Harry and Meghan Are Leaving the Job but Keeping the Salary

Blame the British press and Buckingham Palace staff for the royal Brexit.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, visit Canada House in London on Jan. 7. Daniel Leal-Olivas-WPA Pool/Getty Images

An announcement on Wednesday by Prince Harry, currently sixth in line to the British throne, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex—formerly Meghan Markle—that they would be stepping back from their role as senior royals, moving at least part-time to North America, and seeking “financial independence” has shocked the British public as much as it has the royal family itself. Buckingham Palace almost immediately issued its own statement, saying discussions were at an “early stage”—adding weight to reports that the rest of the royal family was not told the announcement was coming. The surprising development has created an ambiguous future for the couple—and possibly for the British royal family.

Why do people care about this?

Even if you’re not a royal gossip aficionado, the story is an obsession for the British press. That says something about the toxicity of Britain’s print media, and the interests of a country that’s been politically sundered in recent years over the issue of race and a desperate nostalgia that drove Brexit.

The British press’ relationship with Meghan has always been poisonous, to the degree that Prince Harry issued an unprecedented statement condemning what he described as “bullying” last October. The endless flood of stories about Meghan recalls the days of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s marriage—except that Diana was far more complicit in her own coverage, maintaining private lines of communication with journalists to leak stories while also complaining about the intensity of press interest. Unsurprisingly, the media’s reaction to Wednesday’s news was to throw a fit—in the case of the Daily Mail, one of Britain’s most popular tabloids, to produce no less than 17 pages of coverage.

Some of the targeting of the couple came from racism directed against Meghan, whose mother is African American. But there was also a kind of displacement taking place, where Meghan has been targeted instead of other royals. The tabloids have been relatively restricted in royal reporting since the death of Diana, who died in a car crash as she was chased by paparazzi in Paris in 1997. Buckingham Palace has also become more aggressive in issuing legal threats over coverage. That’s led to stories about other royals that would have been major scandals if they had concerned Prince Charles and Princess Diana, or Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York, going almost completely unreported in Britain. Meghan, on the other hand, was seen as an acceptable target for even the most trivial stories—leading her to actually sue the Daily Mail in an ongoing case.

Is this unprecedented?

Yes, but so are a lot of things the modern monarchy does. The continuance of the British royal family depends on a series of improvisations, adaptations, and compromises theoretically underpinned by the continuance of a ritual core. Attempts to form a new relationship with the press, in particular, have oscillated between the smoothly stage-managed, such as the filming of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and the outright disastrous, such as Prince Andrew’s recent BBC interview on his close friendship with the late child abuser Jeffrey Epstein.

Plenty of royals have backed away from the institution for the sake of their relationships, most famously King Edward VIII’s abdication in order to marry Wallis Simpson, who like Meghan was an American divorcee. (Unlike Meghan, she was also a Nazi sympathizer.) Historically, relationships seen as unsuitable were usually kept secret and unrecognized, especially after the Royal Marriages Act of 1772—an effort by Parliament to regulate royal alliances and keep the Catholics out. That produced King George IV’s secret marriage to a Catholic, Maria Fitzherbert. (British royals couldn’t marry a Catholic and stay in the line of inheritance until 2013: The anti-Catholic streak in British politics continued for a surprisingly long time, with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who attended Catholic services for many years but only converted after he left office in 2007.)

But the in-betweenness of Prince Harry and Meghan’s statement is something new. The intent appears to be to maintain the roles they enjoy and believe in—chiefly as charitable ambassadors—while steering away from more formal royal duties and cutting some ties with the family. There are clearly personal issues at stake in terms of Meghan’s relationship with her in-laws, but with the royal family, the personal always ends up at least somewhat a matter of state.

What about the money? The statement said that they were aspiring to be “financially independent.”

From the plans released so far, that’s akin to somebody who started with a million-dollar loan and a free house from their parents declaring themselves self-made. Prince Harry and Meghan are eschewing only a small part of their income, and giving up—at least under current plans—almost none of their wealth.

British royal money is messy, since the wealth of the Crown and that of the nation have always been tangled up. While the queen herself is moderately frugal, extravagant spending tends to go with royalty—the late queen mother, an immensely wealthy woman, left massive debts behind. Prince Harry has inherited huge amounts as a semi-private citizen. (Meghan earned her wealth herself as a successful actress.)

The costs of royal service are paid through the Sovereign Grant, which comes from the Crown Estate—lands that originally belonged to the monarch but that were agreed in 1760 to be managed and used entirely for the purpose of the state. About 25 percent of that income—82.2 million pounds last year, over $100 million—now goes to fund repair of palaces, royal banquets and travel, household staff, and so on. That’s justified—according to its supporters—by the state duties performed by royals. (Other funds come directly from the government for some large additional costs such as security.) Most other European royals have a similar mix of state income and properties held in trust, though the British royal family is by far the most expensive.

But the queen and Prince Charles, Prince Harry’s father, also have their own private duchies—land holdings that provide a considerable income in their own right, but that they have limited control over, as they’re held in trust for future sovereigns. They, and the rest of the family, also have considerable inherited wealth not directly connected to their royal status.

According to the couple’s own website (produced by a PR firm), roughly 5 percent of their funding previously came through the Sovereign Grant. That’s the only portion they’re giving up so far. The rest comes through Charles’s own duchy, and they’re not giving that up—nor are they leaving the extremely large house provided for them, which was recently renovated at a cost of $2.8 million.

The couple’s long-term vision seems for them to be charitable ambassadors supported by a combination of family wealth and personal deals—and quite possibly a return to acting for Meghan. Prince Harry, like his father and grandfather, has been a steadfast patron of various charities, using the royal glamor to attract fundraising far beyond even what he could manage himself. Giving up the house and the duchy income, though, would be far more genuine and impressive sacrifices.

So does this spell trouble for the monarchy?

It certainly doesn’t make the royal family look good, and if Meghan begins the kind of targeted leaks that Diana employed to badmouth the Windsors, it could be very bad indeed. Several questions remain around Prince Andrew, now forcibly retired from royal duties, not just for his relationship with Epstein but also his ties to Gulf states and arms dealers. (Andrew is the only senior royal with negative—very negative—popularity numbers.)

But the monarchy has survived plenty worse. Prince Charles simply outlasted his scandals, and the age and revered status of the queen makes any change unlikely in the near future. So too does the recent reelection of the Conservative government, since British republicanism has generally been the province of the Labour Party. (Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, thrashed in the last vote, is a committed republican.) The desperation to find national symbols in a post-Brexit world also works strongly to the monarchy’s advantage.

Ultimately, the political powerlessness of the monarchy means that family quarrels extend only to passive-aggressive public statements and press leaks. When there’s actual power at stake, royal sons have had far worse fights with their families.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer