At the heart of every institution there are frail and flawed human beings, writes David Quinn
You’ve probably seen the Netflix series, The Crown, which is a semi-fictionalised drama about Britain’s royal family. It covers the reign of Elizabeth II and follows her from the time she is a young woman and will end in the present day, in her advanced old age. Three seasons have so far been shown, and there are three to go.
But a constant theme runs through the drama, namely the tension that exists between duty and desire. Queen Elizabeth is the embodiment of duty. Her own personal feelings are always set to one side when they clash with the good of the monarchy, but again and again this brings her into conflict with members of her family. Her husband, Philip, is pig-headed and wilful, as it her sister Margaret.
In series three, Charles is now a young adult and he is beginning to rebel against the kind of life that being in the royal family imposes on him, especially as heir to the throne. In the first series we see what helped to shape Elizabeth and her attitude towards duty, which is to say, her uncle’s abdication as king in 1936 because he (Edward VIII) could not marry Wallis Simpson, a three-time American divorcee. If Elizabeth is portrayed as duty-incarnate, then Edward is will-incarnate, and he almost destroys the monarchy.
A very big figure in the early episodes is the stern, strict and unflappable Tommy Lascelles, Queen Elizabeth’s first private secretary. He guards the institution of the monarchy with an iron rod, terrified some other wilful senior member of the royal family might finally destroy it.
We can only imagine how The Crown will deal with Diana when she enters the picture. One shudders to think how it will deal with Andrew and recent revelations about him, and it now has the Harry and Meghan situation to think about.
It’s interesting, and probably not irrelevant that both Harry and Meghan are the children of divorce.
Harry knows – the whole world does- that his father, Charles, recommenced his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (herself married at the time), not long after marrying his mother, Diana. What does that do to someone’s view of duty and standing by your commitments for a greater good?
Diana’s parents divorced when she was young. Three out of the Queen’s four children are divorced. If The Crown is to be believed, the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip survived some very tough times. Perhaps it only did so because divorce was more frowned on when they were young.
Then Harry (and William) witnessed the continual press harassment of Diana and how she died in a tunnel in Paris in a high-speed chase with press photographers.
Meghan herself is divorced and estranged from members of her own family, including her father. Harry seems increasingly estranged from his family, which partly explains his bolt for the door.
The closer we look, the more we see the faults and it’s easy to become disillusioned”
William on the other hand married Kate Middleton, whose parents are still together and whose family seems an oasis of calm and stability compared with his own.
So, while the British royal family depends for its survival on a strong sense of duty, that sense has been in very short supply for an awful lot of the time, and when Queen Elizabeth dies (she is 94 in April), what happens then?
Harry and Meghan want to perform their royal duties in their own way, and that kind of DIY version of ‘duty’ is basically a contradiction in terms. They want to live half their time in Canada and the US and the rest in Britain, while both living off the money they receive from Charles (via the Duchy of Cornwall) and then whatever they can make themselves.
But to earn their own income they will have to use the same royal brand they seem to be partly repudiating. They also seem to want to partly-politicise the role and promote various partisan causes even though the Monarchy is supposed to avoid politics so that is avoids alienating large sections of the population unnecessarily.
In fact, the split in public opinion over Harry and Meghan seems to be following familiar liberal/conservative lines. Liberals are happy to see the Monarchy recruited to their causes, while conservatives want it to stay out of politics.
Liberals, who believe strongly in individual freedom, will also sympathise more strongly with Harry and Meghan’s wish to do things their own way, while conservatives are more likely to believe that duty comes first and that an institution is sometimes more important than the individual wishes and whims of the people in it.
Then again, the monarchy is by definition a deeply illiberal institution because its members are born into roles they do not choose – the antithesis of the modern sensibility – and must carry them out to the best of their abilities and in the full public gaze, not easy for anyone, no matter how dutiful.
Also, no institution can survive too much exposure to too much light. That is especially so when it is something we are meant to look up to. It takes away the mystery, and our ideals, because it will be run by humans and humans are painfully fallible and the closer we look, the more we see the faults and it’s easy to become disillusioned. We have seen this with the Church.
Patrick Kavanagh had the mysteries of religion in mind when he wrote “through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder”, but he might as well have been writing about the monarchy which, of course, has some of the trappings of religion.
But there, in the middle of the royal family, are frail, flawed human beings.
From a strict, Irish point of view, this doesn’t really matter because we don’t have a monarchy and are proud of that, but we do have our own flawed institutions, not just the Church, but politics, the health system, the banks as well. Maybe this is why Francis emphasises mercy and forgiveness so much, because we are all need them.