The announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they are to step back as senior members of the royal family follows a year of stress and uneasiness about their current roles.
The couple’s ambition to plough a unique, untested and unconventional path comes after much speculation that the two were not completely comfortable with the status quo.
This new route, it appears, will allow them to capitalise on their international celebrity, while retaining their HRH status.
The recent portrait of the Queen, with the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince George, was a tangible reminder of the couple’s role as the “spares”.
Prince Charles is a supporter of a slimmed-down monarchy. The message this photograph conveyed was very clear – this is the nucleus of the modern royal family going forward.
The statement by Prince Harry and Meghan followed “many months of reflection and internal discussions”, according to the couple’s website. And plans are very much in their infancy.
Buckingham Palace immediately stressed that the couple’s proposals raised “complicated issues that will take time to work through”. The palace response raises the question of just how advanced those discussions were, and to what extent the Queen and her senior advisers were consulted, before the remarkable announcement by the couple on Wednesday.
The move comes less than two years after their marriage. Since their wedding in May 2018, the couple have faced criticism over:
Their use of private jets, taking four in 11 days last summer.
Meghan flying to a luxurious private baby shower in New York.
The £2.4m of public money spent on the refurbishment of Frogmore Cottage, their Berkshire home.
Frogmore Cottage will now remain empty for a considerable part of the year as they split their time between the UK and North America. Some claim their actions have blurred the lines between royalty and celebrity.
Quite how they intend to become financially independent has not been explained. But it is evident the couple feel constrained by the restrictions they currently face.
As well as carrying out their charitable endeavours, they said, in addition “they value the ability to earn a professional income, which in the current structure they are prohibited from doing”. Future financial autonomy would give them the freedom to “work externally”, they said.
At present 5% of their costs are met by the Sovereign Grant – the annual funding mechanism that covers the cost of the monarchy and replaced the civil list in 2012. This is the public money they intend to relinquish. Charles funds the remaining 95% from his income from the Duchy of Cornwall.
The planned new arrangement will still see their security bill in the UK paid for by the taxpayer, however. Their website explains that the couple’s status as “internationally protected people” mandates that armed security is provided by the Metropolitan police. Who will foot the security bill across the Atlantic is not yet clear.
The couple argue that there is precedent for members of the royal family holding a title and earning an income, though have not given examples. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie earn an income.
However, the royal family has faced problems in the past with working senior royals. The Earl and Countess of Wessex struggled unsuccessfully to combine high-profile jobs in TV and public relations with royal duties. They were accused of exploiting their positions for commercial gain, before both giving up their businesses and devoting themselves to full-time royal duties in 2002.
Edward VIII’s abdication is the only precedent, but there’s been nothing like this in modern times
The biggest clue that the Sussexes were set to redefine their position came in the TV interview they gave to ITV’s Tom Bradby during their tour of South Africa late last year.
Meghan’s unhappiness was evident when she said, very candidly, of her role: “It’s not enough just to survive something, right. That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy.
“I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip. I tried, I really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
His wife’s concerns have weighed heavily on Harry. He has made no secret of his anger at the British press. Both are pursuing legal actions against newspapers.
Further signs of their wish to carve out new roles were evident when they announced they were splitting from Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.
They decamped from Kensington Palace to Windsor. They moved their offices into Buckingham Palace. They split from the Royal Foundation all four of them ran together, and are now about to launch their own foundation.
In their new role, they say, they remain “dedicated to maximising Her Majesty’s legacy both in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth”.
Royal commentators called the decision “unprecedented”. Former Buckingham Palace press officer, Dickie Arbiter, compared it to Edward VIII’s abdication, telling the BBC “that is the only precedent, but there’s been nothing like this in modern times”.
Graham Smith, of campaign group Republic, said it showed the couple “wanting to have your cake and eat it”.
It raised serious questions for the monarchy, he added. “The Queen and Prince Charles appear comfortable with all the trappings and formality of royal duties but it’s increasingly clear that the younger generation are not so keen.”