When Buckingham Palace finally broke its silence on the allegations made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in their bombshell interview, royal observers paid particular attention to one line of the palace statement: “While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
Harry and Meghan are clearly very upset at how they’ve been treated. They would clearly like some kind of resolution. And they clearly felt that they had exhausted all formal options for getting that, and could only get their side of the story across by sitting down with the most famous interviewer on the planet.
However, the fact that the palace has said this matter will be dealt with privately raises some pretty serious questions about how individuals who believe they’ve been wronged by the royals can possibly hold them to account.
It’s obvious that Harry and Meghan sincerely feel that they’ve been mistreated by members of the family and would like a resolution,” says Marcia Moody, a royal biographer and journalist. “Unfortunately, their ultra-open style has collided with an institution that lives by the rule of never complain, never explain. They will probably never get that resolution.”
Part of the problem is that the royal family is several things at once. It is a family business, a private family and a constitutional monarchy. It employs people, upholds parts of the UK’s constitution and tries to maintain support among the public to justify its existence. It does this while being fair game for the media and trying to maintain some kind of private life.
These conflicting realities create some strange precedents, especially when it comes to holding the family to account.
“If a royal aide complains that they have been bullied by the Duchess, then they can raise it with their boss and it goes up the chain of command. But how the Duchess might complain about a racist comment from a member of her own family is of course a far more complicated problem,” says Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government.
In other constitutional bodies, there are mechanisms and processes in place for grievances to be aired and played out in public. However, decades of protocol and precedent have left British politicians on the whole uncomfortable to comment on matters concerning the monarchy. Even as US President Joe Biden and presidential envoy John Kerry made public comments on the interview, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to get involved, saying that he had “spent a long time not commenting” and didn’t “intend to depart from that.” He did, however, feel the need to clarify the level of admiration he had for his boss, the Queen.
The respect for the crown is in itself part of the reason that the public knows so little of what actually goes on behind closed doors.
“Over the past few decades, many areas of government and civil service have come into the public domain and come under scrutiny. But with the royals, deference to the crown means things are generally done on their terms,” says Andrew Blick, a constitutional expert at King’s College London.
Blick explains that there is a “tendency for the monarchy to be exempt from things like freedom of information requests and the declassification of documents,” which don’t become public in the way that things like minutes from government cabinet meetings do. “We will probably never know how the Queen dealt with any of this saga, other than through the odd leaks to the press.”
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