When a British TV presenter announces that their guest is a “royal expert”, I suspect I am not alone in what happens next. I switch off.
I’ve often wondered what the definition of a “royal expert” might be in 21st century Britain. If you Google the phrase, you will find plausible sounding folk who describe themselves in that way. But what does their “expertise” involve? There is so much nonsense written about the British royal family over the years. I save time (and my sanity) by not listening to it or reading any of it, beyond a few headlines and some serious writers, including William Shawcross, Ben Pimlott and Robert Lacey. Otherwise it’s mostly tabloid gossip – a soap opera with supposed heroes and villains.
Nowadays, the endless ruminations mostly involve Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. In 2021, Prince Harry gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey suggesting two members of the royal family discussed what Harry and Meghan’s children might look like in terms implying racism.
This week, the two members of the family were supposedly identified, although since I am not a “royal expert” I have no idea if any of this is true. Besides, some commentators suggest that as we celebrate a pregnancy it is not unusual to wonder whether the baby will look more like their mother or the father, without this implying racist intent.
Nor is it at all unusual in 21st century Britain for children to be of mixed race. In other words, I have no idea why this “story” is truly a story nor what the facts might be. And I have never understood why so many people seem so obsessed by these stories that a “royal expert” industry thrives.
But then, every so often, something happens within the British royal family which reminds me not of gossip and froth, but of the real significance of the monarchy within the British way of life. It happened profoundly in 2022.
Queen Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest reigning monarch, passed away. That period of national mourning came almost simultaneously with a political crisis during which then prime minister Boris Johnson was finally forced out of Downing Street.
But what struck me was that among the mourning and the turmoil, the UK did something wonderful. It changed its head of state and head of government at the same time, in a way that was flawless and peaceful. The only gunfire was from cannon celebrating the accession of King Charles III.
And now in Dubai at Cop28, the King has also done something remarkable, and he did it twice. First, he is a longstanding environmental champion. A few years ago, I met the then Prince Charles and had a conversation about subjects close to his heart, including organic farming, food and a better environment. All I can say is that the King knows the subject very well. As a landowner he tries to practise what he preaches. And as he showed in Dubai, he is well informed and passionate about ensuring our planet remains habitable and secure.
But the second issue he touched on in Dubai was a surprise, and it will endear him to many people in the UK and elsewhere. The tie King Charles chose to wear from the (no doubt extensive) royal wardrobe reflected the colours and pattern of the Greek national flag. Charles’s father, the former Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was born on the island of Corfu. But the monarch wearing the Greek flag tie when he met the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Dubai sent a clear message even for those of us who are not “royal experts”.
That’s because Mr Sunak, in what appears to have been a fit of pique, refused to meet the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a recent London visit. Mr Mitsotakis was about to raise the long running issue about the return to Athens of the Parthenon marbles, currently in the British Museum. Successive Greek governments have asked for their return. The answer is always “no”.
Whatever side you are on in this discussion, it is admittedly complex. But a British prime minister refusing to meet a friend and ally of the UK was a mistake. It’s the behaviour of a moody adolescent rather than a wise statesman.
Britain needs to work with Greece on European security, migration, defence and other issues. As head of state King Charles cannot become involved in politics. But he can wear a tie and send a clear signal. In the depths of the British rows about Brexit and the EU, his mother once wore an outfit with strong echoes of the EU flag. The King’s tie has made clear he believes in friendship with Greece.
Opinion polls suggest only a third of 18-24 year olds believe the monarchy is “good for Britain”, compared with about 80 per cent of those over 65. But King Charles being somewhat mischievous on our friendship with Greece may have done the image of the monarchy a power of good with younger people. And we certainly don’t need “royal experts” to explain why that may be a good thing.