In the eyes of Tina Brown, the past few years have been a “dumpster fire” for the House of Windsor.
But the author and longtime royal chronicler thinks the monarchy will likely survive in the 21st century — even if the institution may lose some of the sheen it has had in the eyes of the world.
In the last quarter century, the Royal Family has been rocked by, among other seismic moments, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; Prince Andrew’s now-settled civil sexual abuse lawsuit and his friendship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; and the departure of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, as they stepped back from official duties and moved to California.
Alongside the personal turmoil, Commonwealth countries have been shedding — or talking about shedding — Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
“I see it as a dumpster fire, actually. I mean, it’s been … certainly a very rough five years,” Brown told Andrew Chang, co-host of CBC’s The National.
The drama of those five years, and so much of the drama that preceded them, came under the microscope of Brown, a former editor of publications including Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Tatler, in her recently released book, The Palace Papers.
WATCH | Tina Brown on monarchy’s vulnerability:
Brown spoke with 120 people in person and via Zoom in the two years doing research for a book that has been the focus of much media attention since its publication April 26.
The Guardian described it as “a rollicking ride through recent Royal Family history,” while the Telegraph called it a “gripping insider account” from a “well-connected” author who “exposes royal stories The Crown writers can only dream of.”
In the prologue to the 550-plus page tome, Brown writes that “the fascination of monarchy is that its themes — and its problems — repeat themselves over time through its reliably fallible and all-too mortal protagonists.”
Good times — but they didn’t last
For those protagonists over the last 25 years, there was “a wonderful patch right in the middle,” Brown told Chang, when “everything seemed to be going right.”
There was, for example, the Queen’s “extraordinarily well-received” trip to Ireland in 2011, the marriage that same year of Prince William to Kate Middleton, which came with “huge acclaim and delight.” There was even that iconic pop culture moment when the Queen and her corgis met Daniel Craig’s James Bond in a skit to open the 2012 Olympics in London.
But those days are gone, and the last five years have done their damage to the Royal Family, Brown suggested.
“I think it’s very rattling and tarnishing for them … mainly because the Queen is now at a different moment in her reign …. namely, she’s on the glide path to the last days of her reign,” she told Chang.
“It’s much more of a fragile and rather more perilous moment for the monarchy,” Brown said, because the Queen, who has been on the throne for 70 years, “really hasn’t put a foot wrong,” except when Diana died. (Public perception at the time was that the palace and the Queen were cold and didn’t show the level of caring and sympathy that was expected.)
It’s a “very hard act to follow,” Brown said, and there is “a great sense of fear about her departure.”
Still, Brown expects the monarchy to survive, albeit without the sheen it once had.
“I don’t think it’s going to have the same global lustre,” Brown told Chang.
Predicting ‘a different kind of monarchy’
“It will be a different kind of monarchy, but I believe it will survive.”
Brown sees that as a “hopeful thing.”
“I think the reign of Charles is going to not be greeted with the same kind of … interest, excitement or anything” that greeted the 25-year-old Elizabeth when she became Queen in 1952, or how Charles’s heir, William, will be welcomed on his accession, she said.
“But I think it’s a good transition in which Charles can do a lot … of modernizing and reorganizing and preparation, if you like, for the much longer reign to come, which is out of William.”
WATCH | Tina Brown on whether Charles is ready to be king:
Brown said the family right now have “been their own worst enemy,” and “limitless scandal and explosions” can’t leave the monarchy intact.
“I think they’ve got to now have a period where there is some calm.”
There is, however, no guarantee of quieter moments ahead.
“Prince Harry doesn’t want that to happen. I mean, he’s busy lobbing his grenades from Montecito [California] and is going to publish his own memoir, his own tell-all memoir in the fall, which I think is awaited … with a lot of trepidation, frankly, about what he’s going to do now to destabilize things.”
WATCH | Tina Brown on whether Harry and Meghan made a mistake:
All that leaves Brown suggesting it’s not a given that the monarchy will survive.
“It will depend on the conduct of the next two monarchs,” she said. “I don’t think the British people would tolerate a monarchy that was a constant pit of scandal.”
‘To survive, you have to change’
For the monarchy itself, its goal is ensuring its survival, Brown said.
“Even if it eats its young, its main task is to survive. And to survive, you have to change. I mean, look at what the Queen just recently did. She declared that Camilla, who was … for decades … a pariah in England … she’s now declared that Queen Camilla is going to be what she’s known as when Charles ascends the throne,” Brown told Chang.
“She did that really as a kind of estate planning …. And it was a very shrewd move.”
In the interview with Chang, Brown offered views on numerous members of the family and recent events, from the “tremendous sorrow” at the palace over Harry and Meghan’s departure to the “kind of ease” with which the “loyal” and “stoic” Camilla has moved into her role after her marriage to Prince Charles in 2005.
WATCH | Tina Brown on Camilla:
Brown’s own fascination with the royals has kept her coming back to them.
“It is a quintessential dramatic and fascinating situation to have human beings living in such a gilded cage and in such constrained situations and yet trying to be human, trying to be normal,” she said.
“And also because the monarchy is important, it’s a very important stabilizing force in the country.”
People look to the monarchy with a sense of identity and national identity, which is different from nationalism, Brown said.
WATCH | Tina Brown on the monarchy after Prince William takes the throne:
“And that’s what’s good about the monarchy,” Brown said. “What would you rather have … some volatile, potentially despotic … leader who is taking you in a new direction every time? Not necessarily.
“Look at what’s happened in many parts of Europe. So there is something to be said for the head of state being the monarch.”
And then, for Brown, there is the personal story.
“Essentially there’s something just deeply fascinating, just about the human predicament these people are in.”
WATCH | Tina Brown speaks with The National co-host Andrew Chang: