The Sad Prince of Montecito
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex may win in America but they will lose in Britain
Apologies for the interruption in service but here’s the latest edition of The Debatable Land. As always, thank you for reading.
‘She is fed by service’
So says one of the Duchess of Sussex’s chums in the new vanity-doc the couple have persuaded Netflix to pay millions of dollars for and, boy, I guess that’s one way of putting it. As you would expect I have not watched the six-hour saga and nor do I intend to. Chiefly because there is no need to do so since so many other people - and every media outlet - has already gutted it.
To my mind, there was a whiff of rodent some time ago. The rich and famous are often odd but imagine being the kind of people who would invite George and Amal Clooney to your (small-scale) wedding reception even though neither bride nor groom had ever previously met Mr or Mrs Clooney? Imagine doing so while not inviting your best friend from Eton. (Obviously Oprah Winfrey was there too because, well, that’s a glimpse of the future.)
Those were happier times but even then the signs of future disaster could easily be discerned. A Royal life is a miserable, thankless, one in many ways and anyone with any imagination can understand why that is the case. Privilege of this kind is a cage and no amount of gilded furniture can change that essential reality.
The mystery is not that Harry wanted out but that Meghan ever wanted in. Except, I suppose, this is not so very mysterious at all (the wedding invitation list being quite a clue here). Notionally, they both now have what they desired: Harry has escaped and Meghan is famous. But, my, all this has come at a terrible cost.
Just as you cannot serve two masters, so the Sussexes are in the business of discovering that you can be big in the United States or the United Kingdom but not both. They have made their choice and it is not an irrational one.
Yet, despite their protestations to the contrary, they are nothing without the institution they have so plainly come to hate. Their American audience doesn’t really care about their “service”; it wants the royal gossip too. Remove that and the Sussexes are just another vapid pair of wannabe celebrities: rich and beautiful but of no great value or necessity.
Harry finds himself in a position not unlike that endured by a Cold War defector. He has crossed to the other side with no prospect of return. He is useful for as long as his secrets are relevant and for as long as he is willing to offer them up. What begins as a minor, perhaps even justifiable, betrayal becomes a way of life: there is no means of escape and he will be squeezed until every last drop of gossip or innuendo has been wrung from him. At that point, he is spent.
When Harry has nothing more to offer his new paymasters - American television - he is of no more use to them than he is to anyone anywhere else. And thus all that is left is the sad half-life of the exile, mooning around California, pleading for relevance and knowing, deep down, that it’s all downhill from here. Harry, if you like, has lost an empire and not yet found himself a role.
So be it, you think, but is tragic in its way and cruel too.
It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the monarchy is out of step with contemporary culture. This is actually a strength not a weakness, even if it is often considered the latter. “I am who I say I am” is the spirit of the times but monarchy has no time for that. There is no space here for any glorious reinvention of the self. Instead and in point of fact, there is little room for the self at all. The institution matters much more than any individual ever can. “You are what you are” and, pointedly, not what or who you might wish to be. You either come to terms with that or you leave. Harry has taken the latter path and good luck to him.
You cannot be half-a-prince, however, and that, palpably, is what the Sussexes desire. Well, we wouldn’t we all wish a world organised along the lines most likely to please us?
Heaven knows it must be difficult marrying into the House of Windsor and, for sure, some of the press attention Harry and Meghan endured was pretty grim stuff. Yet there was an immense amount of goodwill too, the squandering of which can only really be blamed on the Sussexes themselves. In their different ways, Kate and Camilla and Sophie Wessex have demonstrated that it can be done. So long as you remember the crown is the star.
Harry’s forthcoming memoir is titled “Spare” and, seeing that, you kinda want to say, “Oh, mate”. But what else did he expect? Of course there is a “hierarchy” in the family and, really, what’s the point of complaining about that? There’s a hierarchy in the Argentina football team too but Lionel Messi’s team-mates know better than to whine about the injustice of their own eclipse.
Not that William, Prince of Wales, is a talent on the Messi-scale and thank heavens for that. He does not need to be and should not wish to be either. Stolid, unremarkable, middlebrow decency are all we demand and all the institution needs. Flair and excitement are dangerous things, especially if placed in the wrong hands.
William - and his wife - are the winners from all this. Wisely, they are keeping quiet. “We wish my brother and his family well as they build their new life overseas” is all that need be said. Stoicism is a game for the long-haul and thus, again, unfashionable. The British public were once happy to fool around with the playboy prince but they know they will settle down with the future king. When push comes to shove, William will win any battle with his brother but the prudent course is to avoid fighting it in the first place, trusting that Harry will lose it all on his own.
Thus Harry and Meghan are now akin to some kind of cable-car system: the price of their ascent in America is their descent in Britain and vice versa. Going up there means coming down to earth here. Their choice, again, but it remains a sad business even if, as they sink themselves into deep Californian weirdness, it is also on occasion an inadvertently amusing one.
Ealing Studios Armageddon
It’s well known, I think, that every incoming British prime minister writes a letter to the captains of the UK’s four Vanguard-class, Trident-armed, nuclear submarines detailing their instructions in the event disaster strikes, Britain is eliminated by a hostile nuclear power and the boat cannot make contact with the Admiralty. Since the submarines are on patrol for months at a time, the skipper may actually sometimes have instructions from the previous prime minister, not the current one. Or, as this year, from the PM before the last one.
Quaint as you may think this, consider how matters used to be arranged. This is from Max Hastings’ new account of the Cuban missile crisis:
“In that pre-cellphone era, a bizarre communications machinery was created, which remained in place until 1970, whereby in the event of warning being received of an incoming [missile] strike while the prime minister was in his car, the Automobile Association’s radio rescue system for motorists would be co-opted to alert the PM’s driver, who would then stop at the nearest public telephone box, for Britain’s leader to telephone Downing Street. In a final touch of satire, it was suggested that every Downing Street driver should be issued with the four pennies then necessary to operate a public call-box in this eventuality.”
Department of Strange New Respect
Enter, er, Bono. I may have previously considered an afternoon with Bono a kind of appalling celebrity raffle prize (second prize: an entire day) but since pop stars and actors must be permitted their activism, at least let them be activists endowed with some kind of good sense and clear moral purpose. Bono has a new book out and some of the publicity round attending its publication is unwittingly entertaining. This is not a reflection on Bono but, rather, upon the assumptions of those interviewing him. Thus, this New York Times feature:
Q: Hearing you say that U2 can still make a song famous but probably can’t still have a hit indicates a certain level of self-awareness. I’m curious about whether you’re similarly self-aware about how your activism is seen by some. Maybe this is too much of straw-man argument, but it’s easy to imagine a young activist looking through the book and seeing praise for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — not exactly beloved figures these days — and thinking you’re out of touch. Or reading a sentence like “Why is there hunger in a world of surplus?” and wondering whether you ever asked that question to all the billionaires you write about glowingly. So do you give credence to shifting ideas about activism and change in the same way that you give credence to shifting ideas about the pop world?
A: It is a fair question. Systemic change is required, but I get one eyebrow up when people want systemic change but don’t want to bother to turn up for the town-hall meeting. I’ve met a few of them. You know, I smuggled some tapes out of the Genoa G8 meeting, where the anti-globalization protesters were getting the shire kicked out of them. They were smashed up and came to me and asked me to smuggle out some tapes. I did, and when I got the tapes back to the people, I sat down and said: “Look, what are you doing here? What are we going to do?” And they were like: “We’re anarchists, dude. We’re not into that shit.” I said: “Is it just that this stuff’s too boring for you? Can we find a model?” You still have to vote and get organized. I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started. I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true. There’s a funny moment when you realize that as an activist: The off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism. I spend a lot of time in countries all over Africa, and they’re like, ‘Eh, we wouldn’t mind a little more globalization actually’. [Emphasis added]. I would point out that there has been a lot of progress over the years. If you read Thomas Piketty, whom you also interviewed, his whole thing is that in 200 years incredible progress has been made.
Well, quite. And then:
Q: It feels as though you have more in your book about the specifics of negotiating with Condoleezza Rice on PEPFAR [the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief] than you do about making, I don’t know, “One.” Should readers take that as an accurate reflection of what you believe is more important for them to know about your life?
A: OK, there is significant background on the sessions in Hansa Studios in Berlin and I give some background on the relationships in the band being a little frozen. But the story of that song has been discussed, whereas the story of PEPFAR has not. Until this pandemic, PEPFAR was the largest intervention in the history of medicine to fight a single disease. George W. Bush pledged $18 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, and his go-to person on this, Dr. Rice, played a significant role. I would point out that Obama continued that legacy. He spent $52 billion. Outside of my family and the band, being a catalyst for that is absolutely the most important thing in my life. I thought it was important for me to show that, and also how it works to be an activist. I often instead use the word “actualist,” because activists sometimes like to stay on the outside and criticize, whereas the “actualist” wants to get [expletive] done. I found that if I was ready to drop some biases, coming from the left to work with the right, we could get stuff done. I know it will lose some music fans, but it was important for me to have that in there.
Double quite. And, sweet baby Jesus, he’s not finished there:
Q: I’ll admit my biases here. When I see billionaires, I’m inclined to see them as systemic problems. And I think when you see them, you’re inclined to see them as solutions. So when I read the adulation in “Surrender” for Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs and so on, with no nods to the notion that the power and influence of these people might be the symptom of a profoundly broken system, it does make me wonder if you, the punk-rock fan from Cedarwood Road can see that side of things anymore or if you’ve just become a Davos man.
A: Oh, that hurt. Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug ya. [Laughs.] OK, it is likely that I have lost sight of the inequality issue within our own countries as I’m studying inequality on a global level. Perhaps if I wasn’t so involved in defending the project that is loosely described as globalization, and because I understand how that has narrowed the gap of inequality in the wider world — I suppose I’m not as well read about it. Some of the people you’re describing are people who have made resources available to […] try to make sense of the madness of their money as best they can. But the globalization project is a very complicated one. In Ireland, globalization has helped move our country from despair and dire poverty. Hard for me to get angry about that. An AIDS activist I know called Agnes Nyamayarwo — met her 20 years ago. We had a meeting and were talking about what it was like for health workers to hand out the results of H.I.V. tests and know it was a death sentence. To people who grow up in abject poverty in the developing world, there’s no difference between our bank accounts. It’s like, you two got water, you got heat.
Preach! Note, though, the interviewer’s oh-so-fashionable priors: billionaires are “systemic problems” and symptoms of a “profoundly broken system”. This is trite and therefore easy but, like many such things, not necessarily true.
Take Bill Gates, for instance. It is really quite difficult to imagine a world without Microsoft or, failing that, a company like Microsoft. How do you quantify the value it has added to lives - and companies - across the world? If anything, Bill Gates has probably been under-paid and under-valued for decades.
Capitalism is about solving problems. Not exclusively so, granted, but often. How do we make X,Y or Z better or faster or cheaper? How do we find new ways of doing things?
And this cascades. Look at Amazon. A great disrupter, for sure, but also a boon to countless smaller companies for whom Amazon has opened a world of opportunity that previously simply did not exist. The same, plainly, might be said for consumers for whom convenience is an under-valued commodity.
Alternatively: what value do you attach to destroying the internal combustion engine? If you accept that phasing out petrol engines is a planetary imperative then you need people who are actually going to help get that done. Elon Musk is many, many things (not all of them good) but you could argue he’s accelerated this process by - I’m guessing here - at least five years?
Tesla, remember, was supposed to be a spectacular failure but if Tesla fails now it will be because it persuaded traditional car companies that, actually, their future was both electric and arriving much sooner than they had thought. What kind of a price - even a paper fortune based on other people’s appraisal of your company’s value - can you put on that?
Would a world without billionaires be a better place than one with them? I strongly doubt it.
Relatedly: Come on, the Windows 95 launch is weirdly adorable.
“That first evening in hospital was difficult – more difficult than I knew at the time. I was weak as a newborn, semi-detached from myself, in something of a fugue state. My blood pressure had collapsed, and my haemoglobin count (the stuff in your red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body) was less than half what it should be. I received the first of eight pints of blood that would be pumped into me over the next few days (the human body holds around ten pints). A second drip delivered nutrients. My wife told me the next day, when I was a little more compos mentis, that it hadn’t been certain I would survive the night.” My dear old pal Chris Deerin writes very well about the experience of being really quite unwell. [New Statesman]
Iain Macwhirter is now on Substack.
And so is Nick Cohen.
I think Gore Vidal a better novelist than essayist and his political novels - Lincoln, Washington DC and so on - his best work. Or, rather, I think Vidal under-rated as a novelist but over-rated as an essayist. So I commend this Ross Douthat piece on Burr and concur with its depressing conclusion too: “Instead of vaulting ambition counteracting vaulting ambition, our adventurers stand out, clownishly, amid a landscape of greying mediocrity. This is far less dangerous than the alternative, but it is a sign of decay rather than life.” [Unherd]
Helen Lewis has passed her driving test at last. Which is another reminder that I should really get on and pass mine. In my experience, a surprising number of journalists do not know how to drive - surprising because it is a trade which often requires some mobility - though I accept this view may also be a reflection of sample bias. [The Atlantic]
“A few months after Taggart and his wife separated, in 2020, he got an Instagram message from an effervescent woman named Mia Pheonix. Pheonix, who’d changed her last name from O’Neil to honor her soul’s continual rebirth, had seen Taggart’s D2DU videos in Tampa, where she was learning to sell solar. Her message asked how to get into roofing sales. In truth, she suspected that Taggart was the man she’d been magnetizing her mind for. Her original list of desirable qualities included “luscious hair,” “really beautiful bone structure,” “ripped & strong,” “making 200k + a year,” and “50k + followers” on Instagram, but it had grown to encompass “spirituality/God,” “business savvy,” and “musical ability.”” There is GOLD throughout this glorious profile of one of America’s top door-to-door salesmen. (Who knew door-to-door was still a thing, let alone huge business?) [The New Yorker]
Sam Leith on Matt Hancock’s fraudulent “diaries”. [The Spectator]
Anne Applebaum on poor old Moldova, a land of constant struggle, caught between past and present, east and west. [The Atlantic]
Chris Snowdon tells you who to block on Twitter. (It’s a lot of people.) [Substack]
Like all normal people I had never heard of liability-driven investment funds - LDIs - until Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng made them a thing. These are the pension vehicles thrown into turmoil by the Great Truss Experiment. It turns out that many of the not-always-wholly-normal people in the City had never heard of them either. But - and we’re searching for upside here - at least it reminded me to watch Margin Call again. This is a shockingly under-rated or, rather, shockingly little-known movie that deserves much greater exposure. Unlike The Big Short it was not a great commercial success. The Big Short is, in essence, a caper-comedy and it cheers the viewer by having heroes. The great merit of Margin Call is that it eschews heroism. It is merciless and bleak and chilling and just a little big magnificent. As here, for instance:
That’s all for today, folks. I apologise that posting has been light in recent weeks. I was on holiday for a fortnight and various other duties have got in the way too. I have a number of pieces for The Debatable Land planned, however, and intend to be mailing these newsletters more frequently henceforth. As always, thanks for reading and recommending and sharing. See you here again, soon.
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I, like many of my fellow Brits I’m sure, welcomed Meghan Markel’s relationship with Harry. At last he’d found the woman he wanted to spend his life with. Trouble is that it now appears that playing second fiddle to the faultless Katherine just wasn’t what she’d expected so she had a strop. I’m now looking forward to when I don’t have to hear about them ever again, but I suspect Harry will return to the UK with his tail between his legs in a few years and we’ll have to hear about even more guff.
Harry's book should be called Spent, not Spare then.