring winner,” he said.
“They’ll get through this. They’ll adapt. They’ll change a little bit and you’ll probably notice a few subtle changes in the coming months and then they’ll just get on with it. They’re survivors.”
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