IT is the Queen who the public will feel sorry for. After a lifetime of duty, with never a foot put wrong, it seems somehow unfair that in old age she should be lumbered with family members who appear hell-bent on undermining all she has stood for.
And that is exactly what the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are doing – attempting to turn the institution which the Queen has reinforced as a bedrock of British life into a tawdry celebrity gameshow designed to line their pockets.
They have set out to have their cake and eat it – half-in and half-out of the Royal Family, not subject to any scrutiny except on their own terms, expecting deference without the duty that goes with it, and exploiting their place in the monarchy to make money.
There was no desire to renounce their titles, to live privately as plain Harry and Meghan Windsor, to earn a living unconnected to status as Princess Anne’s children, Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips, do. No, they want to hang on to the trappings and ceremonial, and it’s easy to see why – that’s the licence to print money, the cachet that would place them a cut above on the international celebrity circuit.
The staggering selfishness of this was illustrated by Harry and Meghan’s failure to inform Buckingham Palace in advance of the bombshell they dropped.
How far adrift they are from the Queen’s concept of duty was also illustrated by their website launched immediately afterwards, the tone of which is as sanctimonious and self-regarding as the statement which plunged the Royal Family into its worst crisis since the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William must feel a sense of betrayal, not just as a family but as guardians of the monarchy.
Coming so soon after Prince Andrew was effectively sacked from royal duties over his connection to the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his appallingly arrogant television performance in which he attempted to swat away the scandal, this is an especially horrible moment for the House of Windsor.
Yet public sympathy will be for the institution, not the Sussexes, with their cock-eyed thinking that it is possible to be a part-time royal, working when they please whilst the taxpayer still foots the bill for round-the-clock protection wherever they are in the world.
Harry and Meghan have misjudged Britain’s view of royalty. The affection and respect for the monarchy are dependent on it being seen at work, supporting good causes, embodying the country’s sympathy in hard times, representing continuity and stability. If it doesn’t do those things, the bonds between palace and public are broken.
Whether Harry realises it or not, he’s already frayed those bonds. Regrettably, his public persona has grown progressively less attractive with the passing years. He was the engaging army officer who served with distinction under fire in Afghanistan and then exhibited admirable generosity of spirit in founding the Invictus Games to help injured service personnel seems to have vanished. In his place has emerged a half-bright, humourless, petulant prince whose sense of entitlement is only matched by his appetite for holding grudges, against the media for doing its job in covering royal duties, or anyone who dares question his activities.
It takes a special degree of dimness not to appreciate that a public gritting its teeth over austerity might be disgruntled that £2.4m of its money was spent refurbishing Frogmore Cottage to prove the newlywed Sussexes with a luxurious home. Or that po-faced preaching about saving the environment is absurdly at odds with then flying on four private jets within the space of 11 days, as the couple did last summer.
What happens now is unclear. Harry and Meghan’s desire to be out of royal life – except on their own terms – cannot be revoked, having been made public. Nor can the Queen and Prince Charles countenance having the monarchy turned into a money-spinner for personal gain.
But there is a model for what might happen to them. It is the gilded, empty life of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who spent long decades traipsing endlessly and pointlessly around the world from one mega-rich host to another, receiving the deference they demanded in exchange for being exhibited like trophies as the ultimate party guests.
Harry and Meghan have squandered public goodwill towards them. Only two years ago, they represented renewal and a closer bond with modern Britain. Now it’s all about personal enrichment and image-management, not helping others, and that is deeply unappealing. They are only in their thirties. The years ahead might well be filled with riches, but also regrets about what they have done.