Late last year, I traveled to Peru just a few days after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Upon learning I was British, a bewildered cab driver shook his head and expressed his disbelief at the national fanfare over her death. “I just don’t understand the British people,” he told me.
Honestly, same. We’re ruled by an unelected royal family that symbolizes centuries of colonial violence and is bolstered by an army of nationalists claiming the monarchs are “good for tourism.” Meanwhile, the bloody histories of the British Empire are rarely acknowledged, papered over by headlines that treat royal news like it’s Celebrity Big Brother.
This devotion to the queen was exemplified by the frankly wild public response to her death. You heard the stories: sex shops posted online tributes next to round-ups of best-selling vibrators. Buckingham Palace staff had to beg people to stop leaving marmalade sandwiches outside (a nod to her sketch with Paddington Bear) because their offerings were harming the local wildlife. Mourners slept outside, swaddled in blankets, to get the best view of the queen’s casket. Upon finally seeing it, one woman described the moment as “better than the birth of her two children.”
The recent release of Prince Harry’s long-awaited memoir Spare—and the related scandal it’s sparked, the first for the royals since the queen died—has only escalated the chaos here. In the U.S., the book has most been received as a treasure trove of cringeworthy viral moments and juicy royal gossip, which range from family affairs to way too much information about his “todger.” In the U.K., we lap up each new detail too, but the dynamic has been different, angrier, and altogether more grim. The heroes to many remain the active royals—and decidedly not Harry and Meghan. With apologies to my cab driver, I’m going to attempt to explain why.
You might think that only the elite support the royals in their gilded palaces, but the reality is more complex. In 2019, polling showed strong backing for the royals in working-class areas, where voters associated them with cultural values like “patriotism, custom, tradition, duty, and social stability.” Right-leaning newspaper the Telegraph even declared the queen a “working-class hero,” praising the unprecedented length of her reign and her seemingly apolitical stance around labor uprisings and worker’s rights movements.
By contrast, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle—who, in 2021, stepped back from their royal duties—have been framed as royal rebels, “petulant” members of the “liberal elite.” The book has not helped matters. Harry uses the language of “unconscious bias”––a limp way of saying “I held deeply racist beliefs”––and calls life in the royal family a “surreal fishbowl.” In other words, it did nothing to counteract the tabloid narrative that these selfish “woke” youngsters are blaspheming the royal family, who are ever-so-ironically framed as allies and representatives of the British working class (despite being literal agents of imperialism).
How did we get to this state of affairs? The first thing to know is that Brits are groomed into nationalism. Schools don’t teach us about the empire’s theft of global wealth through brute force; instead, we’re told nice stories about colonialism being great for India’s railways. The East India Company? Innocent purveyors of spices—which, ironically, British cuisine is devoid of. We’re spoon-fed utopian narratives of multiculturalism, which obscure the fact that we incentivized migrants into rebuilding our post-war country and then deported them en masse because we destroyed their landing cards.
This indoctrination used to be more hardcore. I speak to my grandad, who tells me that, in the 1960s, cinemas ended the last movie of every day with the national anthem. Sarah Attfield, a Sydney, Australia-based lecturer and co-founder of the Journal of Working-Class Studies, wrote similar tales of her 1970s upbringing in a fantastic post published on the blog Working-Class Perspectives. “It was like being raised in a cult,” she tells me. “We were taught that [the royals] were special people with a responsibility to look after us ordinary folk.” Attfield also noted that “a lot of working-class families have a royal story—after all, they’re the ones working for them in their big houses!” To Attfield, this “creates a sense of pride” amongst working-class people, and this royal recognition makes them feel “like they’ve done something important for the country.”
Like most rich, capitalist countries built on legacies of empire, Britain remains strictly hierarchical. We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis fueled by soaring energy bills, disproportionately high inflation rates, and stagnant wages. As a result, we’ve seen the continued, widespread rise of unions (2022 was the year of “hot strike summer”), and even now, there are so many ongoing strikes that news outlets are struggling to keep up with their announcements. These mass walkouts have been bubbling up for years, delayed largely by the sense that Brits should keep a “stiff upper lip” about the issues we face. We should be screaming “GUILLOTINE!”—and some of us are—but weirdly, social media is full of Brits telling people to wrap their radiators in tin foil and get over it. Talk about being evicted online, and you’ll likely get a response from an old white guy named Gary with a Union Jack in his bio, telling you that you should have managed your money better.
In an incisive recent essay, writer Serena Smith argued that English people “love oppression.” We’re a nation that so often sees suffering as valorous, preferring to evoke notions of “Blitz spirit” rather than addressing structural inequalities. The prevailing sentiment is that you should grimly endure whatever shit is thrown at you—which, of course, Harry and Meghan didn’t. “So many people do have this view that Harry should have had a stiff upper lip, that he should have grit his teeth and borne it,” Smith told me. These attitudes were summed up in an article by the British tabloid the Sun, which quoted one blogger as saying: “It’s the fucking complaining that everyone’s finding unbearable!”
While Harry and Meghan have been framed as whiny villains, the queen is respected precisely because she stuck her job out until the day she died, a relatable aspiration for many working-class Brits. Interestingly, media coverage of their royal departure spun their choice as a personal affront to the queen, who, especially in the final years of her life, was widely apoliticized as a cute old lady who wears nice hats, not the head of a family still fighting for the remaining shackles of British rule.
It’s not just the working class who love the royals. According to Smith, “the British upper classes put the royals on a pedestal because they symbolize the status quo––as long as they’re there, it seems as though the British class system will stay stratified.” But working-class sentiments are more nuanced. “I do think many, many working-class people want to abolish the monarchy (and many are simply ambivalent),” she said. “But yes, equally, many do adore the royals.” To Smith, one of the most surprising revelations about the royal funeral was that so many working-class people “have parasocial relationships with the royal family. “People spoke about the queen as if they knew her personally.” It’s not hard to find proof: see this video of mourners crying, repeating, “She was England, bless her. She held this country together.”
Race plays a crucial role in these conversations, too. Britain loves to treat racism like an American import, feigning righteous shock at the murder of George Floyd while ignoring the fact that our own police force last year shot dead Chris Kaba, an unarmed Black man. Entire books—Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), Akala’s Natives—have unpicked Britain’s racist history, yet there’s still this overwhelming sense that it’s worse to be called a racist than it is to actually be racist. “If Harry had run off with a white Hollywood actress, he might have scored a few snobby reactions,” Attfield said. “I don’t think a white wife would have been treated the same way.”
Britain often treats “working class” and “white working class” as synonymous, the implication being that people of color don’t fit that descriptor. It’s a misnomer bound in the national imagination of “British” as “white British,” which goes some way towards explaining why the highest levels of Harry and Meghan disapproval are found among older white adults.
It’s all a bit of a mess, but I have to admit—it’s hard to look away for us, too. Harry’s book is fueling the fire. In addition to the story of his frostbitten junk, there are tales of him doing shrooms with celebrities, losing his virginity to an older woman who “treated him like a stallion,” and having cat-fights with his “arch-nemesis” brother. All the while, working-class communities are trying to maintain their stiff upper lips as they strike en masse for fair pay, too put-upon to relate to Harry and Meghan’s fatuous frivolity. In a nation that’s poorer and arguably more divided than ever, the old relics of British nationalism are hanging on by the seams; meanwhile, the world looks on, popcorn in hand.