Was Harry and Meghan's departure from royal life inevitable? At the heart of our monarchy is an ideal of serving the public good that is not the same as the currently dominant form of progressive idealism espoused by the likes of Meghan. It is not the same as it, and when it comes down to it, it is not compatible with it.
The British monarchy’s ideal of the public good is fairly vague, fairly flexible. But it entails a basic respect for tradition. And it entails the ideal of self-sacrifice. To serve the good means accepting constraints, accepting that you might not get what you want. It means accepting the possibility that you might have to suffer, even in some sense give your life for the sake of the public good.
This is the old-fashioned, Christian-based view of morality. But the monarchy is a special version of it. The normal person who strives to be moral in this sort of way has the freedom to fail, to espouse this ideal but also to admit that he or she can’t really live up to it. The royal person is publicly committed to the ideal in a special way. He or she is very like a priest – the representative of an ideal that is incredibly demanding, perhaps impossible. Of course it is above all the monarch who has to display such allegiance to the ideal – but the rest of the family have to toe the line, not be conspicuously at odds with the ethos.
The dominant form of progressive idealism is about two things. It is about social justice, challenging unjust traditions. And it is about self-realisation, self-esteem. It is the latter aspect that is the real problem. This is a fairly new development. A few decades ago, one would have assumed that a progressive young person would clash with the monarchy on the grounds that it was an oppressive institution, at odds with egalitarian politics and the socialist ideal.
But to Meghan there appears to be enough flexibility here. She was happy to marry in to the monarchy because she felt that there was no necessary clash between the old-fashioned idea of the public good, and her own liberal version.
The clash came from her assumptions about the self. She assumes, in the Californian way, that self-esteem is the basis of the moral and spiritual life. You have to love yourself, you have to dare to become yourself. You have to defy all external authorities that threaten to make you less than you are, that tell you what your duty is. This is not compatible with the monarchy’s ideal of self-sacrificial service.