The Monarchy needs rescuing. How are they going to heal the wounds, repair the damage, stop further attacks? And who are ‘they’, anyway? The depleted Royal Family, the besieged courtiers, the Government, the Church... the BBC?
And what is next for Harry and Meghan?
All urgent questions. But first, some background. When I arrived at Buckingham Palace to be interviewed as a new equerry to Princess Diana some 30 years ago (initially on a two-year secondment from the Royal Navy), I imagined I was entering a world of perfection. One in which happy and glorious Royal people devoted their lives to the service of loyal subjects in realms and territories all over the world, served in turn by effortlessly sophisticated courtiers who kept the machinery of constitutional monarchy purring along like a Rolls-Royce.
Princess Diana with private secretary Patrick Jephson Burghley Horse Trials, Lincolnshire, September 1989
As we now know, that world was about to enter a prolonged period of self-harm, including the failure of three Royal marriages, the Windsor Castle fire, and countless calamities from It’s A Royal Knockout to the Camilla-gate tape, Panorama and Epstein.
Today, the self-destructive cycle is back in full force, with the daily escalation of Sussex lacerations now tearing into the heart of the Monarchy, with accusations of negligence, callousness, deceit and – most grievous of all – entrenched racism. This time it’s going to take more than just Keep Calm And Carry On, more than Brian May’s Jubilee guitar solo on the roof of Buckingham Palace, or 007 and the Queen skydiving into the 2012 Olympic Stadium.
With the Windsors’ tender parts now trapped in the mangle of American domestic politics, transatlantic and Commonwealth relations under strain, and cancel culture spreading like wildfire through British public life, this Royal crisis more than any other really feels like a deadly threat to our most precious institution.
Of course, with every crisis comes opportunity. In this case, the rescue and the opportunity may come from an unexpected direction. As so often with the Windsors, there’s a clue in the past.
Let me share an incident that happened soon after I joined the Royal Household. As I said, I thought this was an organisation that didn’t make mistakes; it certainly didn’t admit to any, as far as I could see.
Yet, inevitably, I definitely did slip up one day. Nothing very major but I sensed my all-hearing boss would get to know about it eventually and then I could expect to be in serious trouble – not for the original offence but for having tried to conceal it.
So, screwing up my courage, I went to see her. She was busy at her desk, working on papers.
‘Yes, Patrick,’ she said, without raising her eyes.
‘Ma’am, I have to tell you I’ve made a mistake.’ Her eyes now flashed icy blue in my direction. ‘You’ve what?’
I struggled on. ‘It’s a small mistake and I’ve fixed it. But I wanted you to hear about it from me.’
I explained the details and then braced for execution, or at least a painful rebuke. But instead, I saw her eyes soften.
‘D’you know Patrick, that’s the first time I’ve heard anybody in this place admit making a mistake.’
The novelty (and her good nature) quickly led to forgiveness. My gamble had paid off. Diana showed me compassion and seemed to quite enjoy the experience.
More importantly, she would now trust me to confess my sins and I could expect her to absolve me (usually). After all, to forgive is a sign of divinity – never a bad quality in a princess.
This little incident formed the bedrock of a trust that sustained our working relationship, past my initial equerry appointment and through the next six years as her private secretary – a trust only eventually broken by the bad faith of Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview.
Speaking to Oprah Winfrey in last week’s TV interview, Prince Harry identified the underlying cause of the problem he and Meghan had felt compelled to bring to the world’s attention. It was, he said, ‘a lack of support and a lack of understanding’.
Pretty basic human needs, you might think, especially for a couple exposed to relentless media scrutiny almost since the day they met.
Yet we are assured that the establishment deployed its finest and most sympathetic courtiers to ease the Sussexes through their difficult early years on the Royal stage.
Now the case for the protection of endangered courtiers is getting much air-play and that’s before the investigation into alleged bullying by Meghan gets down to business.
I wonder if any of Harry and Meghan’s staff ever went to them and confessed to a mistake – and if they did, what reaction they got. Did the Sussexes run a happy ship – a safe space where misjudgments and oversights could be freely admitted and constructive action taken to improve overall performance, to everybody’s benefit?
Or was Team Sussex a place where the old myth of Royal perfection had to be observed 24/7, whatever the cost in staff unhappiness and, ultimately, turnover?
It seems only reasonable that if you want to receive understanding and support you have to be ready to give it, too.
It’s in that collaborative atmosphere that Royal employer and humble employee can practise the small daily acts of forgiveness that keep things ticking along even in times of stress.
The warm, fuzzy theory of compassion becomes practical reality in little habits of reconciliation, all without leaving the office.
This little incident formed the bedrock of a trust that sustained our working relationship, past my initial equerry appointment and through the next six years as her private secretary – a trust only eventually broken by the bad faith of Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview (Pictured, Martin Bashir, November 2019)
But who deserves compassion most, who should give and who receive? Think of Meghan’s account of lonely days in Frogmore Cottage, gripped by depression, even to the point of wishing for death.
Searching desperately for help in the bewildering landscape of Royal life, driven, eventually, to call on the Palace staff human resources office for some kind of recognition of her plight.
Where was the rescue for Meghan when she needed it?
It’s a story that would melt the hardest heart. Who, behind those high Palace walls, did she tell it to? Her brother-in-law or father-in-law, from whom Harry says he is now estranged? Her sister-in-law? Or perhaps that elite team of hand-picked courtiers assigned to make her life smooth and happy?
Perhaps to her obstetrician, or even to the smiley priest who officiated at her wedding, the Archbishop of Canterbury no less?
What about the battalion of household clerics whose duties, one might expect, prioritise the pastoral care of their unusually privileged but often troubled Royal flock?
We don’t know. But we do know – because Harry has told us – that support and understanding were in such short supply that the new parents and their baby had no option but to flee for the sake of their sanity, if not for their very lives.
Now, a short year later, they’re to be found in the California sunshine doing what looks like their damnedest to lay waste the institution that is Harry’s (and Archie’s) birth right, and skewer the not-such good and faithful servants they deem to have failed them.
Harry’s parents gave Oprah-style interviews in which they spilled their guts in hopes of wheedling sympathy out of a goggling TV audience. So did Aunt Fergie and so, most recently, did Uncle Andrew. A moment’s research would have revealed that all those exercises in self-serving, selective truth-telling caused far more harm than good.
They failed mainly because they left out any gesture of conciliation and recognised precious little share of blame.
It’s sad, really. I suspect Harry and Meghan may live to regret the missed opportunity publicly to reconcile with relatives, especially those so advanced in years, in both families. Even the thoroughly ‘othered’ Wallis Simpson, to whom Meghan is often compared, was eventually welcomed back to Buckingham Palace after years of exile, but then only to attend her husband’s funeral.
Harry cites a lack of understanding as half the reason why he and Meghan left, so he might welcome one definition of compassion as being ‘the understanding of lack of understanding’.
The Sussexes have committed themselves to ‘one act of compassion at a time’. So here perhaps we find the answer to both questions – how to rescue the Monarchy and what’s next for Harry and Meghan. With compassion comes forgiveness and reconciliation – get that right, and the all-important understanding and support will take care of themselves. Or, as baby Archie’s old friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: ‘Without forgiveness there is no future.'