Why 2021 will be an uncertain and challenging year for the Queen and Royal Family: Andrew Vine

Rarely in peacetime can we have entered a new year so full of uncertainty as 2021.

Questions to which there are no clear answers surround us on all sides, about the course of the pandemic and how quickly Britain can recover, about what life outside the EU will hold, and even if the United Kingdom can hold together in the face of growing Scottish nationalism.

Certainty and continuity can seem in very short supply, so it’s no surprise that so many people watched the Queen’s Christmas speech to the nation. There is no greater symbol of continuity than her, nor any voice so reassuring that however uncertain the times, the country and its people will make it through.

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What will 2021 mean for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh?

It surely isn’t fanciful to suggest that so many millions paused for 10 minutes to watch the Queen on Christmas Day because of the strength they had drawn from her address to the nation last April during the first peak of the pandemic.

Then, she had articulated her people’s longing for an end to enforced separation from loved ones with the message: “We will meet again.”

At Christmas, she again caught the country’s mood perfectly, speaking of the “quiet, indomitable spirit” in the face of what often seems like a never-ending nightmare.

Many will doubtless have drawn renewed resolve from the Queen’s words. They might also reflect that the speeches have such resonance because the Royal Family’s fortunes over the past 12 months mirror their own with extraordinary closeness.

The Queen praised the nation's 'quiet indomitable spirit' during her Christmas broadcast.

Like theirs, the lives of the royals have been turned upside down by coronavirus. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, in common with every other person of their generation, are shut away from normal contact with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to minimise the risk of catching it.

The virus has touched their family as it has countless others, with both the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge falling ill. And if 2021 is full of uncertainty for the country, so it is for the Royal Family.

It can look forward to two notable milestones that will be cause for celebration – the Queen’s 95th birthday in April and then Prince Philip’s 100th in June. Both are likely to see a huge outpouring of public affection.

But other family matters carry with them the threat of being rather less pleasant for the Queen. Chief among them is the new career of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, who relinquished their roles as senior royals at the beginning of 2020 in order to become “financially independent” – or, in other words, to cash in on their status and popularity. They have made a spectacular start, with a Netflix deal to produce programmes worth a reported £112m and a contract to make podcasts for Spotify for a reported £30m.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex face talks with the Royal family this year over their future.

A summit meeting with the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William looms in March to decide what future – if any – the couple have in the public life of the Royal Family.

Making their home in California is not the only obstacle to being working royals, and to Harry retaining his honorary military titles. Relations between Harry and his older brother took a very public battering with the publication last summer of Finding Freedom, the biography of the Sussexes.

Although Harry and Meghan denied co-operating with the book’s authors, the level of intimate detail raised questions about where the information about rifts with William had come from. And there is bound to be concern about the programmes and podcasts Harry and Meghan intend to make. It is difficult to see why streaming giants would pay tens of millions unless they’re to be offered tantalising insights into life on the inside.

The Royal Family’s experience of insiders doing just that is unhappy. Almost 20 years ago, Prince Edward’s ailing television production company, Ardent, breached the privacy of William, then a student.

The company shut down shortly afterwards under pressure from senior royals. No such sanction is likely to be effective on Harry and Meghan if they are perceived to overstep the mark, especially if the lucrative deals with Netflix and Spotify are at stake.

Equally unhappy is the family’s experience of having an alternative royal presence gadding about the world and maintaining a high public profile.

A generation ago, after her divorce from Charles, it was Princess Diana who presented royalty as a branch of showbusiness, and now it is Harry and Meghan following the same route.

Then there is the embarrassment that is Prince Andrew, effectively sacked from royal duties by his mother because of links with American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and the car-crash interview with the BBC’s Newsnight in which he expressed not a word of remorse, or sympathy for girls who had been sexually abused.

Awkward questions continue to swirl around Andrew over the relationship, and with Epstein’s former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, due for trial over her links to the abuse, as yet more damaging allegations could emerge in court.

The Queen deserves better after a lifetime of service and doing so much to buoy the spirits of the nation through a continuing crisis.

Her heirs are upholding the finest traditions of royalty – Prince Charles has been an uplifting presence during the pandemic, as have William and Kate, with their support for young families struggling with isolation or worries over livelihoods.

But other members of the family risk diminishing its reputation in 2021, when they should be enhancing it. And if they still need to learn how to serve the country, instead of letting it down, the lessons are there in the Queen’s speeches.

Read Andrew Vine in The Yorkshire Post every Tuesday.

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