Oprah Winfrey’s sit-down interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was watched by around 17.1 million viewers in the US and 11.4 million in the UK the next day, with many millions more streaming the interview all around the world.
It was a far cry from the jubilant scenes witnessed in Windsor as Meghan and Harry got married back in May 2018. Meghan talked openly about her struggles with mental health, the racism she has received and her concerns for her son Archie.
Harry joined the interview halfway through and revealed that after the couple’s departure from the UK and the cessation of their royal duties in 2020, his father, Prince Charles, stopped taking his calls and his relationship with his brother, Prince William, has suffered too.
The revelations from this interview have fractured already divided societies in the US and UK. Everyone seems to have an opinion, some are “Team Meghan” and think that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been mistreated by the Royal Family and the British press. Others are “Team Windsor”, who admire the Queen and Prince Phillip, and have little time for Meghan and Harry’s complaints.
This has led to some commentators, particularly in America, to conclude that the Royal Family is doomed, and this historic institution is unsuited to the 21st century. However, this belies the resilience of “The Firm”, as the family is known, and the high esteem it is held in by many Britons.
The head of “the firm”, Queen Elizabeth II, is one of the most recognisable faces in the world. She has been on the throne for almost 70 years. Throughout her reign there have been 14 different British Prime Ministers and the UK has changed significantly. Nevertheless, her popularity is as high as ever.
A recent YouGov survey showed that 80% of British adults have a favourable opinion of the Queen, a figure only matched by her grandson Prince William. This is an approval rate any politician in a democratic country could only dream of.
The almost universal popularity of the sovereign has persisted through crises before, such as the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the latter’s death in 1997, Prince Andrew’s relationship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and it will persist through ongoing “Megxit” drama. However, the problem for the Royal Family is that the Queen, who is 94, will eventually die, and that could create a crisis of legitimacy for the monarchy. Recent polls in Canada and Australia have shown majority support for the establishment of a republic in their countries. Barbados will remove the Queen as head of state later this year.
The next in line to the throne, Prince Charles, does not have his mother’s appeal. Despite an improvement in his image in Britain (around 50% now have a favourable opinion of Charles), he is still very much tainted by his past.
Already in his 70s, when he eventually does become King, he will have a difficult job ensuring that popular support stays with the monarchy. He may be relieved that the second in line, Prince William, along with his wife Kate Middleton hold similar levels of popularity as the Queen. In fact, when asked “who would you prefer to see as the next monarch after Elizabeth II?”, only 22% of Brits chose Charles, with 56% opting for William.
The divisions in support for “Team Meghan” and “Team Windsor” are very much generational. Although Brits overall have more sympathy for the Queen and the Royal Family over Meghan and Harry, just 9% of those over 65 favour the Duke and Duchess, compared to 48% for those 18-24.
There is also a difference in political allegiance. Whereas 64% of 2019 Conservative voters favour the Queen, just 15% of 2019 Labour voters do. Nonetheless, less than three in ten voters would like to see the monarchy abolished, with the rest either against a republic or unsure.
There is no doubt that the Oprah interview has damaged the Royal Family’s image. Possibly the worst such instance since the death of Diana or even the abdication crisis of 1936. But the Queen’s popularity remains intact, even most republicans don’t see the establishment of a republic as a priority and Harry and Meghan’s favourability in the UK has plummeted to new lows. Yet the serious issues raised by Meghan and Harry regarding racism and mental health ought to be reflected on if it is to remain relevant to Britain and the Commonwealth in the 21st century.