Getting Active: Inside Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Foray Into Politics, Media and Social Justice

Getting Active: Inside Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Foray Into Politics, Media and Social Justice

If Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were still senior royals, almost everything they've said regarding world affairs in 2020 would have been impossible—and they're still causing quite the stir.

No one in Britain's royal family has stirred up more controversy by being too outspoken than… Prince Charles?

That's right, when it comes to kicking up a fuss, it's Queen Elizabeth II's 71-year-old son and heir apparent who has had royal watchers wringing their hands for years over his comments on agriculture, climate change, education and anything else that could be seen as potentially influencing political policy.

"Every constitutional monarchy that is successful keeps the monarch out of politics. What Charles talks about is highly controversial and highly damaging," noted one MP back in 2008 in response to some remarks the Prince of Wales had made about genetically modified crops. "For example, most plant scientists think his stance about genetic modification holds back the fight against disease and poverty in the third world. Having a monarch is something most people accept, but not as a political force."

In 2018, in a BBC documentary commemorating his 70th birthday, Charles didn't admit to crossing any lines but acknowledged the difference between being king and being in line.

"You know, I've tried to make sure whatever I've done has been non-party political, and I think it's vital to remember there's only room for one sovereign at a time, not two," he explained. "So, you can't be the same as the sovereign if you're the Prince of Wales or the heir. But the idea somehow that I'm going to go on in exactly the same way, if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two—the two situations—are completely different."

Indeed, the further you get down the line of succession, the less you can be perceived as resting your privileged thumb on the scales of policy-making. But no matter where you're at in the pecking order, you still have to watch yourself.

Even if you've flown the coop.

The freedom to say and do, not anything, but exponentially more than what they would have been confined to had they maintained the status quo in England can't have been far from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's minds when they decamped to Southern California. And now the freshly unleashed couple have really started firing on all cylinders when it comes to using their platform to weigh in on the hot-button issues of the day.

Not least of which includes the upcoming presidential election. Meghan may be HRH Duchess of Sussex (though her and Harry's title's have been in storage since March 31, when their resignation as senior royals became official), but she's still an American citizen, and she wants people to vote, damn it.

"Seeing our world through the lens of community is so important because we need to redraw the lines of how we engage with each other, both online and off," she said, speaking from experience as she sat alongside her husband last month marking National Voter Registration Day on ABC's TIME 100 special, the couple having been included on the 2018 TIME 100 list of influential people. "What we're exposed to online seeps into how we engage with each other offline. It can train us to be kind, or it can train us to be cruel."

 

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Agreeing with those who've said that this is "the most important election of our lifetime," Meghan explained, "When we vote, our values are put into action and our voices are heard."

Added Harry, "This election, I'm not going to be able to vote her in the U.S., but many of you may not know that I haven't been able to vote in the U.K. my entire life. As we approach this November, it's vital that we reject hate speech, misinformation and online negativity."

(For the record, it's not illegal for him to vote back home, but it's considered unconstitutional because the monarchy has historically remained politically neutral. Why do you think you've never heard the word "Brexit" come out of any of their mouths?)

Though they didn't mention either candidate, this was immediately interpreted to be a tacit endorsement of Joe Biden, and when a reporter asked President Donald Trump his thoughts on that the next day, the commander in chief replied, "I'm not a fan of hers and I would say this, and she probably has heard that, but I wish a lot of luck to Harry. He's going to need it."

Trump, who met Harry in June of last year at Buckingham Palace during a state visit (Meghan, still on maternity leave, wasn't there), had also previously tweeted that the government wouldn't be paying any of the couple's security costs once they moved to the U.S., seemingly a preemptive strike because no such request had been made.

So, welcome home, Meghan! (And also…stay gone, Harry! Count frequent Sussex critic Piers Morgan back in the U.K. among those who were scandalized by the couple "crossing a line by diving into politics," the Good Morning Britain host demanding in an op-ed that the queen strip the couple of their titles. It was not the first time he had called them out, either, having also chided Meghan for "[spouting] off about foreign elections" in "a brazenly partisan way" during the online event "When All Women Vote" in August.)

But getting under the president's skin is basically a right of passage for a celebrity these days, and Meghan is in prestigious company, right up there with Oprah Winfrey, Meryl StreepChrissy Teigen and John Legend, late-night hosts named Jimmy and others who've been critical of him. 

A week later, at Fortune's Most Powerful Women virtual summit, Meghan insisted that she has never been particularly controversial, but that people are often eager to shoot the messenger.

"If you look back at anything I've said, it's really interesting because often what ends up being inflammatory it seems is people's interpretation of it," she said. "But if you listen to what I actually say, it's not controversial. And actually, some of it is reactive to things that just haven't happened, which is in some ways, I think you have to have a sense of humor about even though there is quite a bit of gravity and there could be a lot of danger in a misinterpretation of something that was never there to begin with.

"But that again is a byproduct of what is happening right now for all of us."

And, she said later, "The moment that you're able to be liberated from all these other opinions of what you know to be true, then I think it's very easy to live with truth and live with authenticity. That's how I choose to move through the world." 

Needless to say, her get-out-the-vote PSA, including the glimpse behind the royal family's apolitical curtain that Harry provided, would never have been possible if they hadn't decided, after making a go of full-time senior royalty, to step down. They announced their intentions in January—quite controversially, as the queen wasn't in on the timing—and two months later they were quarantining in Southern California like a couple of civilians.

Their son Archie, now 17 months old, hasn't been in England since last year, having remained in Canada, where the family spent Christmas and New Year's, while his parents returned to England to tie up loose ends and attend a handful of events. Then they packed up and left for California where, following a stay at Tyler Perry's Beverly Hills estate while they looked for a house to buy, moved into their own spread in Santa Barbara, about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles,  in July.

"They have settled into the quiet privacy of their community since their arrival and hope that this will be respected for their neighbors, as well as for them as a family," their rep told E! News in a statement.

But right away they were subtly making their presence in L.A. known (well, subtle if you don't count the global press coverage), volunteering for Project Angel Food, a local meal-delivery service for people too ill to go out, over Easter weekend and visiting the headquarters of Homeboy Industries, an employment re-entry program for former gang members whose Feed HOPE Program has been providing food to those at risk of going hungry during the pandemic.

The couple continued to check in with nonprofits, educators and other folks doing good work back in the U.K. via Zoom, and Harry launched a new online mental health initiative, HeadFIT for Life, in April. With Sussex Royal no longer their shingle, they moved to trademark Archewell as the name of their new foundation (held up in the paperwork department, and still in the works but delayed) and signed up with the Harry Walker Agency to handle future speaking engagements.

But it was when protests sprang up around the country—and then the world—in late May in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody that Meghan and Harry's attempts to move the needle truly diverged from what would have been the case if they were still under the Firm's umbrella.

After participating in a virtual graduation ceremony for her alma mater Immaculate Heart High School's quarantined class of 2020, Meghan revealed in a video afterward that she had expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, saying she knew that her words were being closely scrutinized (crossing an ocean couldn't change that), but "I realized the only wrong thing is to say nothing."

In theory, the mantra, whether people know much about the organization that bears the name or not, has become a widespread refrain. But since BLM has become so politicized, showing solidarity can't help but be viewed as coming down on a side, never mind the fact that, at its essence, it should be a concept for one and all to get behind.

Dickie Arbiter, the queen's former press secretary and frequent royal commentator, told Newsweek after the speech (which was not made public, but snippets were widely shared), that "it would have been pretty impossible" for Meghan to support a polarizing cause—or heck, to speak her mind like that at all—if she were still a senior royal. 

"What's happened in the states is an absolute tragedy and it should never have happened but unfortunately it did happen," Arbiter said. "Had Meghan and Harry still been in the U.K. and working members of the royal family, that speech couldn't have happened. I'm talking about the whole speech, end of. It's highly politicized because of the very nature of what it is.

"And it's starting to voice opinions about the internal affairs of another country," he continued. "I don't think the queen has to say anything. It is a social issue for the United States and it is not for a head of state to voice an opinion, whether the queen or the president of France or whoever."

The palace did not comment, but The Queen's Commonwealth Trust, of which Harry and Meghan remain president and vice president, tweeted support for those protesting for racial justice, as did the social accounts for the Diana Award and Heads Together, the mental health campaign founded by Harry, Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2016.

And it's not as if the royal family has to remain stuck in the mud about everything. King George VI didn't tell the United Kingdom on the eve of World War II that each nation at war had its cause and may the best one win. Though accused of being bloodless at times, the monarchy is a good-will entity, its members patrons of countless charities and foundations intent on changing the world for the better.

The late Princess Diana sought to, if not knock down the palace walls, then at least make sure that William and Harry had a direct view of the world outside, taking them to visit homeless shelters and hospital wards. Her at the time revolutionary meetings with AIDS patients helped lessen the stigma the diagnosis carried in the 1980s and 1990s, and her walk through a deactivated mine field in war-torn Angola remains an iconic image—one Harry replicated on his trip to Africa with Meghan last September. Opening up about postpartum depression, self-harm and her battle with bulimia turned the concept of the staid royal interview on its head back in the 1990s. 

And so William, Kate and Harry proceeded in Diana's stead with their commitment to social causes—and they've kicked it up a notch in recent years, recognizing the need to fight climate change ("My grandfather was well ahead of his time. My father was ahead of his time. And I really want to make sure that, in 20 years, [my son] George doesn't turn around and say, are you ahead of your time? Because if he does, we're too late," William said in a new interview), showing support for the LGBTQ community and otherwise making equality and acceptance the norm—perhaps showing a progressive slant to some, but really just meeting the moment.

Yet William, next in line to the throne behind Charles, has also committed to maintaining a politics-free zone once he's king (the reigning monarch's annual appearance to open Parliament and other traditional socializing aside).

Finding Freedom author Omid Scobie, whose recently released book purported to shed light on how, exactly, Meghan and Harry ended up stepping down, told Newsweek in May that he thought that Buckingham Palace should comment on the protests that were roiling the U.S., pointing out that just because the action had been politicized didn't mean it was actually political.

"For the simple fact that racism and police brutality is a human rights issue, not political, I'd like to think that Meghan's speech would have been just as possible as a working member of the Royal Family," he said. "Unfortunately despite this, we have heard little from royals over the years regarding the subject of racism and the current silence from all three Royal Households suggests that things might not be ready to change just yet.

"There had been criticism that Meghan's encouragement of students to vote was some sort of political statement against Trump that goes against royal protocol, but it's important to note that these words were not about the President, this was about young people using their right to vote and actively getting involved in change on every level—from electing the right local governors to mayoral elections."

Scobie continued, "It's times like these one realizes what a loss the Sussexes' departure has been for the Royal Family. Meghan represented inclusion, diversity and a voice within the Firm that young royal watchers around the world, especially across the diverse Commonwealth, could connect with in a way they hadn't before."

As it turned out, Harry and Meghan were just getting started.

In July they joined a teleconference with Chrisann Jarrett, a Queen's Commonwealth Trust Trustee and co-Founder and co-CEO of We Belong; Equality Bahamas Director Alicia Wallace; The Common Sense Network founder and CEO Mike Omoniyi; and Abdullahi Alim, leader of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers network to discuss systemic racism, social justice and realistic ways to effect change. 

Harry—who, as we now know, not only had never voted as if his life depended on it but had never voted at all—acknowledged, "When it comes to sort of institutional and systemic racism, it's there and it stays there because someone somewhere is benefiting from it."

He continued, "We can't deny or ignore the fact that all of us have been brought up and educated to see the world differently. However, once you start to realize that there is that bias there, then you need to acknowledge it. You need to acknowledge it, but then you need to do the work to be able to become more aware."

The conversation was far-reaching, touching on, to name a few issues, white privilege, unconscious bias and complicity by way of complacency. Harry observed, "For the first time ever, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement—it doesn't have a single address, it doesn't have a single leader, it is a movement that has swept across the world—that finally everybody who knows and recognizes the wrong in this for years and years, decades, hundreds of years gone by, that this is the moment when people are starting to be listened to."

In an interview with London's Evening Standard published Oct. 1 to mark the beginning of Black History Month in the U.K., Meghan and Harry, who also wrote an article for the paper, announced the launch of a new campaign to help educate and connect people from around the country who may not be aware of the contributions the others are making. Only through connection and emphasizing community, highlighting people's shared goals and similarities instead of their differences, can systemic racism truly become a thing of the past, the couple said.

"The U.K. is incredibly diverse and London especially is celebrated as one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet if you actually get out on the streets and you actually talk to people," Harry explained, "I think it doesn't feel as diverse as it actually is. And therefore now is the best time for us to be able to use our platform…to start a conversation."

He admitted, "I've had sort of an awakening of my own, because I wasn't aware of so many of the issues and so many of the problems within the U.K., but also globally as well. I thought I did, but I didn't. And this isn't about pointing a finger, this isn't about blaming anybody. This is just about using this opportunity this month to introduce Brits to other Brits."

Harry said, when asked how he and Meghan chose the trailblazers they planned to highlight this month, "This job has a certain uniqueness about it, where we travel around the world but we also visit many communities within the U.K., and the same names keep coming up. We've just been really impressed, humbled and inspired at the same time by these individuals."

"This job" may not be exactly what it was a year ago, but by all indications Meghan and Harry are going to carry on as if they were still working royals—only without the gilded muzzles. 

Following in the footsteps (whether by design or happenstance, or a little of both) of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, the couple have signed a production deal with Netflix to work on a slate of documentary-style programming, scripted series and an animated show celebrating inspiring women—and there may be some participation from Harry and Meghan in front of the camera, if not the fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all sort of series that audiences would truly salivate over.

"The Duke and Duchess are not taking part in any reality shows," a spokesperson for the couple told E! News when that rumor got out of hand, thought that didn't stop the Daily Mail from hearing hours later that Meghan and Harry had informed Netflix that they had a trove of home movies shot during the fraught period in which they were distancing themselves from the royal family that could be used in a show about them.

"Our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope," they said in a statement to The New York Times when the deal was announced in early September. "As new parents, making inspirational family programming is also important to us." Netflix's "unprecedented reach will help us share impactful content that unlocks action."

But as the criticism continues to rain down upon them for saying things out loud, they can remember that, while Meghan's mom taught her about getting involved and giving back from an early age, Harry too comes from a long line of people who wouldn't dream of just standing by when they could be doing something, even if they generally have to toe a certain line.

For instance, Prince Charles has been called a meddler since 1976, when he established the Prince's Trust to benefit disadvantaged youth. "I always wonder what meddling is," he said in his 70th birthday documentary. "I mean, I always thought it was motivating, but I've always been intrigued, if it's meddling to worry about the inner cities as I did 40 years ago and what was happening or not happening there, the conditions in which people were living.

"If that's meddling, I'm very proud of it."

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