NEW YORK – The announcement by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — aka the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — that they’re stepping back from being “senior” members of Britain’s royal family should have come as no great surprise to royal watchers who have watched the pair struggle in the glare of the spotlight over the past year.
Insiders sometimes call the royals “the Firm,” and perhaps that analogy is useful to understanding their desire to live, shall we say, a more entrepreneurial life.
The shift is consistent with a long-term strategic plan attributed to Prince Charles, who has indicated that he favors a slimmed-down monarchy with fewer people called upon to play the role of senior executive. He wants the focus to be mainly on the monarch and those in the line of succession. In this case, that’s the queen, himself, his son Prince William, and William’s oldest child, Prince George. It’s not the Sussexes, as much as the media loves covering them.
This means not only jettisoning some liabilities — think of Jeffrey Epstein-linked Prince Andrew — but also divesting some potential assets, like the Sussexes, into independent entities, if they don’t fit with the strategic vision.
Think about it. To succeed, an organization needs to focus. The essence of competitive strategy is not only deciding what you will do, but being firm on what you will not do. The royal family doesn’t get to pick its relatives any more than you or I, but they can decide who lives off the public purse, who counts as “senior” and who does not.
There’s no doubt they’d prefer to keep the focus firmly on the royals who burnish the family brand. Over the past couple of years, Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — have taken on an increasing number of public engagements of the kind the crown would like to see more of: carefully staged ribbon cuttings, sidewalk meet-and-greets, charity work. They share adorable photos of their adorable children. They weathered unsubstantiated rumors about their marriage and a falling-out with friends with hardly a backward glance.
By contrast, the Sussexes have managed over the past couple of years to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory several times. They’ve repeatedly failed to coordinate major announcements with the palace.
Last fall, they torpedoed the good public relations they’d earned on a tour of South Africa by launching an ill-considered lawsuit against the press just as the visit was ending. They also fumbled the public aspect of baby Archie’s birth — which is usually a pretty hands-down positive royal news story — by promising to share some details with the public but then holding most of those details in strict secrecy. And, fairly or not, they struck people as hypocritical by extolling personal efforts to mitigate climate change while, like most rich people, living a pretty carbon-intensive lifestyle. When their celebrity friends rushed to defend them, it only made the public angrier.
While these may seem like tempests in so many gilded teapots, and while some of the criticisms seem wildly unfair — would we prefer elites who didn’t care about the climate at all? — taken as a whole, they run the risk of eroding the Firm’s “customer base.” In other words, each dust-up has the potential to make British taxpayers ask, “Hey, do we really need to keep supporting these ‘toffs’?”
Roughly a quarter of younger Brits would like to abolish the monarchy, polls show, and that’s with an enormously popular queen about to reach her 68th year as monarch. After so many own-goals, it’s not surprising that senior management might want to “make some changes,” as the old corporate euphemism goes, or that the Sussexes themselves would want a sort of career change.
They have clearly struggled to balance the public and private aspects of royal life, and frankly, seem pretty miserable doing the job they’ve been trying to do since their wedding. Harry and Meghan have issues they care deeply about and want to have a public voice on; their job in the family business has been to keep quiet and smile. Seen in that light, they haven’t really been hitting their performance targets — and they probably don’t find the work all that fulfilling.
Perhaps this is one spinoff that will work for everyone involved.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion.