British don’t understand why we don’t understand the royal family

Twelve hundred years of monarchy embeds itself in the national psyche

Buckingham Palace in London. Photograph: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

Buckingham Palace in London. Photograph: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

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There was an moment in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey that stretched credulity. Markle told Winfrey that she didn’t Google Harry before dating him, that she hadn’t done any research into his family and that she essentially hadn’t realised what she was getting herself into.

Doesn’t everyone Google each other these days? Perhaps it is a generational thing, but conducting no inquiries into the stratospherically famous family you will eventually marry into seems rather strange.

Perhaps what she meant was that no amount of research into her prospective husband could prepare a non-British outsider for the adjustments required to enter the UK royal family; that its inner workings will always be alien and unknowable to someone who did not grow up with it in their consciousness; that monarchy is a strange concept to anyone born in a republic; and that what she experienced was a profound culture shock.

It comes as little surprise that the monarchy may be rife with racism: that simply confirms all your suspicions

In the wake of the couple’s interview a cultural chasm has revealed itself. On one side it has become patently obvious that many in Britain vastly overestimate the extent to which others understand (or care to understand) the peculiarities of the royal family. On the other side, plenty in Ireland and the United States have demonstrated an inability to understand the appeal and relevance of the monarchy to British citizens.

When Markle admitted she did not realise that she would have to curtsey before Queen Elizabeth, even in private, she generated a few raised eyebrows among British talking heads. Shouldn’t she have known? Isn’t it her responsibility to understand the level of reverence the queen receives? Maybe.

But the problem with this response is in its failure to understand that elsewhere in the world most people would have greeted the admission with similar bemusement: who knew you had to curtsey before the queen, even in private?

Quirks of monarchy

And this typifies the problem. The quirks of monarchy are not common knowledge across the world, despite what many in Britain might erroneously believe. If you come from a republican political culture of course a royal family and its traditions seem strange, archaic and outdated, a homage to classism and waning imperial grandeur.

Of course it comes as little surprise that it may be rife with racism: that simply confirms all your suspicions. The crown’s renown and role in British soft power is perhaps correctly estimated by people in the UK. But they have neglected to realise that the crown’s inner workings and values, as well as the nature of its appeal to the British people, are foreign.

This failure of self-awareness is not uniquely British. Culture shocks by definition require at least two incompatible parties. Irish and American commentators rushed to express deserved dismay at the institution of the palace, outrage at their behaviour and a dose of sneering vitriol for the British public who, despite everything, still believe in the crown’s sustained existence.

When it comes to the royal family we are witnessing a complicated phenomenon from incompatible perspectives

The farce of monarchy received column inches; the New York Times published an op-ed titled “Down with the British monarchy”, attributing its continued survival to a “mortifying lack of revolutionary gumption”. Quite the claim. But where republics might see something as batty, at odds with all sane political sensibilities and a beacon of tedious British exceptionalism, the British naturally see something different.

Twelve hundred years of monarchy embeds itself in the national psyche. Older generations grew up with the queen. The crown is not a strange institution to people living in the UK by virtue of the fact it has always been there, informing the national dialect and cultural output too.

Even if you are a younger and more sceptical Brit, says former Number 10 pollster James Johnson, the existence of the monarchy doesn’t necessarily feel imperial or alien or even particularly conservative.

Culture difference

Appreciating this culture difference is key to understanding why so many in the UK aren’t immediately on Harry and Meghan’s side. We might lazily view the queen as a figurehead of imperialism’s cruellest impulses. But in Britain she doesn’t provoke those thoughts much at all, says Johnson.

Rather, the driving force behind her popularity is that there seems something innately British about her public qualities: someone who quietly gets on with things, puts her head down, is in possession of an overweening sense of duty and a minimal interest in fanfare.

Compared with a starlet going on Oprah to tell her story? You needn’t be a seer to figure out why that one didn’t go down so well. Polling from JL Partners and the Daily Mail revealed 62 per cent of responders believed Harry and Meghan were prioritising media attention over service and duty; quite the problem when many of the queen’s perceived positive qualities are exactly the inverse.

When it comes to the royal family we are witnessing a complicated phenomenon from incompatible perspectives: one which overestimates the monarchy’s reach, and one which cannot understand the source of its appeal. And while we snipe over these differences we are overestimating our ability to understand each other’s nuances. Perhaps our shared language gives us an inaccurate sense of equivalence.

There ought to be no doubt that Markle suffered at the hands of a vicious media and a family unwilling to protect her. But the saga revealed something else, too. The cultural differences between Ireland, the US and Britain are deeper and harder to navigate than we might give credit for.

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