On a long-ago Remembrance Sunday, it fell to me, as a new service equerry, to present the Prince of Wales with his wreath to lay at the Cenotaph. The fact that the Cenotaph in question was in Hong Kong — still a British Crown Colony at the time — gives the memory a sepia tint. Adding to the retro imperial theme, His Excellency the Governor wore full dress uniform, complete with pith helmet and ostrich feather. As I waited nervously to play my walk-on part, I had time to realise how lucky I was to witness such vanishing theatre.
The rest of Hong Kong cheerfully went about its business while we performed our solemn rite. Yet any locals who paused to watch the immaculate little ceremony couldn’t have guessed that a tetchy protocol impasse had only narrowly been averted. In the absence of the Queen, the first wreath would normally be laid by her representative, the Governor. But the Prince’s advisors argued that since he was present in person and surely the next best thing to the sovereign herself, he should take precedence. As I recall, after a rather tense phone conversation with Buckingham Palace, a ruling was handed down. The Prince’s wreath — though laid with consummate dignity — was laid after the Governor’s.
So to this Remembrance Sunday, from which Her Majesty’s absence inevitably stirred anxious speculation about her health. Only six times in her reign has she missed the sacred act of tribute to the Glorious Dead, and then only because she was either pregnant or overseas on tour. We’re told the reason is unconnected with her recent period of enforced rest but such assurances give only chilly comfort. We hope in our hearts she’ll be back next year. But, as the earnest tableau around the colonial Cenotaph reminded me, earth’s proud empires do pass away, usually taking their ruling families with them. How reassuring, then, to glance at the Foreign Office balcony where the royal wives were gathered and find reason to be hopeful for the House of Windsor.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex observed Veterans Day at the Salute to Freedom gala at the USS Intrepid museum in Manhattan. Most talk was of the Duchess’s dress — a dramatic poppy-red creation by Carolina Herrera. High point of the formal proceedings was the presentation by the Duke of the inaugural Intrepid Valor Awards to five service members, veterans and military families living with the invisible wounds of war. Good, solid royal stuff, albeit in a distinctly non-British context. Yet the courtier/bureaucrat in me couldn’t help seeing shades of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, grins fixed amid the gala-goers. Nowhere does charity glitz like New York but, since it starred the Queen’s grandson, there’s legitimate curiosity about the event’s protocol, status and reporting arrangements. These are the kind of questions that might have been directed to Harry and Meghan’s former communications secretary, Jason Knauf, but Mr Knauf has long since distanced himself from Team Sussex and now runs the Cambridges’ Royal Foundation. A smart career move given his recent front-page appearances as the man who cast doubt on Meghan’s recollections about her correspondence with her father while suggesting she knew more than she admitted about her role in the suspiciously sympathetic Finding Freedom.
Meghan seems to be diversifying into American politics, reportedly making personal calls as ‘the Duchess of Sussex’ to senators to lobby for laws on social issues. In Britain, such intervention to influence public policy would be dangerous constitutional overreach for a member of the royal family (though that hasn’t stopped some). In Meghan’s defence, friends say she’s just doing her part as an engaged citizen. There’s certainly no shame in that as a title, and some might argue that in the egalitarian USA nothing grander is required or even desirable. After all, according to Thomas Jefferson: ‘There is not a single crowned head in Europe whose talents or merit would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.’
Talking of elections, here in Jefferson’s home state of Virginia we just voted in a new governor. The results both here and in neighbouring New Jersey were a notable success for the Republicans and have been widely interpreted as a sharp warning to Joe Biden’s Democrats as we approach next year’s midterms. All that may be true, though for me the real highlight was a sign at the polling station advertising ‘Drive-thru voting for over-65s’. Suffrage without the suffering. Now that’s what I call democracy.