2021 has already seen two narrative assaults on Britain die. How long will Meghan’s last?
“No shock lasts more than 48 hours. There’s too much appetite for the next shock.” Harold Wilson reassures the Queen after revealing he has Alzheimer’s. Chronically late to every party, I just watched the final episode of series 3 of The Crown. It features Jason Watkins’ Wilson fondly reminiscing with Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth about the unpromising start to their relationship (I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated but starts scarcely come shakier). It’s a touching conclusion to one of the unexpectedly warm dynamics of the series, which is partly a story of how the chemistry between blue-blooded Sovereign and working-class Labour Prime Ministers is perhaps among the most constitutionally vital.
One reason Megxit is a running sore is that it demolishes one of the classiest efforts on the part of the Crown (no italics this time) at telling a similar story. Much of the joy of Harry & Meghan’s wedding was that it celebrated everything the United Kingdom has become: multiracial, multicultural, but as seamlessly weaved into the tapestry of tradition as the Commonwealth-honouring flowers embroidered on the bridal veil. So it’s bound to hurt when, rightly or wrongly, it’s torn up and thrown back at us.
At us? Isn’t the rift between Team Sussex and the wider Windsor clan? Surely it shouldn’t be taken personally by us commoners? Maybe so. But we all live in narratives, and the narratives have a life of their own. And so it was a matter of time before the fury at our monarchy gave way to guilt by association, and Megxit became the latest stick with which to beat the old colonial mutant that the UK constitutes in the minds of many.
“Dear England and English press, just say you hate her because she’s black, and him for marrying a black woman and be done with it God dammit,” tweeted the actress and presenter, Jameela Jamil. Not just the press, this one is on us all (or at least on the English, who always seem to be real the problem, despite being more racially diverse than the other areas of the UK). No, it doesn’t matter that Jamil is British any more than it does in the case of Remoaners who eagerly await the downfall of Brexit Britain. As Orwell knew, the UK has a uniquely self-loathing cultural set, making it a particularly soft target for this kind of sport.
Not that they don’t have a point. The tabloid press truly tap into some low-minded, voyeuristic and maybe indeed bigoted instincts. Whether racism really played a part in unfavourable coverage of Meghan is a moot point, but narratives don’t need the whole truth. Like a beautifully crafted Netflix Original series, they just need enough of the truth to serve their ends; emotion does the rest.
Our narratives are dear to us. They help us make sense of complex events, and national narratives help the unwieldy polis of a nation state maintain coherence and present its best self to the world.
So it matters when — for want of better phrases — the ‘woke’ narrative seems to outplay the narrative of an inclusive but patriotic ‘Global Britain’, making the latter seem deluded, fusty and bitter.
The question is how long it will last.
Really? Haven’t we lost? Hasn’t the Queen been checkmated? Isn’t Meghan’s acting masterclass with guru Oprah Winfrey a right royal knockout? Well, monarchists and others who see the Firm as the centrepiece of brand Britain can take some solace from the fictional Mr Wilson’s words above, and not only because within 48 hours we will probably all be tweeting for Gavin Williamson’s head on a pike when a 5 year old gets a cough.
It’s because, although narratives don’t deal primarily in truth, there are some real-world events too large to ignore, and too embarrassing to explain away. And some are potent enough to if not kill a narrative, then at least put it in a coma. They’re often called ‘Black Swan’ events and if you think that’s racist, you can take it up with Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
And guess what? In its short career so far, 2021 is a case study in events killing off anti-British narratives; not one, but two.
The first gave Megxit its name. The pro-EU line on Brexit was as a coup de grace in national foot-shooting, the final humbling of arrogant, insular, imperial Britain. Instead, Brussels made better sense of the Brexiteers’ narrative within a few hours on the 29th January than Boris or Farage could make in four years, while its self-image as a bedrock of stolid competence is being slowly tortured to death as its vaccination strategy crawls on.
The second was entirely homegrown but largely built on the back of the first. Nicola Sturgeon doggedly maintained for four years that Brexit meant Scexit, that England had dragged Scotland around against its will a time too many and that the dissolution of this unequal Union was now when, not if. That was already looking threadbare due to her favoured Union’s aforementioned woes, but as with the EU, the Sturgeonista narrative contained the (potato) seeds of its own destruction, and Sturgeon has transmogrified from ‘Chief Mammy’ to ‘Tricky Nicky’ in the eyes of the Scottish public.
Megxit is different; like the relationship between Queen and PM, it centres on personal dynamics rather than cultural or political ones. But it’s also the same because the cultural and political provide the background and mood music.
Likewise the Woke Ship Megxit has its ticking timebomb in the hold. The number of former aides alleging bullying is starting to rival the queue outside an EU vaccination centre, and Meghan’s “saddened” response is straight from ‘her truth’. The stories correlate with prior accounts of her personality, including from her family. Meghan may be sitting pretty now, but what happens if Harry starts to feel like — as did her previous husband — “a piece of something stuck to the bottom of her shoe”? Losing one husband may be unfortunate, losing two looks like carelessness. In the sense of literally not caring. Oh, and it turns out what was broadcast from St George’s Chapel, Windsor on that sublime day wasn’t a marriage at all, so a few good Anglicans might forgive themselves the shade of schadenfreude they’d have otherwise exorcised.
So other than the belated bullying inquiry, there isn’t much the Palace can do, as anguished sympathisers admit. I am simply suggesting there isn’t much the Palace need do than sit and wait ’til Meghan hits the self-destruct button, as Ursula and Nicola did before her.
Until then, the Queen must do what she always does. While others agitate to drive in wedges and sow division, she keeps calm, carries on and unites. As Princess Margaret says at the end of that episode, “That’s what monarchy does. We paper over the cracks.” Let others create their own cracks, and watch them fall right in.