Abdication of Royal Responsibility

January 2020 – As a boy in school, I remember my history teacher playing the 1936 radio address of King Edward VIII abdicating the throne. The words still resonate:

“You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

He was referring to Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American who he wished to marry, but cultural and religious obstacles precluded this.

I was about twelve-years-old, and I remember thinking it was all so romantic. Yet now, when I think of this, I think of a famous 19th century British statesmen who is credited with a saying:

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

As I grew older, I came to realize that all of us have responsibilities. Some because we sought them out and accepted them; some because of the place to which we were born. I now think of the abdicated King as a selfish and pleasure-seeking man. Not one I would hope my children would emulate.

When I first read of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and their desire to leave the UK and step back from royal responsibilities, the first thing I thought of was family. Their son, Archie, is not yet a year old. But Archie’s grandfather, Prince Charles, is 71; his great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, is 93 years old.

Which is worse? Depriving Archie of the opportunity to be with his grandfather and great-grandmother while they live? Or depriving Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth of the opportunity to enjoy Archie?

Then I think of Harry’s brother, William. Born to be King and, by all accounts, a steadfast supporter for Harry in the years since their mother, Princess Diana, died. I do not think Harry necessarily has had it easy. It is said it is the responsibility of a King to produce “an heir and a spare,” and to be a spare is a less certain path.

Still, what role can be more lonely than that of Prince William, and will continue to be when he is King one day? Who can he rely on? What a joy and comfort it would be to have his brother with him, and to have his support. And how much more llikely is it that William, as king, would one day better serve his subjects with the advice and contentment that would come from having his brother, his life long companion, the only one who will ever really understand how they grew up, by his side?

Of course, there are reasons why things might be necessary. If I had to support my family, sure, I would go work on an oil rig In the North Seas. But Prince Harry was born to a beneficial circumstance and had no need to make such sacrifices.

Americans don’t believe in monarchy as leadership is not an inheritable trait. Yet, when King Edward VIII abdicated, it is as if the hand of God was behind it, for it made King George VI King and his wife, Elizabeth, Queen Consort. With World War II approaching, they proved a match for the times.

It was suggested that Elizabeth and her children might evacuate to Canada. The queen replied: “The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does, and the King will not leave the country in any circumstances whatsoever.”

There were bombs falling, and invasion was a real threat, but that sentence expresses a sense of obligation —  to family and to greater responsibilities. The Royal family lived out the war in Britain, sharing the trials and tribulations with their countrymen.

Whatever problems Harry and Meaghan had in Britain, they could never compare with the realities of World War II. What has changed is the sense of obligation and commitment.

Recently Prince Harry was caught shilling Bob Iger, the chief executive of The Walt Disney Company, to get voice-over work for his wife. It was a horrible betrayal. The only reason he was there is because he was a Prince, and his obligation was to urge investment in the United Kingdom, to support his people and country, not to gain personal benefit.

On her 21st birthday, then Princess Elizabeth gave a radio address from Cape Town. As part of it she addressed her generation:

Will you, the youth of the British family of nations, let me speak on my birthday as your representative? Now that we are coming to manhood and womanhood, it is surely a great joy to us all to think that we shall be able to take some of the burden off the shoulders of our elders who have fought and worked and suffered to protect our childhood.

In all the lamentations about Harry’s condition, is there the slightest sense in which he seems concerned with taking burdens off his father or grandmother or even his brother?

Princess Elizabeth ended the speech with a promise:

I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

This is why she continues to serve at 93. It is quite possibly why the monarchy still reigns in England, and it is an example, lost on her own grandson, but still one that all of us would do well to take to heart.                                               pb