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This week’s state visit by Donald Trump to Great Britain gave some fascinating clues about how very differently the younger generation of royals, Prince William, Prince Harry, and their wives, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, see their roles today and in the years to come, both from each other and their predecessors.
While William and Kate appear to have accepted they must do their duty, put country before their own personal feeling (by, for example, attending the state dinner held in President Trump’s honor), Harry and Meghan are making it very clear that they will be led first and foremost by ethical considerations.
It is of course Harry’s privilege to do things differently, and one he has been aware of for many years. Indeed he first claimed it, according to a story related by Princess Diana’s former bodyguard, Ken Wharfe, when, during a squabble with his brother in the back of his mother’s car, he told his brother that because he wasn’t going to be king, he could do what he liked.
That may not be exactly the case (Harry did make a rather grudging appearance at a private lunch for Trump and his family, somewhat against expectations, and William and Kate did as little as possible with Trump, and denied him a personal photo-op) but it is a handy enough summary of the bigger picture.
Harry gets to choose, William doesn’t.
But what will Harry and Meghan choose for themselves? The overarching plan, according to royal sources, is that once Charles accedes to the throne, Harry and Meghan will do far more of the overseas trips, a fact which explains their role as youth ambassadors to the Commonwealth, the loose federation of nations which once called the Queen head of state (and those that still do).
There will be a fair bit of shaking hands with dignitaries, of course, but Harry and Meghan will always be more attuned to the needs of the children or people they are helping than the bigwigs. They are said to see for themselves a role as international humanitarians and awareness-raisers in the Angelina Jolie mold.
As this week showed, they intend to be guided by moral, rather than political, imperatives.
William and Kate have some freedom now, but, much like Prince Charles who has had to increasingly toe the line the closer he gets to the throne, ultimately, they will have to fall in.
Meghan’s steadfast refusal to participate in the Trump circus was generally greeted by the public as an appropriate response to Trump’s bizarre insults of her and his history of misogyny and racism. It has, however, provoked a few tuts of disapproval amongst old-school palace insiders.
She is an American and she is a senior member of the royal family, therefore it was perceived by her critics as rather odd that she was not on hand to greet another American.
The fact that she took no part at all in the activities was well flagged to the visitors, and one can’t help wonder whether Trump’s decision to insult her in his interview with The Sun and in his Piers Morgan interview was a retaliatory strike when he realized that she would not be meeting with him and his family.
It is hard to overerestimate just how valuable a photo-op with younger royals (particularly Harry, and even more particularly Meghan) would have been for Trump—but seeing that would not be forthcoming, Trump may have figured he had nothing to lose by attacking Markle for comments in which she described Trump as divisive and misogynistic and said she would move to Canada if he got elected.
Of course, back then, she was just another actress, and such anti-Trump declarations are as uncontroversial for members of the Hollywood elite as they are controversial for the members of the British royal family, who remain stolidly aloof from politics, political engagement, political commentary, and, most definitely, foreign affairs.
But what Meghan’s refusal to meet with Trump this week shows is that she is determined to do what she sees as the right thing even if that is at the expense of the expected thing.
That is a game-changing statement of intent for a new entrant into the royal firm.
She stood up to what was probably considerable pressure and simply refused to use her position as Harry’s wife to exult a man with whose values and beliefs she profoundly disagrees.
It is worth recalling that Meghan has spoken frequently and written eloquently about the struggles that the black side of her family had to face and overcome. In one particularly moving essay written to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and published on her now defunct blog The Tig, Meghan recalled her grandmother explaining to her how they would have to go to separate windows to white people to be served at fried chicken stores as they traveled across America.
So, no, Meghan wasn't about to be pictured laughing it up with a man who has missed few opportunities to stoke and profit from racial disharmony in the United States.
While few normal people would think it appropriate to criticize Meghan for doing the right thing, the royal family have always been more concerned with might than right. Hosting state visits from unlovely foreign leaders is the ultimate exercise in realpolitik.
The visits are dreamed up and put together at the behest of the foreign office, in the service of international relations, without regard for the personal beliefs of the principles of the royal family who are merely required to do the handshaking, the nodding, the smiling and the laughing at the really terrible jokes.
The official argument presented by the Palace for her week-long no-show was that Meghan is on maternity leave, but everybody knows this is just a convenient fig leaf.
Indeed, it may be revealed as such on Saturday when she will appear, we expect, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday and the Trooping of the Color, the lavish central London ceremony of pomp, circumstance, red jackets, bearskin hats, drums, cymbals and flag-waving which is the centerpiece of the British ceremonial year.
If Meghan is well enough and strong enough to honor the Queen on her birthday, logic suggests that she would have been strong enough and well enough to honor the president of the United States, and very few people would expect that she would have missed every single engagement with the president had she been named Hillary.
The events of this week, therefore, are a signpost to the future for how Meghan and Harry see themselves and their role.
It may not be completely fair to say that the royal family has always been entirely unconcerned about what is right and what is wrong—see Prince Charles’ frequent interventions in social policy and the environment, or Diana’s support for HIV sufferers—but the truth is that when push came to shove, commercial and diplomatic considerations have triumphed.
Meghan seems unwilling to adopt such a craven stance, and Harry’s startlingly brief appearance on camera as the Trumps were led around an exhibition of Americana from the royal collection by Her Majesty, was also revealing. While he might be prepared to partially go along with the royal virtue of putting-up-with-it, Meghan’s principled stance is clearly rubbing off on her husband.