Those of us who think the United Kingdom would fare better without a monarchy aren't a negligible minority. There are more of us than there are Irish (Northern), Scots or Welsh – indeed more than all three of the Celtic nations put together. There are twice as many anti-royalists in Scotland – but it means, still, that two thirds of Scots like the monarchy, which is why the SNP ditched its republicanism.
Yet the anti-monarchy felling will grow. The British monarchy isn’t doomed to disappear, but it is certain to shrink: and shrinking is usually painful.
The coverage given to the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was standard saccharine, varied only by self-serving praise that the bride was of mixed race. 'She's the One!' shouted the Sun, Britain's best-selling paper. 'Harry: All the Stars Were Aligned,' murmured the Times – suggesting that the prince is in the grip of the delusion which is astrology. Only the Guardian, in what was close to a parody of its earnest liberal self, put an opinion piece by Afua Hirsch beside a smiley picture of the couple, headlined 'The changing faces of the UK attitude to race.'
The UK's attitudes have changed a lot. The prince's marriage is to the daughter of an African American mother and a white father. Meghan, like her parents, is divorced, in her case after two years. This has not been greeted with horror nor, in the once common British manner, with carefully phrased prejudice – and that's good. But of more importance to the couple (and to the press, in the long run) is whether or not the strength of this celebrity relationship can be more robust than many celebrity relationships.
The central matter in this union is not the racial issue, but celebrity. It will be the marriage of a minor celebrity with a major one. Meghan Markle, at 36, is a quite successful actor in early middle age, or late youth. The prince, at 33, is a world-class celeb, reaching beyond the UK to attract journalism everywhere.
The scandals, through his 20s, included marijuana smoking and under-age drinking, a charge of cheating (later dropped) at Eton; two separate 'drunken brawls' with photographers at a London club; a game of strip billiards in Las Vegas in which he ended up, photographed, in the nude; and going to a friend's fancy dress party wearing a swastika armband. Perhaps in his years at Eton he had not 'done' the second world war and the holocaust.
On a benign view, that last – quite shocking – event, and the rest of the known scandals were not crimes, rather misdemeanours. Like his namesake, the Prince Harry who became Henry V (1413-22) and then Shakespeare's Prince Hal, he seems to have believed (as the dramatic Harry mused) that 'when this loose behaviour I throw off…my reformation…shall show more goodly and attract more eyes.'
So it is with the living Harry. He served in the army from 2006 to 2015, with two tours of duty in Afghanistan. In the last year of his army service, he created the annual Invictus Games for wounded and disabled army veterans, now a yearly event, to which prime ministers, presidents and royalty lend their presences. The Shakespearean cycle of riot followed by wisdom is now being completed as he, like the real and the Shakespearean Henry V, takes a foreign wife.
Shakespeare's monarch tells his bride-to-be that they will be 'the makers of manners': and at least for a while, the new couple will be style icons. Especially Meghan: still more beautiful and stylish than Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, she will attract the paparazzi's lenses, the more since she seems intent on being a royal wife, giving up a good part on the long-running TV series 'Suits', and thus more available to the press.
There will be pressures enough upon them. Harry has shown he can do what's expected of a premier league celebrity with time to spare: that is, promote and be the titular head of a major charitable enterprise. But one as restless and impulsive as he is will likely find domestic life harder than the more disciplined and phlegmatic older brother William, in training for the throne after father Charles (69), presumably, gets his turn.
All of Queen Elizabeth's four children – Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward – have been embroiled in scandals of various degrees of weight and veracity over the past half century. The public's delight in imbibing them – especially where Diana, Princess of Wales, featured – has honed a royal press pack of skilled ruthlessness, now to be unleashed on Meghan, alert to every pout, every extra pound of weight, every real or confected transgression.
The largest pressure is one on which the couple will be largely onlookers, though from within. The queen's reign has been, for her, a triumph of self-control, restraint and public amiability, producing a popularity longer-lasting than for any previous monarch. It leaves a large problem for her successors. No one can match it. The reign of the Windsors will be reined in. The flummery associated with it has been tolerated: it won't be in a post-Elizabethan future.
As an example: her youngest son, though he resigned from his (tough) Royal Marine training after four months, now holds nine honorary senior officer ranks in Canadian and British regiments and services, as well as a title, Earl of Wessex – a region which ceased to exist in 1066. His wife, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who worked in public relations before and after her marriage (a choice which created a scandal fatal to her company) is an honorary senior officer in six Canadian and British regiments and services.
These, and much, much more, are absurdities, unnoticed or forgiven by Elizabeth's grace. They will be garishly illuminated in the future. Harry's celebrity derives first of all from his family, coupled with his (usually) attractively messy 20s and his continuing public cheeriness and good works. When the post-Elizabethan problems and pressures mount, and the family comes to be viewed less indulgently, the basis of his fame will shrink: presidents and prime ministers scarcer at the events he favours. Life will become less glamorous, press and public less fawning. Meghan may rue the decision to end her career. The SNP will review its pro-monarchy policy. The next decades will be tough for the new royal family: it will have to be a strong marriage to survive it.