On Saturday, the world turned on their televisions to watch the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who are now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Bob Morris offers his views on what the marriage could mean for the monarchy. This is the first in a small series of blogs about some constitutional aspects of the Monarchy. The next is to be published on Wednesday 23 May and will complement two Unit reports on the coronation and accession oaths taken by British monarchs.
‘A family on the throne … brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life… A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.’ [Bagehot, 1867]
Everyone will wish the couple well in their life together. Their wedding will have been watched by millions and enhanced the sense of continuity that the British monarchy can convey to an increasingly diverse population. Abroad it will equally delight and intrigue – how is it that a modern state can still indulge such celebrations?
What is the wedding’s constitutional significance? In the most direct sense, there are no obvious constitutional implications. Prince Harry – now the Duke of Sussex – is sixth in line to the throne and it is most unlikely that he will ever succeed to it. The bride’s divorced status has not been an impediment to remarriage in the Church of England since 2002. However, the individual nature of this particular bride and her husband are important and worth examining.
Does it matter that a member of the royal family has married a foreigner? It is hardly unprecedented. Once upon a time, it was the norm for British princes to marry foreign princesses. Particularly since 1918, however, the number of foreign royal families has diminished and the foreign princess marriage field has shrunk accordingly. In the last century, it became increasingly common for British princes to marry British brides who were invariably not even from aristocratic families. Against that background and granted her celebrity status, Meghan Markle – now Duchess of Sussex – can be seen as the modern version of a foreign princess. Moreover, she is one who had become in many ways accessible by the very processes of globalisation that have intertwined societies and economies as never before.
Does it matter that the bride is of mixed ethnicity? Only in the sense of representing how much post-imperial attitudes in Britain have changed. In so far as they have not, then the bride’s presence and status in British life will continually challenge remnant prejudices. The wedding ceremony itself emphasised the contribution of black people to British culture and society from the gospel choir to the gifted cellist, and the mostly young people who had been making significant contributions to our society. The bride’s mother epitomised grace, dignity and maternal affection.
Does it matter that the bride is a showbiz celebrity? In the short term it will deliver instant recognition. In the medium to long term, the outcome will depend on how she and her husband play their hands. Royalty and showbiz are not the same; royalty is a constitutional constant where in the end the role transcends the person. To be able to continue, royalty needs to demonstrate that it can speak to real social purpose and needs.
It is on this point that there has been some speculation. One recent column in The Washington Post expressed the view that the Duchess ‘poised to change the British royal family’ will make a difference as a result of her outspokenness, rather than as a consequence of her ethnicity. Others have wondered whether she can modernise the royal family, with some posing the question whether she ‘can be the royals’ biggest asset or greatest danger’. Such articles impose heavy loads of expectation on the couple which are not theirs alone to discharge, and risk treating them as proxies for the institution as a whole.
Will the glamour of the new couple eclipse that of the groom’s elder brother and his wife? No, because Prince William is likely to become king one day and will carry a constitutional, representational and social weight quite distinct from that of the younger brother. Prince Harry’s will be a supporting role; so will that of his wife. Such roles are difficult to play: you do not want to overshadow your brother, but you must also be your own person – in this case supported by a spouse of clearly unusual if not entirely known quality. The key will be to identify roles that complement rather than duplicate William’s more formal functions. Early signs are that the princes understand this completely. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex can afford a more relaxed, less inhibited approach to royal duties. They seem already to have set about identifying areas of joint interest and public service accordingly.
It has been pointed out that Saturday was not a good day for republicanism. But the glamour and the glitz which may fascinate the eye should not deceive the mind. Britain is essentially already a republic as far as its governance goes, but it is one with a hereditary and non-political head of state. Bagehot thought that in 1867: ‘A Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’. Tennyson shortly afterwards made a similar point when he described the UK as a ‘crowned republic’. But none of this is the same as saying that the survival of monarchy can be taken for granted.
One implied rather than explicit piece of ongoing royal modernisation was contained in the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. Although primarily concerned with introducing gender equality into the rules of succession, the Act also confined the necessity for heirs to obtain royal approval for their marriages only up to the sixth in line (Harry’s current position). In effect this was also a statement about the extent of the active royal family whose membership has never been prescribed but whose size has been silently reduced in recent decades. Even if Prince Harry slips further from sixth in line if his brother has more children, Prince Harry and his wife will remain in a partnership with Prince William and his wife, in carrying the monarchy for their generation. It follows they will be expected to add value of their own to the monarchy. It is a tall order, but they will have the nation’s best wishes in addressing it.
The next Unit blog on the Monarchy, Planning for the next Accession and Coronation, will accompany the publication of two reports about the Accession and Coronation, which are due to be published on Wednesday 23 May.
About the author
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit. He has most recently been working with Professor Robert Hazell on research into the use and role of the coronation and accession oaths.