Marina Salandy-Brown writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
The British royal family and the lives of its members are of little concern to us in this country. We do not have to defend the work they do as ambassadors, or the stability they represent, nor do we have to complain about them being poor value for money, or trying to interfere in politics, or being too open or closed or costly or redundant.
However, the engagement of Prince Harry to a most unlikely young woman this week is worthy of comment as it symbolises the deep shifts in one of the world’s oldest institutions and sets a worthy example. The Catholic-educated, mixed-race, divorced, American actress Meghan Markle ticks all the wrong boxes for the role of duchess, princess or whatever title she receives once legally a royal.
In constitutional terms the most potentially vexing point is religious. Everyone probably knows that the Protestant Anglican Church of England was established when, in the 16th century, King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because he wanted to end his marriage and start another, which was not allowed. Since then the British monarch has also been head of that church.
Until three or four years ago, a royal in line to the throne could not marry a Catholic and keep his or her place in the pecking order. Although a revision to the law now makes it possible to marry a Catholic, no Catholic is allowed to be king or queen, as that would cause an almighty crisis.
A royal could in effect marry a Muslim, a non-believer or any other person but the tradition has not been established. Early on, Ms Markle’s exclusive Catholic school education was under scrutiny as a possible relationship buster.
As for being a divorcee and American, we have been here before but things have eased. In 1936, the queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated as it was then forbidden to marry divorcees. He preferred the love of Mrs Simpson, the twice-divorced American socialite whom he adored, and catapulted his younger brother into the hot seat, which his niece Elizabeth inherited.
She in turn stopped her sister Princess Margaret’s marriage to the love of her life as he was a divorced man, and when Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles, the love of his life, after Princess Diana’s fatal accident, they were not granted a church wedding as she was a divorcee. Harry and Meghan will however be married in church.
Fame and showbiz have always rubbed shoulders with royals, and some commentators could offer some cutting reasons why, but the fact that the young prince who is well known for his frolicking should marry an actress does break new ground. The biggest surprise, however, and the elephant in the room, is the fact that Prince Harry has taken his mother’s lead and fallen in love with a non-European, non-white.
Princess Diana died, aged 36, in the car with her Egyptian boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed, and her earlier liaison with a Pakistani doctor is well documented. So unwelcome was the Al-Fayed relationship that Dodi’s billionaire father, who was refused UK citizenship, believed the royal family engineered the deadly accident.
Meghan Markle will be the first non-white person to marry into the royal family in modern history. Also aged 36, she is not aristocratic or rich but she is pretty, intelligent and personable, which was enough to win her approval at least from the now inured royal family, if not from the mean-minded conservative British press that is always keen to exploit race, religion, class, or anything possible as social dividers.
The Spectator magazine describes the bride-to-be as the sort of woman who previously would have been only good enough to be the mistress and not the wife of a prince. The right-wing tabloids have found pretend-innocent copy in the abundant use of photographs of Prince Harry’s African-American future mother-in-law, who disdains dressing the part, maintaining her usual sporty style of clothing, plaited corn-rowed hair and unmade-up face. We all know what the subtext is. It feeds the nationalist, racist elements that rage with hate.
To put it into context, now that Prince William — second in line to the throne — has two and soon-to-be three heirs, Prince Harry’s chances of becoming king have plummeted. That may partly explain why he has been allowed to choose such a potentially unsuitable bride, but another reason is that times have changed.
The current UK census reveals that one in every ten people is in an interracial relationship. Harry’s choice reinforces that trend.