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The Queen Counts the Cost of a Second ‘Annus Horribilis.’ The Royal Family Needs to Change to Prevent More.

From Prince Andrew’s brutal downfall to Harry and Meghan’s difficulties, the Queen is surveying a second year from hell—and perhaps asking how the royals can prevent any more.

Tim TeemanDec. 06, 2019 5:20 AM ET

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The Queen is famously inscrutable, but earlier this week—when all the attention was on what turned out to be Princess Anne’s non-diss of President Trump—your eyes may have also flicked to Her Majesty

There she was, aged 93, being stiffly polite to someone whom she and her flunkies know to be one of the most divisive world leaders (well, she's done that before—lots), and then her daughter wasn’t stepping forward as she should to keep the guest procession line moving. The Queen tried to chivvy things along; her expression less warm than an inner tut of “when will this infernal evening end?”

It was a minor moment of malfunctioning royal choreography in a year of much graver missteps, principally the scandal still ensnaring her favored, now-exiled second son, Prince Andrew, but also encompassing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s growing detachment from “the Firm,” their emotional public pronouncements, and their looming courtroom battles with the British tabloid press. 

The year began with her husband Prince Philip’s involvement in a serious car crash, which miraculously left him, and three passengers in another car (including one infant), without serious injuries. It led to the 98-year-old prince giving up his driving license.

But it is Andrew’s scandal that leaves the bitterest aftertaste, because it simply is not over—and it still has the potential to do harm to the royal family. The prince has not explained the photograph showing him with Virginia Roberts Giuffre. In the matter of he said, she said over whether he had sex with her when she was 17, her word—after a BBC interview this week—sounds to many more persuasive than his.

His BBC Newsnight interview reeked of arrogance, entitlement, and a singular failure to address the suffering and experiences of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. Afterward, the Queen, Prince Charles, and Prince Philip came together to bring his royal career to an end (for now, anyway).

But the scandal won’t go away simply because Andrew has been removed from the spotlight.

Will the Queen publicly recognize the year for what it has been in her Christmas Day speech, delivered as ever at 3 p.m. U.K. time (10 a.m. ET; 7 p.m. PT) to the Commonwealth? Don’t expect too much of an Oprah-style confessional; she rarely speaks, deeply anyway, about her own feelings. 

The only public breach of that rigid self-control was in 1992, when the Queen delivered a speech at London’s Guildhall, marking the 40th anniversary of her reign, referencing her “annus horribilis.” It was the year of the Windsor Castle fire, as well as the announcements of the separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (and the same year that photographs were published of Fergie having her toes sucked in St. Tropez by financial adviser John Bryan). 

Those were only the banner headlines of a dismal royal year. It also marked a turning point in public feeling; the Windsor Castle fire marked a line in what the public felt it should pay for when it came to funding the royals. Since 1992, royal finances and public expenditure on their lives of luxury have been streamlined. For many, the process of belt-tightening has not gone far enough.

As the Queen approaches this year’s Christmas speech, her mind must be on the fragility of her legacy, as Charles and William prepare to take on more responsibilities, and she prepares to give up more public engagements. She and her advisers will also be asking themselves some more searching questions about palace process, structure, and authority—especially in the year that the Queen has found herself dragged into Britain’s never-ending Brexit saga.

Note the scene in the third season of The Crown when the family are being filmed for Royal Family, the 1969 BBC documentary that has never since seen the light of day. The family are being asked to act naturally as they watch television, like any other family watching television.

Those royals gathered on the sofas look baffled and uncomfortable by the concept.

First, as Prince Andrew showed in the Newsnight documentary, this family is a group of entitled, moneyed snobs, used to everything been done for them. In their minds, they are the antithesis of ordinary; they are unlike any other family.

How would this watching TV together thing work?

Then, Margaret says by way of an explanation, they would never do this, or anything like this. Typically, they are in their own palaces. This confected vision of amiable collectivity is—in royal reality—an anathema.

And so it is today, most obviously emblemized in the now-rival courts of Prince William and Prince Harry; two brothers now working more individually in the causes they support and in maximizing their own public popularity. The royal family is splintered, and always has been. 

The Firm, in practice, is a collection of jostling, jousting Firms.

Typically, those splinters and separate palace groupings are private, the public treated to the visuals of the Christmas Day church walk and occasional Buckingham Palace balcony groupings to emphasize that this is indeed a family. (This year, Harry and Meghan have already made clear they won’t be doing the Christmas Day walk.)

But, as Prince Andrew and the difficulties faced by Harry and Meghan have shown, these moments of togetherness seem gestural at best, for the benefit of photographers. The Firm, in practice, is a collection of jostling, jousting firms.

The Queen will likely paper over her own family’s cracks in her speech. She might allude euphemistically to difficulties of some kind, or maybe not. But for her and her advisers, whatever spin they come up with for the Commonwealth, the more urgent questions lie in how the royal family is organized, and how internecine and damaging relations between its players have become. If they were a functioning private and public unit, they might be able to fight scandals more effectively not only before they happen but also after. 

Prince Andrew’s scandals did not begin and do not end with Jeffrey Epstein, but in his own business practices. Why was this allowed to blossom for such a long time, without anyone dealing with it or him about it? The answer: his sheer arrogance and entitlement.

If Harry and Meghan are feeling as separate and targeted as they say they are, how and why did it get to the point that they feel free to express that publicly on television, rather than managing it within the family? 

Out of nowhere, William and Kate have suddenly transformed from the boring ones of earlier in the year—as Harry and Meghan’s star ascended—to the royal family members bringing zest and (dread palace word) “normality” to the Firm. 

Not only are the royal family unlike any family, they are unlike anything else. They are real, yet living an unreal life, and drawing on public goodwill that is curdling because of the likes of not just what Andrew did or did not do, but how he conducts himself and sees himself—and the same for the wider family.

Their taking of a low-cost public flight and Kate seen shopping in a supermarket were two excellent, pointed PR moments that marked them out from the accusations of privilege and snobbery then being leveled at Harry and Meghan.

But instead of being good for the family, such moments underscore the divisions between two brothers, which can only be harmful in the long term. 

Not only are the royal family unlike any other family, they are unlike anything else. They are real, yet living an unreal life, and drawing on public goodwill that is curdling because of the likes of not just what Andrew did or did not do, but how he conducts himself and sees himself—and the same for the wider family.

The Queen knows this. And she also knows that when she dies, much of the goodwill will go with her. She is respected not just for who she is but how she has done what she has done when it comes to her conduct in public life.

She has unimaginable privilege and riches, and yet her way of working seems genuine and committed. Her forge-ahead manner and her longevity insulate her. The queen is a committed player of the royal pantomime; other families could learn a thing or three from her stagecraft.

There is no one in her family like the Queen. Any collective love or adoration for her will skip a generation—with the public bearing Charles, rather than being as excited by him as they are by William and Kate. 

The Queen knows how precariously slotted the joints on the royal machine are, even without the added scandals and infighting that weaken the machine further. Her Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth may emphasize, as it sometimes has in the past, a coming together, finding hope in dark times, and a can-do spirit to solve problems.

If so, the advice should be taken closer to home, too, by the Queen, her family, and their advisers as they figure out how the monarchy can function better in the coming years, when public resistance to its cost and presence inevitably increases.

This may well have been another “annus horribilis” for the Queen, whether she calls it that or not, but what makes it even more “horribilis” is that there may be many more to come unless her dynasty radically changes itself.