Meghan Markle might have made the mistake of expressing an opinion about Ireland’s abortion referendum. The fact that this could be considered a “mistake” goes to the heart of why it would actually be very frustrating to be a woman with strong political opinions in the royal family.
Harry and Meghan are currently in Ireland, making the rounds as part of an official royal tour. It’s a typical handshakes-and-photo-ops goodwill affair, for instance, meeting with President Michael Higgins and his Bernese mountain dogs. But Markle has gotten pulled into the debate around Ireland’s historic vote to repeal its draconian anti-abortion law. The Daily Beast reported:
Catherine Noone, a senator for the the ruling Fine Gael party who was closely associated with the successful Yes campaign, also said she spoke to Meghan at the garden party held last night at the British ambassador’s residence in Dublin on Tuesday, where Harry and Meghan are on their first foreign tour as a married couple.
The senator tweeted: “The Duchess and I had a chat about the recent referendum result—she watched with interest and was pleased to see the result.”
However, apparently quickly realizing her blunder—under the constitutional monarchy structure, royals have been prohibited since the 17th Century from expressing political opinions—she followed up with a second tweet that sought to backpedal on the claim, saying: “I should say she seemed pleased—she was interested and very measured, not political at all.”
Noone later added: “I clarified - it was a very benign chat, she expressed no political opinion. She was interested and charming.” But the story was already out there.
All lot of the supposed “protocol violations” that people love to nitpick royals and those who interact with them about aren’t a particularly big deal, except insofar as they give people something to piss and moan disapprovingly about. For instance, via the Daily Mail: “Is this the ‘Sussex sit’? Meghan commits ANOTHER ‘royal faux pas’ as she is spotted crossing her legs AGAIN during a service to mark RAF centenary - while Kate perfects the ‘Duchess slant’” mostly seems like an attempt to stir some shit in hopes of creating a feud that’ll sell papers. Or, even better: the Express calling it a “royal blunder” that Meghan forgot to take the plastic off the studs on a new bag.
But staying apolitical is an example of a royal protocol that very much matters. Accepting the limitations of constitutional monarchy is the deal that the English royals cut centuries ago—their formal power has been steadily whittled down since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament showed King James II the door in favor of William and Mary. It’s no small part of what enabled the institution to persist even as so many European crowns found their way into the dustbin of history. It’s a survival mechanism, and it makes a certain kind of sense: Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and all her various working royal affiliates are her agents. But they aren’t democratically elected. For a royal to get directly involved in anything that cuts too close to a legislative issue—whether it’s Meghan Markle on abortion, Prince Charles and one of his many pet causes, or one of the third-tier royals with God only knows what hideous opinions—threatens to throw too harsh a light on contradiction at the heart of “modern” monarchy.
Of course, if you are a person who actually cares about the serious issues, like Markle seems to be, this is the Catch-22 of the job: You have one of the biggest platforms in the world, but what you can actually do with it is tightly constrained by longstanding custom and pressure to maintain the institution. Fairy tales are trickier things than Disney would have you believe.