The new shoots of monarchy

I was pontificating the other day on Facebook about the superficial analysis of the Harry/Meghan interview and the lack of any historical perspective on the changes to royal life wrought by Diana and her sons. Then I saw a brief interview on BBC with a reporter shouting at William about whether the monarchy was racist, and the question of why so superficial seemed to have an answer. For some, ‘news’ has become twitterized, reduced to short snippets and shouts and ‘gotcha’ questions.

Then I began to think about this question from a more systemic lens, using the Two Loops Model created by the Berkana Institute. (If you’re not familiar with this model, Systems Innovation has a great explanation.) The key point is that all systems are living and have a life cycle that eventually, over time, comes to an end. But as the system slowly winds down, new and isolated alternatives start to pop up and over time, become the new dominant system. The challenge, as the old system winds down, is to ‘provide hospice’ for those dependent on that system even while creating linkages and support for the new experiments.

The ‘new shoots’

Thinking back to the changes to royal life made by Diana during her life suggests some of the new alternatives she introduced. She quietly introduced her sons to homelessness, takiing them to homeless shelters, so they learned not everyone lived in a palace. She visited, and touched, people with HIV/AIDS at a time when they were socially isolated, and helped change the public perspective about the illness. She did her best to give her sons as normal a life as possible within what seemed to be rigid hierarchy of protocol (as indeed her mother-in-law had done before her, although not so dramatically, at an earlier time.)

And this seems, at least as far as we can assess from outside, to have had marked changes in the kind of lives her sons have been able to live. Harry became a soldier who saw service in Afghanistan and thus met people from all walks of British life. After leaving the military, he created the Invictus Games which use the power of sport to ‘inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women”. He met and married a biracial American woman who had had a career of her own which meant she was also a well-known figure.

William was able to attend a Scottish university and live as normal a student life as possible, married someone from a different social class, and lived as quiet and as normal a life as a young couple could do under the circumstances. I remember reading about how much he enjoyed visiting the Middleton home where he was able to relax and be himself, and thinking how difficult it must be to always be under a spotlight

Diana talked frankly about her mental health struggles, specifically with bulimia, a life-threatening condition, at a time when this was not at all common. Both her sons have spoken honestly about their own mental health challenges and the trauma of losing their mother when they were young. None of this was common in earlier royal life.

New ways to be a monarchy

All of these things, as I thought about it, represented small shoots of change – new ways to be a monarchy, one more in line with those in other countries with less pageantry (and fewer tabloid newspapers).

One of the most dramatic changes Diana made, after her divorce, was to take a part in the campaign to ban land mines by visiting countries where young people had been maimed by mines and even walking through a mine field herself. She could have had such ongoing influence as a peacebuilder if the UK government had recognized this role for her. But sadly, this did not happen, even though she had underlined her desire to leave a decorative role by auctioning off her most famous dresses to support causes she championed.

I remember being appalled to read about the misogynist way so many photographers treated Diana in their search for the perfect picture. And that really underlined for me that – as Harry said in the interview – the monarchy is trapped by the tabloids, which are only interested in portraying the Royal Family in way that makes money for them. In North America, many supermarkets have racks of tabloids which claim to give ‘insights’ into the lives of celebrities and royals – packaged to suggest the reader will get some new and potentially shocking news. No wonder that celebrities and royals try to negotiate a way to survive this misleading and exploitative barrage.

And so maybe, looking at the Two Loops model, this is not so much a story about the monarchy as it is about the tabloid industry. Social media means people don’t need to pick up a tabloid to discover news, and it has the additional benefit of allowing people to comment right away, with no letters to the editor as intermediary. And now at last, the role of the tabloids in preventing any real discussion of racism beyond ‘gotcha’ questions or headlines is being raised in journalistic circles. It has been a long time coming.

So far, I still haven’t read the analysis I was hoping for – the analysis of how Diana and her sons succeeded in changing an old monarchical system, and how maybe it will lead to changing a tabloid system that relied on keeping that old system the way it was. But maybe that will come, and at las those new shoots will get the recognition they have long deserved.