2020 has been a year of charts: Terrifying vertiginous spikes on charts about COVID-19; charts demonstrating the wild oscillations of global stock markets; and nearly minute-by-minute charts plotting the chances of Donald Trump and his signature bizarro wraparound quiff remaining in the White House.
For the royal family, it’s been no different.
For years – nay, decades – the charts that have plotted the popularity of the British monarchy and its various star players registered barely a tremor. The Queen was beloved, Harry adored, William managed to engender a reasonable amount of respect and there was a benign tolerance for Prince Charles, plant conversationalist and one time tampon-fancier. Nothing much ever changed.
Like so many things, the turbulence and ructions of this year have put paid to what was, in hindsight, a charming dreariness. The very day after Harry and Meghan Duke and Duchess of Sussex spectacularly announced they were quitting as full-time senior members of the royal family on January 8, the UK’s pollsters have been regularly polling Brits for their views on the situation.
On Thursday YouGov, the nation’s market research firm, released the latest set of numbers about how various HRHs are viewed by the hoi polloi and if your surname happens to be Sussex, look away now.
The news for Harry and Meghan was positively and utterly brutal.
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For Harry, 48 per cent of adults have a positive impression of the former prince and 47 per cent have a negative view, resulting in a net score of 1, and which constitutes a 19-point drop from March this year.
Meghan, who is viewed positively by 33 per cent of UK adults and negatively by 59 per cent, creating a net favourability of -26. That’s the second lowest score among the entire house of Windsor.
In fact, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, the woman publicly dubbed by Diana, Princess of Wales as “the rottweiler” and who was the most hated woman in Britain for decades, is now more popular than Meghan.
And what of Harry, the ginger-haired charmer whose jappery and Diana-esque public persona saw him regularly take out the first or second spot in terms of royal popularity? The prince who was once the golden child of the royal family, the apple of a besotted nation’s eye? He is now tied with his stepmother, Camilla.
For the Sussexes, who only two years ago were globally hailed as the megawatt superstar saviours of the royal family, this poll marks a spectacular fall from grace and the UK public’s affections.
It could be easy to discount these numbers: Who cares what a bunch of whiny, aggrieved Brits think of Harry and Meghan given they have chosen to make their future in sunny California rather than rainy Windsor?
But, there is a bigger, far more complicated picture here, at the heart of which lies the fact that Harry and Meghan’s futures are still tethered, to some extent, to the UK.
To start with, while the couple have both been in North America since March this year and have not returned to the UK yet, at some stage they are going to have to make the return journey across the Pond.
While COVID has surely played a hand in keeping them thousands of kilometres away from his extended family, certain sadly inevitable events in the coming years will demand they spend far more time in Britain: Prince Philip’s death, the Queen’s passing, Prince Charles’ ascension to the throne and William’s investiture as the Prince of Wales.
These will all be historic moments for the house of Windsor and it would be unthinkable for Harry, as the sixth-in-line to the throne, to not attend.
Which is to say, they might have spent much of this year away from nitpicking Fleet Street and censorious palace courtiers but this is only a temporary state of affairs.
The reception he and Meghan face when they do land back in Blighty is likely to be markedly different from the one they enjoyed only 12 months ago.
In Finding Freedom, the recently published, sympathetic telling of the Sussexes’ journey from newlyweds to palace escapees, authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand make the case that their sky-high favourability was such that some viewed it as a threat to the royal status quo.
“Senior courtiers … were concerned that the global interest in and popularity of the Sussexes needed to be reined in. In the short period of time since their fairy-tale wedding, Harry and Meghan were already propelling the monarchy to new heights around the world. The Sussexes had made the monarchy more relatable to those who had never before felt a connection,” Freedom reports. “However, there were concerns that the couple should be brought into the fold; otherwise, if left as they were, the establishment feared their popularity might eclipse that of the royal family itself.”
Make no mistake, Harry and Meghan were unequivocally the crowd-pulling, superstars in the palace stable at the time.
But my, has that Crown-imperilling celebrity taken a spectacular hit in the wake of their quitting.
Days after their bombshell January announcement, 57 per cent of Brits said they had “no sympathy” for the couples’ decision to step back with the same percentage saying they thought the Sussexes had treated the Queen unfairly.
As the year progressed, so too did a growing roster of grim polls.
After the duke and duchess in August urged Americans to vote in the US Presidential elections, comments that were interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Joe Biden, 49 per cent of people polled in the UK said they did not think it was appropriate for members of the royal family to discuss political issues. The same month, 48 per cent of British respondents said they thought Harry and Meghan should be stripped of their titles with only 27 per cent of people firmly stating they thought the couple should keep their titles.
(And in the wake of the couple’s mooted $130 million Netflix deal being announced, YouGov found that 64 per cent of Britons were “not interested at all” in watching their content. Talk about voting with their remotes …)
It would surely take the thickest of skins to not be affected by these numbers. How will it feel for the couple, who have talked openly about their struggle with press criticism, to come face-to-face with their diminished public standing when they return to London?
(Factor in too that the couples’ lawsuits against three British newspapers and their stinging rebukes of the press over the past year will hardly mean they are in for a glowing media reception.)
Right now, their return to home shores shows every indication of being a rough one indeed.
Looking back at this year, Harry and Meghan have spent the vast majority of it in a privileged bubble, first in their borrowed $20 million Canadian mansion, a monstrosity of brick and bad taste. Next came Tyler Perry’s faux-Tuscan Beverly Hills compound. Lastly, in July, it was confirmed the duo had finally found their “forever home”, a simple joint that features 16 bathrooms, a koi pond and separate wet and dry saunas. (Imagine having to make do with only one …)
While they might have stayed in close touch with the people and organisations that matter to them in the UK, their public focus this year has unequivocally been US-centric as they build their Stateside brand with gusto. In turn, Americans have welcomed them with open arms, a nation thrilled to be bits to have their very own real life members of the royal family happily setting up shop in their midst. U-S-A!
But that public devotion stands in direct contrast to the reception they may face when they arrive back onto UK soil.
It is worth noting that as this year has progressed, as they have faced one damning poll after another, is that Harry and Meghan have shown little if any inclination to try and get back into the good graces of Brits. There has been no campaign to win over Harry’s countrymen and women, to curry favour and to remind the island nation why they loved the Sussexes so much at the beginning.
And this blind spot in the duke and duchess’ plan could be a significant miscalculation.
No matter that they have set-up West Coast lives, they will always be tied to Britain and their choice to largely focus on working with US brands and platforms could very well bite them on their yoga-toned derrières. They will have to spend a certain portion of their lives in Great Britain – they repaid $4 million for their Windsor house after all – and won’t be able to escape the anger and upset their choices have provoked and which are reflected in their various poll numbers.
Lucky for them then there is one member of the royal family who knows a thing or two about dealing with a groundswell of public animosity – Camilla. I’m sure she might have some pointers for Harry and Meghan; that and the secret to the perfect gin martini necessary to face an irate nation.
Daniela Else is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles
— to www.news.com.au