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What to know about Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, stepping back

Announcing a plan to "step back" from being a senior royal is sort of like declaring an intention to recuse oneself from being famous

By Caity Weaver and Elizabeth Paton
Published: Jan 10, 2020

What to know about Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, stepping backPrince Harry and Meghan Markle
Image: Shutterstock

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex made a big and hasty announcement this week that caught the world by surprise — even as it was months in the making. Here’s what we know so far.

What exactly are Prince Harry and Meghan doing?
It’s not fully clear and it depends whom you ask.

In a message posted to both the couple’s Instagram page and their new stand-alone website (one of two websites they have introduced in the last few months), the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their intentions to “carve out a progressive new role within” the “institution” of the British monarchy; to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family”; to “work to become financially independent while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen”; to “balance” their time “between the United Kingdom and North America”; to “honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages”; to launch a “new charitable entity”; and “to collaborate with Her Majesty The Queen, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Cambridge, and all relevant parties.”

The message seemed to suggest a desire to relinquish some (public) lifestyle funding in order to be less beholden to the strict protocol and de facto traditions of the royal family without sacrificing titles, influence or access.

According to a frosty statement from Buckingham Palace, which was not involved in the announcement, this is all still being negotiated:

“Discussions with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”

No bad ideas in a brainstorm.

Is “senior royal” a job?
No. It’s a designation applied to those adult members of the royal family closest to the throne in the line of succession, and their spouses, who tend to carry out the majority of public engagements alongside and/or on behalf of the queen. It currently refers to Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip; Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla; and Prince William and his wife, Kate. One could argue that, since Harry has neither removed himself from the line of succession nor given up his title, he and Meghan remain senior royals.

Announcing a plan to “step back” from being a senior royal is sort of like declaring an intention to recuse oneself from being famous.

Why are they stepping back?
Specific reasons mentioned on their website include enabling themselves “to earn a professional income, which in the current structure they are prohibited from doing,” and handling their own media relations. On that second point, they particularly emphasized their decision to operate independent of the so-called Royal Rota — a key feature of royal family press relations that grants perpetual special access to journalists from seven British publications, including some tabloids.

Harry has long been critical of the British press. In October, he and Meghan initiated legal proceedings against the publishers of multiple British newspapers. He explained their decision in a statement posted on one of the Sussex websites, in which he excoriated the media and drew a connection between the royals’ treatment at the hands of the press and his mother Princess Diana’s death.

And let’s not forget the 2017 interview with Newsweek in which Harry mused, “Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.” Not a glowing endorsement of the enterprise.

Has anyone in the royal family ever done this?
Not exactly (though there was a play written about it). The last couple to reject senior royal life was Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the original divorced American duchess, for whom Edward relinquished the throne in 1936. But he was, you know, the actual head of state, so the decision prompted a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Other family members have also scaled back their public duties for a variety of reasons. Prince Philip retired from public life in 2017, at the perfectly reasonable-to-retire age of 96. After her divorce from Prince Charles, Princess Diana gave back her HRH title and quit her role with 93 charities. And in November, Prince Andrew announced he was stepping back from public duties after an interview with the BBC about his friendship with convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

What does the British public think?
More Britons currently appear to have a view on Megxit than they did on the royal wedding itself.

At first, there were clear and loud rumblings of support. Then a few questions arose about cash, given that quite a lot of it had been thrown about in the last few years. The wedding. The house. The bodyguards.

What really roused Brits was the statement from the palace, which implied that couple had not fully discussed their retreat from royal life with the queen, whom we love. How dare they?

The tabloids, however, had a field day. “They didn’t even tell the Queen!” fumed the Thursday front page of the Daily Mirror. “Queen’s fury as Harry and Meghan say: we quit!” read the lead headline of the Daily Mail. (Other institutions got in on the drama, too: Madame Tussauds in London separated its wax figures of Harry and Meghan from those of the rest of the royal family.)

The term “Megxit” got a lot of airtime. “Harryverderci” has yet to catch on.

What was public sentiment toward the Sussexes like before “Megxit”?
Mixed? Very positive around the birth of baby Archie. Less positive around all the private jet hopping last summer. But most Brits haven’t been paying much attention. Between the recent general election, Australia being on fire and Brexit, the prospect of Megxit had not crossed many people’s minds.

Please tell me no one’s birthday was ruined because of this.
Harry and Meghan made their bombshell announcement on Jan. 8. Seeing as Jan. 9 is Kate Middleton’s birthday, and multiple members of the royal family were photographed arriving at Kensington Palace, for what multiple British websites described as a planned birthday celebration (in the middle of the day, on a Thursday), we cannot state with full confidence that no one’s birthday was ruined.

How many royals does one royal family really need?
Some say: not so many. Last year, the Swedish royal family streamlined its ranks; the king announced that five of his grandchildren would no longer bear titles or be expected to carry out royal duties. They would also no longer be paid the sum royal family members receive each year.

Being royal is expensive, and income inequality is a hot topic. The idea of trimming the royal fat, if you will, is to keep the focus on those in the direct line of succession and minimize the degree to which the family can be criticized for using public funds.

How much does the British royal family cost taxpayers?
Members of the British royal family are fond of sharing the following statistic: The contribution from U.K. taxpayers toward the full overhead of the British monarchy is equivalent to approximately 1 pound per British person per year.

For argument’s sake, one could note that the French royal family costs French taxpayers nothing, because it was abolished. One former royal palace became the Louvre.

Will Harry and Meghan keep their titles?
They have expressed no intentions to relinquish their titles. Their new website consistently refers to them as “Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex.”

Where will they live?
According to their statement, Harry and Meghan will split their time “between the United Kingdom and North America.”

Earlier this week, the couple visited an official Canadian residence in London “to thank the High Commissioner Janice Charette and staff for the warm hospitality” they enjoyed on a private vacation over Christmas, according to their Instagram page. The caption of the post included multiple neutral statements about Canada seemingly intended as compliments: “The Duke and Duchess have a strong connection to Canada. It’s a country The Duke of Sussex has visited many times over the years and it was also home to The Duchess for seven years before she became a member of The Royal Family.”

For those reasons, and because it’s part of the Commonwealth, Canada seems like a safe bet for a North American base. There is also speculation that the family could spend more time in Meghan’s home state of California, where her mother resides.

What are they going to do for money?
They plan to earn an income!

How are they going to earn an income?
Unclear, but an income is potentially a great source of money.

One possible clue about their intentions: In June, Harry and Meghan’s foundation submitted a trademark application for the name “Sussex Royal.” The application covers goods and services including (but not limited to) books, periodicals, stationery, charitable campaigns, charitable consultancy services, sports coaching services, counseling services, T-shirts, caps and pajamas, which Britons spell “pyjamas.”

So, how do they have money right now — today?
Harry’s inheritances from his mother and grandmother, coupled with Meghan’s acting earnings, mean that the couple are almost certainly millionaires several times over. While they don’t receive a “salary” as members of the royal family, they are granted allowances from various royal sources.

What does “financially independent” mean to royals?
Harry and Meghan have publicly declared their intention to relinquish the funds from the Sovereign Grant, which they say covers 5% of the costs associated with running their official office. (The Sovereign Grant is money the British government pays the monarch to fund monarchical duties.) The remaining 95% of their office expenses — equivalent to millions of pounds — are paid for by what is deemed Charles’ “private income,” earned from his estate, the Duchy of Cornwall.

The couple’s statement does not indicate an intention to stop accepting funds from Charles. The website ever so vaguely suggested that they will also continue to receive free security protection from London’s Metropolitan Police.

Has Harry ever had a job in his life?
Yes. He served in the British army for 10 years, including two stints in Afghanistan.

Will Meghan go back to “Suits”?
No. The series finale of “Suits” aired in September of 2019.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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