Maybe it’s modern, maybe it’s reckless self-harm, maybe it’s the pervasive influence of RuPaul. Whatever explains Buckingham Palace’s new line in taunting abdicators – basically, missing you already, bitches – it must have seemed like a promotional miracle to the makers of the imminent Oprah-Sussexes interview.
Hardly had Oprah announced her coup when, abandoning a preference for pained silence that had seen it through crises from the abdication to the Morton book, the Charles interview, Diana’s Panorama and Andrew’s Newsnight self-immolation, the palace couldn’t resist explaining that, excuse it, for all it cared the Sussexes could sashay fully away. “In stepping away from the work of the royal family,” it said, planning on the last, snitty word, “it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.”
The Sussexes miaowed right back: “We can all live a life of service, service is universal.”
A pause, while allies of the snubbed monarchy pondered further advance interview-retaliation. Last week, the Times splashed with backdated complaints about Meghan’s alleged bullying (which the palace had mysteriously failed to resolve). An aside on Saudi-gifted earrings presumably added credibility to claims, in a 2018 memo written by Jason Knauf, who now runs the Cambridges’ charitable foundation, complaining that Meghan had bullied two staff members “out of the household”.
The palace, again uncharacteristically unmuting, was “clearly very concerned” to re-hear this, and would be investigating, it announced, to see if “lessons can be learned”. Possibly carried away with its own audacity in meanwhile cultivating mistrust of its first bi-racial family member, it added: “The royal household has had a dignity at work policy in place for a number of years and does not and will not tolerate bullying or harassment in the workplace.”
Did it consider, too, how easily this endorsement of extramural HR standards could expose a hereditary hierarchy?
As much as it rewardingly provoked the Sussexes, this unsuspected passion for workplace dignity naturally raised questions about the palace’s contrasting torpor when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press. Just as carelessly, it introduced a concept that could be difficult to harmonise with an institution that depends on the continual assertion of an innate superiority whose only reliable proof is the humble delight or servitude of nearby inferiors. Did it consider, too, how easily this endorsement of extramural HR standards could expose a hereditary hierarchy that has only recently dispensed with male primogeniture, to popular expectations on, say, diversity?
As for dignity or its opposite, some personal abasement will be essential so long as Charles, the incoming sovereign, wants his toothpaste squeezed, his tantrums indulged, and friends, as well as colleagues, to call him “Sir”. On the other hand, we learned, the palace’s dignity at work policy has operated for “a number of years”. Maybe it has already revolutionised the way Prince Andrew talks to servants. Has he stopped telling them to fuck off? Will the palace be investigating claims about palace staff being treated as a matter of course as a lower form of life?
“The art of being a good servant,” Paul Burrell recalled in A Royal Duty, “was to perform as many of my duties as possible without being seen. A servant’s life was spent in the shadows and, at best, he or she should be invisible.” The peculiar indignity of palace valet duties will surely horrify an HR department whose allegiances have so radically shifted in favour of the servants. Doubling as alarm clocks, the valets crept into dark rooms with tea, drew curtains and ran baths for the able-bodied, and set out “the gentleman’s” clothes: “Trousers flat across the chair with a pocket corner turned back so they could be easily picked up; a folded shirt, as if fresh from a box, placed at a vertical angle on the trousers, every button open and cufflinks inserted; a clean pair of undershorts on top; shoes with laces undone beside an easy chair, socks on top…”
Maybe, raised in a family that fetishises rank, some level of petulance and condescension is to be expected
By dint of stringent legal enforcement, the palace has kept such accounts of compulsory indignity to a minimum. Wendy Berry’s The Housekeeper’s Diary could be published, following an injunction, everywhere except the UK; Charles even extracted a judgment that entitled him to Berry’s profits. Burrell enjoyed more freedom with his scenes of book-dodging at Highgrove. “It was a randomly thrown missile. Prince Charles was a renowned object-thrower when he lost his temper.”
Diana, too, could snap, snark and bully servants. Princess Margaret liked her human ashtrays. There is, then, still enough reliable material to confirm – now traumatised domestics are a cause for palace concern – that it should indeed launch an investigation, one that also features the behaviour of white members of the family. Though maybe, raised in a family that fetishises curtseying and rank, some level of petulance and condescension is to be expected, at least among the stayers.
The more painful the palace-Sussex vendetta for admirers of the monarchy – as well as some admirers of the Sussexes – the more it looks affirmative for republicans. What kind of decent, publicly funded institution reduces people to this? Could the Sussexes, however irritating, not be allowed more graciously to quit?
Of all the arguments for a constitutional monarchy, the most effective has generally been the unassailable dignity of the current Queen as head of state, as opposed to the probable personal awfulness of any vulgar substitute (always assumed for the sake of royalist argument to be essential).
But now, to add to Andrew’s disgrace, Charles’s self-indulgence and the propensity for feuding and death-stares among younger royals with a sideline in mental health, the palace is happy to exchange its remaining high ground for a scrap about who said what to Jason at around the time it was doing nothing to prevent the persecution of Meghan Markle in British tabloids. All one can say as a republican is fantastic, keep it up.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist