There is nothing like British understatement, and the queen delivers it best, coupled with a penchant for coded messages.
On Monday night, it emerged that in her Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth she will call the last year “quite bumpy” and that “small steps can make a world of difference.”
The path is “not always smooth,” the queen will also say, and “small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.”
Is she talking about the world, Brexit, Trump, or the royal family’s year itself, which has featured mostly negative turbulence, or all of that motley basket of dysfunction?
2019, as we have written before, could be seen as the second “annus horribilis” of her reign, after 1992 was distinguished by the Windsor Castle fire and her children’s marital breakdowns.
This year has included the fallout between the young royals, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s stated unhappiness with their royal lot, the scandal surrounding Prince Andrew and his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, and—as Christmas approached—the hospitalization of 98-year-old Prince Philip.
Observers have noted that of all the photographs shown on the queen’s desk during her Christmas speech, one of Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and baby Archie is notably absent. Does that signal a frostiness in relations or something more benign?
The royal decade has ended in turmoil. It started very differently, and appeared to signal a PR-friendly new chapter of royal life, with attention shifting to the attractive younger members of the Firm.
This fresh-faced new storyline began optimistically in 2010 with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, who end the decade with three children, an increasingly public profile, and in a powerful position within the royal family itself.
But William’s relationship with Prince Harry, which this time 10 years ago was very close, seems to have become more complex and distant as they have grown older. Harry is now married to Meghan Markle, and the couple—once adored and lionized in the British press—ends the year semi-detached from the family and trying to forge a very different kind of royal life for themselves.
Instead of having a quartet of telegenic royals making an old institution modern and interesting, the palace PR handlers have something more unpredictable on their hands.
Harry has always been popular. His decade began with him very much seen as the naughty prince; most notorious were the naked Vegas pictures, which emerged in 2012. He seemed to find purpose and meaning in his military service.
The partying image evolved, or was ready to change, when he met Meghan Markle. In 2017, as his relationship with Markle was developing, Harry talked about the emotional problems flowing from the death of his mother, Princess Diana. He spoke of the “total chaos” enveloping his life in his mid-20s.
Prince Charles, sources told The Daily Beast, was not happy about the public emoting. But Charles is trying to establish himself as the nascent head of the family and has continued to do so—and he seems more out of step with the times than his popular sons.
When Prince Andrew gave a disastrous interview to the BBC’s Newsnight program—which raised more questions than it answered about his relationship with Epstein, and exhibited a real arrogance and lack of consideration toward Epstein’s alleged victims—it was reported that it was both the queen and Charles, upon his return from New Zealand, who read Andrew the riot act and forced him to give up his royal duties.
If that sounded like Charles assuming the authority of a future king, expect possible outrage when and if (as sources told The Daily Beast) he abandons 20 years of promises to his mother to make his wife, Camilla, “Princess Consort” and declares his former mistress to be Queen Camilla the day after his mother’s death. The public is ready for many things, but “Queen Camilla” could take more than a moment.
Prince Charles does not command the queen’s popularity, but the line of succession won’t shift to Kate and William just because the public wants it to. The next decade will likely usher in the era of King Charles and with it a re-orienting of public attitudes to the royals.
Would he be as happy to stay quiet as his mother has on political change, such as the massive impact of Brexit on British public life? The queen already has been—and at some point her more opinionated son will be—drawn into such dramas as the British head of state.
As well as real-life news and scandals, the 2010s have also brought Netflix’s The Crown, a fictional animation of royal life through the decades informed by real events. It reflects the stoic persistence of the queen, the flintiness of Prince Philip, the sadness and partying of Princess Margaret, and—as the late 1970s dawns—the emergence of Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and the rise of the younger generation of royals of that era.
The Crown reminds us that the royal family is a closed circle, yet one that needs new blood—its tension is always around the old clashing with the new. The 2010s have been a pre-transitional decade of sorts, and one the family should learn from if it wants to survive, and thrive.
The positive storyline Buckingham Palace wanted to push—of Harry and Meghan, and William and Kate as “the fab four”—has crumbled to dust, at least for now. The two couples are running two separate royal courts, and ones that are increasingly competitive, promoting their work and images via Instagram and other social media. Just wait for that season of The Crown!
Where William and Kate once seemed happier to be lower-profile, this last year—with Harry and Meghan’s increasing public presence—has seen them both raise their publicity game. They seem more glamorous and outgoing than before; this Christmas they even participated in a goofy, softball, baking-focused show for the BBC.
All four younger royals have ushered in a new way of talking about themselves, particularly when it comes to mental health—William, like Harry, also spoke about the impact of his mother’s death when he was younger; he said it was a “pain like no other.” One positive, quietly radical thing that all four younger royals have done is change how the royal family sounds and interacts.
The initial, sexist assumption had been that the source of the conflict within “the fab four” was between Meghan and Kate. But the conflict seems centered on the brothers.
That didn’t stop a relentless tabloid hounding of Meghan. Depending on your point of view, the antipathy toward her is based on racism, class, or simple snobbery. Or maybe all those things—and more. Much is said about how the royal family should change, but when change presents itself there is often vicious kickback, as Meghan has experienced.
Meghan has had to endure press intrusion into her complicated family life (with her estranged father, Thomas), and she and Harry have also been criticized for flying on Elton John’s private plane while preaching about the importance of living a greener life.
In an ITV documentary this year, the couple spoke about the stresses they were experiencing. Harry spoke about his mother Princess Diana’s death as a “wound that festers,” while Meghan said she had found royal life “a struggle.” Meghan told interviewer Tom Bradby that she’s “not really OK.”
The couple are still on a sabbatical from their duties, spending Christmas in Canada with baby Archie and Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland.
Andrew’s Epstein scandal detonated late in 2019, shifting the ravenous media focus from Harry and Meghan to an older member of the family and to the continued struggle by the queen, 93, to marshal her children and grandchildren into an orderly line and ensure the stability of the institution she leads.
Now her 98-year-old husband is in the hospital, and 2020 will bring a renewed focus on the evolution of royal life after the queen’s reign ends.
The queen, both as real life and The Crown show, is the crowd-pleasing constant. Her duty and discretion are remarkable, and a source of a huge amount of public affection and respect. But this decade, and especially its final year of negatives and turmoil, has focused attention on what is next, and what the public want this institution to be after the queen is gone.
Prince Andrew, his shame, arrogance, and sense of entitlement, are absolutely what the royal family does not want as defining characteristics. But the Epstein story is far from over. Prince Charles’ authority has not yet been established, and the younger royals have gone from “fab four” to warring parties. Can they reunite, or figure out a more mutually complementary public face? (And hey, at least we have the pithy realness of Princess Anne.)
The answer to “what next for the royals in the 2020s?” comprises two significant negatives: unclear and uncertain.