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Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Photo/Getty Images

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle must prove they deserve the Commonwealth's respect

As Commonwealth ambassadors, a visit from the couple would have a hugely positive effect in Samoa, where the measles epidemic has killed many young people.

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wed not quite two years ago, they vowed to make the Commonwealth the major focus of their lives. Meghan had the native flower of every Commonwealth nation embroidered into her wedding veil and the two pronounced themselves “hugely excited” to be appointed Commonwealth Youth Ambassadors, a role Prince Harry said was particularly important as 60% of the Commonwealth’s people are under 30.

The prince opened his first speech in the role with a tribute to his grandmother, the Queen, noting that on her 21st birthday, the then Princess Elizabeth gave an extraordinary radio address from Cape Town. “With an already unflinching sense of duty, she made a commitment. She said that whether her life be long or short, it would be dedicated to the service of the people of the Commonwealth.”

In their new roles, the Sussexes embarked on successful tours to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tonga and then South Africa, the last marred only by an unattractive note of self-pity creeping into a televised interview.

The couple’s bombshell plan to “stand down as senior royals” has now, however, created doubt as to what their so-called “progressive” future entails. If they truly do respect the sense of duty and commitment to the Commonwealth shown by the Queen, this is certainly the time to show it.

As Commonwealth ambassadors, a visit from the couple right now would have a hugely positive effect in the Commonwealth nation of Samoa, where many young people have died in the tragic measles epidemic. An almost unfathomable 83 people, mostly babies, have died in that tiny nation. Desperate medical personnel say the trauma has had severe mental-health repercussions, often involving young parents.

No one can deny the huge difference Prince Harry’s mother, the late Diana, made in both highlighting mental-health suffering and embracing those affected by disease, including HIV and Aids. The Sussexes could do a great deal of good in both dispelling myths about measles – they may wish to divulge whether their own son has been vaccinated, since babies over six months can be immunised – and helping to attract the tourism Samoa so badly needs. They may even take their well-travelled baby. Meghan clearly has ambitions to become an apex social-media influencer – she can sell out a clothing line in minutes of Instagram traffic – and such a skill could be a powerful tool for good.

Undoubtedly, however, the Sussexes have incurred wounding criticism for disloyalty to the Queen. The rudeness of their unilateral announcement will not readily be excused, and were it not for the Queen’s implied forgiveness, the Sussexes’ image could have been irretrievably sullied. Yet the monarch’s warmly inclusive description of Harry and Meghan as valued members of the family shows exactly why she is such a successful leader of both the Commonwealth and her royal clan.

Other royals have had degrees of freedom: Princess Anne’s equestrian flair took her all the way to the Olympics; Prince Charles is a respected conservationist and urbanist. As Prince Andrew’s serial fiascos have shown, the Sussexes will need to be extraordinarily careful, however, about commercial ventures and who they include in their networks.

But if they now show commitment to their avowed causes, it’s possible to empathise with the couple’s feeling of stultification, while still deploring the disproportionate sense of grievance in their public statements. By most folks’ standards, they’ve hardly been run ragged with incessant or demeaning duties, and have suffered no more egregious tabloid treatment than other celebrities or royals.

The reality is that Meghan could hardly have received a warmer welcome from the Windsors and the general public. The couple have had a freedom and social licence denied earlier royals, including Edward VIII, who was not permitted as king to marry his American divorcee sweetheart.

Many countries have downsized their monarchies. The vestigial royals of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain are souvenirs of sovereignty but many live happily free-range lives.

The British royals, however, are more like our tuatara – so minimally evolved, we doubt their viability outside captivity. Inherited wealth aside, some are not terribly adaptive, and all are fiscally and environmentally costly to maintain.

And yet, for the Sussexes, the Commonwealth’s respect for the Queen should prove a long-range protectant. First, however, they must prove they deserve it.

This editorial was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.