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As Harry and Meghan ‘step back,’ Queen Elizabeth steps up

Again and again and again, the word 'dysfunctional’ has been trotted out to describe the state of British politics and society. But there is nothing dysfunctional about Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth II has, once again, deftly handled a crisis.Joe Giddens/Associated Press

As a small-r republican and an American patriot, I instinctively regard royal families as outlandish — and the British royal family, descendants of that villain George III, especially so. So when an uproar broke out after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, declared their intention to “step back” from their royal duties and concentrate instead on earning a living, my reaction was a tad on the smug side.

“Well, it’s a start,” I tweeted. “But it would be even better if Great Britain would finally ‘step back’ from the royal family. Kings and queens and dukes and princes are ridiculous.” For good measure, I added Huckleberry Finn’s succinct opinion of royalty: “All kings is mostly rapscallions.”


Two weeks later, however, and somewhat to my surprise, I must confess: I’m impressed by how decisively, efficiently, and skillfully the royal family, and especially 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth, has managed the crisis set off by Harry and Meghan’s bombshell.

Though there have been conflicting reports, “the Firm,” as the royal family is wryly known, may not have been given advance notice before the couple announced its plans to the world in an Instagram post. That was a grievous faux pas on Harry and Meghan’s part if true. Yet without missing a beat, the queen conveyed not irritation but affection and sympathetic understanding for “Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family.” Clearly she was determined not to allow a permanent breach to open between Harry and the rest of the House of Windsor.

Yet just as clearly, the queen was determined not to allow the institutional integrity of the monarchy to be eroded. To Americans like me, royalty may seem preposterous, but it has its rules, and chief among them is the subordination of independence to duty. You cannot be a senior member of the royal family and at the same time move your family to Canada, lobby Disney for a job, and unilaterally claim the right to “a progressive new role” within the Firm. It doesn’t work that way — and if that wasn’t obvious to the popular prince two weeks ago, it is now.


Without voicing a word of rebuke, the queen was unequivocal about Harry and Meghan’s new status. There will be no mere “step back” from royal life. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex — though “much loved members of my family” — will have to step down: They will not be permitted to use the title “royal highness,” to represent the queen, or to receive public funds. They will have to pay rent on Frogmore Cottage, their home near Windsor Castle. Harry, an Army veteran, will have to give up the military titles that came with his royal position. In fact, he will no longer be permitted to wear his military uniform.

(L-R) Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex in uniform stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London to watch a military fly-past to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in July 2018. AFP via Getty Images

The queen’s terms were tougher, apparently, than her grandson had expected. Less deftly handled, they might have opened a permanent estrangement within the family. Yet not only has Harry agreed to them, but he also did so publicly, in a speech Saturday night. “I’ve accepted this,” he said at a dinner for Sentebale, a charity he cofounded in 2006. He affirmed his love for the United Kingdom, his devotion to his grandmother — to whom he is “incredibly grateful” — and his and Meghan’s intention to “do everything we can to fly the flag and carry out our roles for this country with pride.”


Would that every crisis were so smoothly resolved.

Frankly, there have been times over the past year when Britain has seemed incapable of satisfactorily resolving any crisis, from a timetable for Brexit to control of Parliament. Again and again and again, the word “dysfunctional” has been trotted out to describe the state of British politics and society. But there is nothing dysfunctional about Queen Elizabeth. The clarity and authority she has shown in this latest imbroglio have been downright, dare I say it, regal.

In my gut, I agree with Huck Finn: All kings is mostly rapscallions. In the 21st century, what could be sillier than a hereditary monarchy? Yet the past two weeks’ events give me pause. Not for the first time in her long life, Queen Elizabeth has risen to the occasion, and her nation is better off for it. I still think Britain ought to become a republic. But maybe not just yet.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, go to