The Second War of the Waleses is often framed as a brother-against-brother David and Goliath between the poorly treated Sussexes and the sinister institution which overshadowed their destiny, but in truth this is a clash between two strong, and calculated, PR machines. And at stake is not freedom, but image control.
But the heart of the Sussex problem is authenticity. To their fans, they are authenticity personified. But that’s hard to reconcile with the ease in which they utilise their fame, derived from birth and marriage into the royal family, while in the same breath denouncing the institution itself.
The merger was fraught from the beginning, predicated on the expectation that Markle could successfully transition from fourth-ranked of six on a scripted television series, to seventh-ranked of 15 in a modern royal reality television series. As the now-disgraced Lady Susan Hussey foreshadowed, it all ended in tears.
Worse, the Sussex brand is being strangled by its own inconsistency. They advocate for climate change, but still fly private. They project the omnipresent aura of capital-R royalty, while selling themselves as royals-for-rent. And they talk up the relatable pressures of working parenthood while sitting on (and living off) a royal trust fund worth millions.
Their Netflix pot of gold is also proving to be something of a Faustian pact. This is the same Netflix that gave us Diana: The Musical, and has mangled the story of Harry’s parents, Charles and Diana, into the melodramatic fiction of The Crown. The machine is hungry, and the Sussexes have to deliver on their payday.
The new series will inevitably bring out the couple’s critics, baying for them to be stripped of their titles. But peerages – that is, titles like Duke, Earl and so on – while simply created (a process known as issuing Letters Patent) are much, much harder to take away.
The Titles Deprivation Act 1917 does permit the suspension or dissolution of a peerage, though the act was largely created to deal with British aristocrats who sided with Germany over the UK during the First World War. (The most famous case: Queen Victoria’s grandson. Prince Charles Edward, the-then Duke of Albany.)
The peculiar nuance of a modern monarchy, however, means things are less clear. Harry and Meghan could decline to use their titles, in the same way that, say, Camilla used Duchess of Cornwall instead of Princess of Wales, and Prince Edward’s children use Lady Mountbatten-Windsor and Viscount Severn instead of prince and princess.
Even debating the use (or non-use) of something as intangible as a royal peerage is as flimsy as the title itself. But make no mistake, in the world of the Waleses, Windsors and Sussexes such titles are supremely important, as are the micro-formalities that go with them.
It’s why the royal family structure even their private interactions around things as arcane as “the orders of precedence”, which dictate who bows and curtsies to whom, and who enters a room first. And it’s why the Sussexes, despite their protests, have not surrendered their most valuable asset: their titles.
This is, after all, a couple who had to be told by the Queen that they could not use the word “royal” in their commercial activities in the United States. That is perhaps the most telling detail of all.
Whatever happens, Harry & Meghan will certainly cast the die in establishing whether the rift between the runaway royals and their wider family can be mended.
And in that sense it is a monumental gamble: that the Sussexes can capitalise on their American fame using an “us and them” narrative to build brand capital, while not incinerating the institution which, by virtue of their connection to it, is the source of their American fame in the first place.
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