"Never offer the Queen an ultimatum": Why it's good to be Queen, but no one else in the royal family

"The Palace Papers" author Tina Brown gives insight into Harry and Meghan's mistakes and Charles' outlook as king

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 2, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, Prince William, Catherine Middleton, and Prince Andrew (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, Prince William, Catherine Middleton, and Prince Andrew (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"They have no freedom, really," observes Tina Brown.

As a journalist, editor and bestselling author of "The Vanity Fair Diaries" and "The Diana Chronicles," Brown has been observing the British royal family for decades. And she's come to the conclusion that, as she says in "The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor, the Truth and the Turmoil," for many royals, life is "all status, no quo."

As the world celebrates the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, which marks 70 years on the throne, and the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Brown joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss her instant bestseller, the future of the monarchy, the disgrace of Prince Andrew, and why Meghan and Harry felt they had to flee. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Tina Brown here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been writing about, thinking about, covering this family, for pretty much your entire career, Tina. It's been15 years since your last book about Diana. What, at this point, surprised you? What did you learn that you hadn't learned before?

"The role of one of the members of the royal family is essentially to be scaffolding. You are scaffolding for the sovereign."

What really fascinates me is the recurring themes that drive this family. It was one of the things that made me kind of gobsmacked quite frankly, when Meghan said that she didn't know anything about this family, because you can see these patterns constantly reasserting themselves. One of the patterns of course is the whole issue of the second son or the second child, how difficult it is to be anything but the monarch in that family. It's bad enough and hard enough and tough enough and challenging enough to be the monarch, but to be the rest of them, not fun.

What really surprised me in a sense was just how difficult it is. The grind of that royal duty thing, the fact that they never feel they have enough money because they're living on the sovereign grant usually of about 250,000 a year, in a palace, but at the same time they can't leave that place. They can't have their own lives, really. They have to be perfect all the time without the rewards. It's really not a fun existence. There are a lot of privileges, let's make no mistake about it. Cry me a river, in the sense that they live very nicely, et cetera, but they have no freedom really. And freedom in the end is the most precious thing of all.

You describe it very aptly as, "all status, no quo." A lot of us don't understand that. You certainly seem to indicate that Meghan did not understand that there are so many restrictions. Meghan suddenly can't be accepting gifts, but she also can't work. What do we not understand about that life? What do you think Meghan didn't understand about what the restrictions and what the expectations are?

First thing she didn't really understand is that as big as she was getting on the world stage, and she got bigger and bigger – she wanted that, she wanted to be a very famous, celebrated woman, all her life she had wanted that – but once she entered the royal family, it is a bit like a secular version of taking the veil. As big as she got on the outside, she had to kind of shrink down on the inside to fit herself into this tight glove of the royal family, and not have a voice of her own. That was the thing that really she just could not accept, that she didn't have a voice of their own.

The role of one of the members of the royal family is essentially to be scaffolding. You are scaffolding for the sovereign, essentially. You are not supposed to have your own point of view. You are a representational figure who goes out representing the royal family, and doesn't have a point of view about anything, really. After 70 years of being on the throne, we don't know anything about what the Queen thinks about anything. We know a whole lot about what Charles thinks, which has got him a lot of criticism in the past. He's going to have to really dial that back, of course, when he does become king. Frankly, every time one of the younger ones or the other ones makes an opinion, it becomes a controversy that everybody ends up apologizing for, for the next six months.

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She found, I think, the most untenable thing, the repression of herself into this structure of monarchy. Very hard thing to do, unless you've really signed up for it, bought into it and probably enter it in a younger, less formed phase. Because Meghan was 36 with a fully formed career, a woman with a very big career who had already earned her own living since the age of 21. She suddenly was dependent on her husband, which she'd never really been since she left home, and frankly, a husband who was dependent on the bank of dad, Charles, and dependent on granny, the Queen, for a roof over his head. It's like, we have nowhere to live. Or, which one of the palaces, the minor houses in the palace estate, can we live in? This is very disempowering, if you are a woman of independence.

This is not something that you know how to finesse, as you point out, coming into this family at a moment when the British public was not necessarily receptive to someone who was biracial, who was American, who was divorced. But also, she was not someone who was prepared to figure out how to play that system.

"Harry was a tremendously fragile man long before he married."

I think actually it was all difficult. The British press are very difficult to handle because they are extremely iconoclastic, snarky, invasive, all of the things that she did experience. And the family . . . there's only 8% diversity in the palace and certainly she must have felt very much alone. There was no one who looked like Meghan in that family or indeed, very few people at the palace itself. Those were all real problems that she had.

Where I take issue is the fact that at the age of 36, after a big career where she had always been known for doing her homework, she didn't do enough homework about what was going to be expected of her. This is a big step to make, to marry into that family and were it to go wrong, which it did, very disruptive for everything. There was a great deal of disappointment in both the family and in the country, that someone who had been embraced as being this extraordinary breakthrough bride, bringing this youthfulness and diversity and all of the things that she brought into the family, that actually that it didn't work. It was a painful failure, for the family, as much as it was for Harry.

This is a book that's about marriage. When you look at the marriage of Harry and Meghan, you point out that they are truly in love, but that they also ignite certain characteristics in each other that can then perpetuate real fear, real anxiety. They both are very open about some of the struggles that they've had and can't necessarily protect each other from those struggles. In a comparative way, when you look at William and Kate, they do seem very much on the same track and are seemingly a very well-oiled machine.

That's right. They definitely reinforce each other in their own insecurities, I think. Harry was a tremendously fragile man long before he married. He's made no secret of the fact that he had tremendous pain, anxiety and after-effects of the tragic death of his mother when he was only 12 years old, leaving him with not only the wound of that, but also the bitterness of how she'd been treated by the press and by the family. There was a lot of roiling discontents in Harry. When he came out of the army, where he had been very happy, because it provided him that structure and held him tight, he sort of fell apart really. But at the same time, he also had a lot of rivalry with his brother, because though they were very, very close, once Harry came out of the army, their paths began to diverge.

Diana had always brought up and raised her boys to be the same, but of course they weren't the same. William was going to be king, and Harry wasn't. At a certain point when William came out of the army in his 20s William was well placed then on his course for his destiny. Their paths began to separate, and Harry really began to feel what it meant to be the one who was second, and he didn't like it at all. He felt marginalized. He felt that he had his own great gifts, as he does, and things that he could do that he didn't feel he was being properly positioned to do, and that his brother was getting all of the best assignments and underpinning.

"Meghan really reinforced his sense that he wasn't being, essentially, appreciated enough for his own gifts.

That became a very 'us against the world' kind of team."

Then he launched his Invictus Games, which was his version of the Wounded Warrior, Special Olympics for veterans. It was an enormously successful initiative and it's become an annually very successful initiative. That gave Harry a great sense of, "I can do stuff that's really big and meaningful on the global stage. I can be a global humanitarian. In a sense, I shouldn't be in this position of No. 2, who's jostling. I'm bigger than that." While these discontents were roiling, that's when he really met Meghan, and Meghan really reinforced his sense that he wasn't being, essentially, appreciated enough for his own gifts.

That became a very "us against the world" kind of team. It was unfortunate that it became a bitter one, because they felt that together that they just weren't being given the platform that they wanted. But it did ignore the reality of the fact that Harry isn't going to be king. Everything from the allocation of budget to the kinds of appearances you're booked to do are obviously going to be second dibs. I mean, they just are.

The Queen was, I think, extremely supportive and imaginative of the things that she offered Meghan. She offered her vice presidency of the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, which is a huge thing for the Queen to do. The Queen's passion all her life has been the Commonwealth and she saw how Meghan and Harry, the Sussexes, could become the face of the Commonwealth in her stead. That was a great, both a compliment to Meghan and belief in her, because she'd shown herself to be extraordinarily good in these public engagements. There was no criticism of how Meghan comported herself in these public engagements. She was terrific at it. Some would argue too good at it, which is what Harry felt, that there was jealousy about how good she was at it.

The Queen also made her the patron of the National Theatre, which was also something that the Queen had done all of her life. It was a very big compliment to give that, one of her prized patronages, to Meghan, and of course, a wonderfully fitting one, as Meghan was an actor and cared passionately about the arts. I think that Meghan perhaps underestimated what an amazing opportunity she'd been given really to shine in this particular way. I think ultimately it was about the lack of financing for it. She felt that there were much bigger . . . that the Netflix entertainment deals and so on was something that she did not want to turn up.

"The truth is you never offer the Queen an ultimatum."

The fact was that they wanted both. They wanted to be able to do these royal things, but also to get major deals in entertainment. There was this constant tension of that, because it isn't really possible. It's not possible to do that and be a member of the royal family. The whole position of the palace is, and I think it's right, is, ultimately you are being leveraged for your royal position. You're only being asked to do these things because you are a royal prince or princess, and that means you're leveraging the crown. There's a conflict of interest. It's very much like politics. Politicians can't just take major deals and things. It's a conflict of interest.

They wouldn't see that, the Sussexes. They really wanted both and they were determined to have both. At the end, of course, they were so vehement that they wanted both, that it became an either/or situation. The truth is you never offer the Queen an ultimatum. If you say to the Queen, "Either/ or," the Queen will say, "Well, in that case, I suggest you do or," which is sort of what happened.

It does seem that there is a path for them of maybe a happier life as a family in California. But when we think of royal siblings and how badly it can go, I have to think of Andrew, the Queen's supposed favorite son, and what happened there. You go into that in the book as well. You used the words, Dunning-Kruger effect, for him. It seems that he still does not get it, Tina, that he still believes that he can come back from this. What is going on there, and what realistically will happen?

Honestly, Andrew hasn't got the memo that he's canceled. He is canceled, big time. The Queen could not have made it more clear when she stripped him of all of his military honors. He was first of all banned, taken out of public life completely, after the whole fiasco when he sat down and did the Emily Maitlis interview.  Virginia Giuffre's allegations were such an appalling allegation of sexual assault. He simply doesn't understand that this just puts him out forever, frankly.

The Queen tried to make that point by stripping him of all of his military assignments, which he had really, really wanted to keep, for obvious reasons. That was a very painful thing for her, she had to cancel her own son. She did, but it didn't mean it didn't cause her enormous sadness, because he is very close to her. Recently at the memorial for Prince Philip, everyone was aghast to see her walking down the aisle of the church on the arm of Andrew. That apparently wasn't supposed to happen at all. Andrew was supposed to hand her off at the church door to the Dean, but instead he thrust himself into the cameras, to do this with the Queen, which was a horrible optics for the Queen. But as far as Andrew considered, that was actually great optics for him.

"Andrew hasn't got the memo that he's canceled ... If I were Andrew, I would be house hunting now."

It's a futile exercise because, once the Queen does pass away, the fact is that Charles is not going to tolerate it. If I were Andrew, I would be house hunting now, because there he sits in the Queen mother's former home on Windsor Great Park, very near the castle. I don't think that Charles is going to want Andrew cantering around in Windsor Great Park and being photographed all the time in Windsor, where he is actually very close to London. Andrew needs to move very, very far away. In other eras, Andrew would've been banished to the Scottish borders. I don't quite know how you stash away a healthy 61-year-old who doesn't want to be stashed, but they have an issue with Andrew.

There inevitably will be a change coming, sooner rather than later. Elizabeth has been on the throne for 70 years. She is the third longest-reigning monarch in world history. There are people who have forever been saying, "Why do we even still have a monarchy?" We have former colonies in the Caribbean who are petitioning to end their relationship with the crown. What happens, assuming that the day is coming soon when there is a King Charles?

It's going to be the most seismic moment in English history. It's going to be a huge moment in the national consciousness when she does go. As you say, rightly, three generations have seen her face on the money and she's always been there. When she's gone, it will feel like a massive identity crisis. But there isn't a great movement in England to get rid of the monarchy, unless something major happens — which it does constantly and could really change things. It's a volatile world we live in now, so it's not a given. But people are attached to the monarchy as the link to their history in England, their national identity, pride, a sense that if you don't have the monarchy, is England any bigger for losing it?

The answer is no. If there's no monarchy in England, a massive piece of English appeal, if you like, has been further diminished, certainly for the overseas, a sense that the country shrunk again without it. That I don't think is a big movement. I do think it's going to be very hard though for Charles, because there's no particular interest in Charles from the younger generation. He will be a transitional monarch. He's already 73. He's going to have to try to modernize and get things in shape for William and what kind of monarchy it will be for William. And William and Kate are a much more low key relatable sort of impact in the world.

"It's going to be very hard though for Charles, because there's no particular interest in Charles from the younger generation. He will be a transitional monarch."

They're popular, very popular, in the UK, but I think they're going to have to work hard to retain the interest and give the sort of gravitas and stature to the institution which the Queen has given. No one can match her for gravitas. The first prime minister she knew was Winston Churchill. The rings of history around the Queen are so incredible that she represents the nation's modern history. That obviously will never be true of her successors, of Charles or of William. I actually think Charles will be a good sort of transitional king. He did have all of these passions long ago, which have turned out to be very important ones, namely his care for the environment, his concerns about climate change, his passion for organic farming, all the things that he was mocked for in decades past, now suddenly seem absolutely relevant.

It couldn't be a better moment for him, in terms of his own collection of concerns and passions meeting the correct point in the national acceptance. Camilla is now popular. She's never going to be the razzle-dazzle, beloved woman of England, but she is very much respected and liked. She's gracious, she's warm. She's been married to Charles longer now than Diana was, 20 years. She's shown that she can really do this royal role with great dignity. It's much more a question of how they comport themselves, essentially, in the next few years. They've got a chance to have a good transitional monarchy. In will come William, and then it's really for William to try to figure out how to be a modern king, which is not an easy challenge.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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