It’s hard to reinvent a fusty old company as a modern and relevant one.
But for the British royal family, doing so on a regular basis is essential for their survival.
Luckily for the royals, they don’t have to be the hippest show in town. They don’t have to light the way. Constitutional philosophers have long argued that the British monarchy should follow and emulate society’s changing mores at a discreet distance, rather than leading society from the front.
Hence, divorce, which was normalized in British society at large in the ’60s and ’70s was accepted in the royal family in 1978, when Princess Margaret was divorced from Anthony Armstrong-Jones.
In 1992, Prince Charles and Princess Diana announced their separation (they were fully divorced in 1996). Also in 1992, Princess Anne, the queen’s only daughter, separated from first husband Captain Mark Phillips (she married Commander Timothy Laurence the same year).
The divorced were arguably only accepted as royals when Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005; both were divorced.
Interracial marriage was once taboo, but Harry and Meghan’s wedding is a quiet endorsement of it, an acknowledgement that public attitudes have changed and that marrying someone of a different race is now a normal part of British life.
Similarly, while there are no out members of the royal family, same-sex marriage is legal in Britain and so hopefully we will one day see a gay royal wedding.
Every wedding, in some way, represents an opportunity for the royal family to, in effect, hit the reset button, and declare that times have changed, that, as the queen put it, in a different context when she visited Ireland, “with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all.”
The trouble is, of course, as those moth-eaten old companies engaged in rebranding exercises often find out, inertia is a powerful thing. Their employees aren’t always so keen to go along with the new way of doing things that the shiny digital marketing agencies suggest.
The chaotic circus surrounding Thomas Markle, which was triggered by speculation as to whether or not he would attend his daughter’s wedding but descended into a communications nightmare, has revealed an unwillingness at a very deep, institutional level of the royal family to truly modernize.
For when the chips were down, and the wedding plans descended from carefully choreographed pageantry to crisis and then finally to farce, the monarchy did what it has always done—stuck its head in the sand, made no comment, and hoped it would all go away.
On this occasion, they were incredibly lucky, and it did. The problem of Thomas Markle’s non-attendance was removed when he said he did want to go to the wedding after all, but couldn’t, not because he had been pilloried in the British press but because he has to go for an emergency heart operation.
So now, when Meghan’s mother walks her down the aisle on Saturday, the BBC will be able to say, quite truthfully, that she has taken Meghan’s dad’s place because he is recovering from surgery.
The weirdness of the fact that Harry has never met his father-in-law can be overlooked, everybody will be happy, and next week, Harry and Meghan will again confirm their reputations for doing things differently when, instead of going on honeymoon, they will make their first post-wedding appearance at an Invictus Games-related event.
The palace got away with this by the skin of their teeth.
A whole host of questions have to be asked: Most pressingly, what the hell was Thomas Markle still doing at his home in Rosarito, a Mexican resort town, a week before the wedding? He should have been in England, preferably at a castle, being cared for, prepped, and coached for weeks before the big day.
Harry has been very vocal about how the privacy of his girlfriends has been invaded over the years, and yet he appears to have left Mr. Markle to fend off the world’s paparazzi—several of whom have rented houses in the town—by himself. Maybe some help was offered, maybe it was turned down.
Harry and Meghan should have insisted on it. No wonder he ended up being so “ground down” as his son put it, that he agreed to pose for some pictures in the end.
The monarchy changes from the outside in, drafting in new blood and new ideas through marriage.
It’s the new spouses that are always the most effective agents of change. Kate Middleton has been a remarkably positive agent for the democratization of the royals, dragging them kicking and screaming into at least a resemblance of middle-class normality.
The hope now, clearly, is that Meghan’s presence in the family serves as a powerful symbol of diversity.
She and Harry will become the hip, cool, and approachable faces of the monarchy, the outreach team who you’d like to go for soy latte with, while the more conventional William and Kate will be a bridge to the more traditional world of Prince Charles.
Meghan Markle’s arrival into the highest ranks of British society must count for more than window dressing. The palace needs to allow the influence of Kate and Meghan to seep into its core. The change they represent for the royals is for the better, and it is long overdue.