Few things exemplify Britishness more than dear old Marks & Spencer.
So when, in May 2018, the Windsor branch changed its name to ‘Markle and Sparkle’ in honour of the marriage of Harry Windsor to Meghan Markle, it felt like the ultimate stamp of approval.
Swept away by the giddy excitement of a royal wedding — and not just any royal wedding, the marriage of Princess Diana’s younger son, that brave little soldier who carved his name on all our hearts the day he walked behind his mother’s coffin just aged 12 —we were as entranced by Meghan as Harry clearly was.
It wasn’t just that she was gorgeous, there was also far more to her than most royal fiancees. She had a backstory that wasn’t all pony clubs and boarding schools.
Here was a woman who had worked hard to forge a career and a name for herself, who understood what it meant to overcome adversity.
Although the Oprah Winfrey interview will no doubt paint them both as victims of a terrible conspiracy by the British Press and ‘The Firm’, the public will judge them not by their performances on the sofa of a chat show hostess, but by their actions
She was talented, with a successful acting career behind her; but above all else she was strong — and that was reassuring. Despite his stint in the Army, there was still a degree of vulnerability to Harry.
By contrast, Meghan was a grown-up who could stand on her own two feet, even if those feet were invariably encased in vertiginous heels that would have crippled most mortals.
It felt like Harry had chosen wisely: someone capable of withstanding the inevitable challenges of becoming a royal consort and providing him with the solid foundation he needed to leave the past behind and start building a family of his own.
For two decades since the death of his mother, we had watched with trepidation, never certain how the psychological effects of that trauma would play out. Successive girlfriends had never seemed quite able to cope.
The November 2017 front page showing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Kensington Palace
But when Meghan came along it felt like he had finally found someone up to it. We could all heave a huge sigh of relief. And we were just so happy, for both of them.
My goodness, how wrong we were. It seems astonishing that we could have been so naive. For far from being the making of Harry, Meghan might just prove his downfall. All that initial goodwill and promise has been, in just a few short years, entirely squandered.
The headlines that welcomed their union so enthusiastically have slowly soured, as the couple’s behaviour has grown ever more paranoid and self-destructive.
As for Harry, with Meghan at his side he has gone from being almost universally adored to an angry, bitter, resentful and — astonishingly for someone who grew up in his circumstances — decidedly chippy shadow of his former self, clipped and stony-faced, now all but unrecognisable from the man we thought we knew.
And now, a crossroads. The next few days will determine the outcome of this extraordinary stand-off between the Queen and her grandson.
And although the forthcoming Oprah Winfrey interview will no doubt paint them both as victims of a terrible conspiracy by the British Press and ‘The Firm’ to discredit them in the eyes of the public, that same public will judge them not by their performances on the sofa of a chat show hostess, but by their actions.
In her latest clip to promote the interview, Meghan tells Oprah that now she has escaped the ‘construct’ of the Royal Family, ‘it’s really liberating to be able to have the right and the privilege in some ways to be able to say, yes, I’m ready to talk’.
The January 10 2018 coverage covered Meghan’s visit to Brixton with a picture special
But this so-called liberation comes at a cost — and Harry is the one who stands to lose the most. Stripped of his royal patronages and without any of the infrastructure that has surrounded him all his life, he now faces a future of cold, hard commercial reality.
Together they seem intent on an aggressive approach that, while perhaps satisfying both financially and emotionally in the short term, will leave them with fewer options in future.
Not even Prince Philip’s stay in hospital and his subsequent heart operation seems to have been able to soften the couple’s determination to pursue this collision course.
When did it all change for them? After all, at the moment Meghan first appeared, they had the goodwill of the nation firmly behind them. The coverage was universally positive.
And while Meghan’s complicated family life inevitably drew some attention, to a great extent it was seen as a measure of her resilience that she had managed to make her way in the world despite it. There were many, myself included, who admired her as a result.
But while so much of the focus has been on Meghan and her allegedly disruptive influence on the Prince, the seeds of this conflict were sown long before she came on the scene.
The coverage from May 19 2018, declaring the magically modern royal wedding
It is often the way of these things that the woman takes the blame, but that would be unfair. She was simply the catalyst for the simmering undercurrents of resentment that had long stirred deep in the heart of the Prince.
The true strength of those feelings was made abundantly clear in 2017, in a documentary filmed by the brothers to mark the 20th anniversary of their mother’s death.
The extent of the damage done to the young Prince by his parents’ acrimonious divorce, the Palace’s treatment of Diana and his father’s relationship with Camilla was painfully obvious.
While William came across as a man who had, not easily but with thoughtfulness and dedication, done his best to make his peace with the past, for Harry the hurt and anger were still raw. In particular his loathing of the Press, which he directly blamed for his mother’s death, was marked. While in some ways understandable — though her driver was drunk, the paparazzi were indeed following her — it seemed to be eating away at him in a way that was clearly toxic.
When he met and married Meghan, Harry’s anger in this respect seems to have escalated and, to an extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In November 2016, he hit back at the media in a strongly-worded statement, accusing the Press of harassment and sharp practices towards Meghan, alleging racism and, most tellingly, expressing his disappointment that he had ‘not been able to protect her’.
This goes to the heart of how and why it has all gone so horribly wrong. Even before he had proposed to Meghan, Harry had decided to go to war with those he held responsible for his pain.
The coverage from May 7, 2019, celebrated the arrival of Harry and Megan’s 7lb 3oz Archie
He had been too young to protect his beloved mother; he was not going to make the same mistake with his wife.
In many ways, what we are dealing with here is not a 36-year-old man, but the part of him that remains an angry young boy, racked with the pain of losing his mother.
It is certainly telling that one of the first clips released from the Oprah interview was Harry saying he feared ‘history repeating itself’.
To some degree, this is understandable: but there was a strong element of Harry’s behaviour that suggested he was not only prepared to take a defensive position; he was actively spoiling for a fight.
Except a lot of the time he was tilting at windmills.
Yes, Meghan did receive a horrible amount of online abuse — but that is sadly true of almost any high- profile woman.
Of course there was a huge amount of media interest in her family, some of whom turned out to be self-interested attention-seekers, hoping to profit by association.
Nevertheless, the compliments were flowing for her: ‘Dazzling debut’, ‘a very modern royal’, ‘magic’. At every turn she garnered praise.
But it was almost as if the couple had developed a narrative of victimhood that they were determined to pursue wherever possible.
Perfectly legitimate questioning of their subsequent behaviour — of their doom-mongering about climate change allied to their proclivity for private jets, of their clear preference for the company of celebrities over royal duties — was interpreted by them, entirely erroneously, as rooted in prejudice.
The truth is, the attention they received was by no means any worse than previous royal couples had endured. In fact, it was much better. Kate Middleton had a torrid time of it, humiliatingly dubbed ‘Waity Katie’ for the time it took William to propose; poor Camilla was frequently painted as an evil witch in contrast to the saintly Diana; even the Queen has had to endure speculation about her marriage over the years.
However hurtful and damaging these other royals might have found these stories, they all found ways of turning public opinion in their favour. With the help of advisers, they managed to carve out the privacy they needed within the context of wider scrutiny.
But right from the start, Harry and Meghan insisted that everything had to be done their way.
Witness the rapid turnover of staff in their private office, not to mention subsequent accusations of bullying, now being formally investigated by the Palace.
Again, they handled the Press with all the skill and maturity of petulant teenagers, reducing those around them — people who only wanted the best for them — to emotional rubble.
It’s these accusations of staff bullying that will ultimately prove problematic for them. Not just back home in Blighty but also in their adopted land of California, where bullying is as much of a no-no as sexual harassment.
Witness the downfall of Ellen DeGeneres, once the undisputed queen of American TV, brought low by a bullying scandal very similar to the one that now threatens to engulf the Sussexes. It won’t play out well for them in their new life among the gilded ranks of politically-correct Hollywood celebrity to have something like that hanging over their heads.
But perhaps the biggest mistake Harry and Meghan have made is to turn their ire on the Queen.
If they had made a decision to simply walk away on the grounds that the trappings of fame and fortune were, ultimately, too much to bear, no one would have blamed them. It is a tough existence and one that not everyone can stomach. No one could begrudge Harry for wanting a quiet life.
But that is not what they have done. They have deliberately courted publicity. And instead of bowing out gracefully from royal life, they have embarked on an astonishing smear campaign against the very people and institution to which they owe their exalted status.
It is one thing to walk away from the House of Windsor; it is quite another to torch the place on the way out. Lecturing the Queen, who has dedicated seven decades to her country, on the nature of ‘service’ is not only absurd — especially when you consider they lasted, by comparison, five minutes — but extreme arrogance.
Bleating about privacy while selling details of their existence to the highest bidder, and styling themselves as ambassadors for kindness and compassion and allegedly causing material distress to a woman whose husband is seriously ill in hospital, is not acceptable.
Allowing the monarch to be cast as some sort of mafia boss — ‘were you silent or were you silenced?’ Oprah asked of them — is unforgivable.
As for claiming that the whole experience — lavish wedding, free houses, hot and cold running staff and every conceivable privilege —was ‘unsurvivable’; that’s just insulting to the millions of souls on this planet whose lives are truly insufferable, not to mention the many thousands back home who have spent the past year doing their best to survive the pandemic without the benefit of 14 bedrooms and a swimming pool.
It’s a sad, sorry situation. No doubt they — and the fans who buy into their tale of victimhood — will see their audience with Oprah as triumphant retribution for their suffering.
But there will be many more who will see it for what it is: The delusional, one-sided ravings of a couple drunk on their own drama.