finance

Windsors of change: the royal family and diversity


The news that the royal family is thinking of appointing a diversity champion is extremely welcome. If one thing ought to be obvious, it is that there has been a shocking lack of diversity in Britain’s monarchy.

For starters, far too many of them are Windsors. It’s been centuries since we had even the hint of a Plantagenet. Any diversity audit is likely to pick this up early. This domination of our key institution by one family is a major concern, one that exposes it to groupthink and inertia.

There are also issues of social diversity. Far too many of the royals come from the same elite background. It may be a good idea to follow the lead of the government’s civil service reforms and relocate a number of the royals to other parts of the country.

It is true that the family has, in recent years, opened up its application processes to people who are not nobles or members of other royal families. But the barriers to entry remain high. Numbers of new admissions are strictly controlled and not all outsiders have found it easy to assimilate. There are umpteen micro-aggressions such as having to walk behind other royals or being made to sit next to Prince Andrew at state functions.

Many new joiners say they find themselves falling foul of impossible codes of conduct and a vicious hierarchy in which being sixth in line to the throne is seen, somehow, as being less important than being second. And while some diversity has been introduced to the family of late, this has tended to be at middle-management level and has, sadly, not been a success.

Nepotism is rife. Those who marry into a senior role complain their partner is frequently leapfrogged by people with no qualifications simply because they are the children of someone higher up the chain. Meghan Markle married into a top-five position with expectation of further advancement but within months her family had dropped to number six with no long-term hope of a podium position.

“It’s very upsetting,” said one now-minor royal. “One week, you are in all the photos with the Queen at Christmas and then someone above you has a child and, suddenly, you are visiting homeless shelters in the Cinque Ports.” And while the heir to the throne gets to be prince of a whole nation, the sixth in line gets only a county and one with mostly shingle beaches.

While the royals reject accusations of racism, even before the Sussex furore there have been those teensy moments that a diversity champion might see as an opportunity for learnings about unconscious bias and misfiring humour — such as the British-Indian polo friend Prince Charles referred to with an “affectionate” but racially offensive name, or that time Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi.

Then there is all that stuff about Catholics not being allowed to become monarch — although they can now marry into the family, which is clearly a terrific win for diversity, rather like women being allowed to use the main staircase at the Garrick.

The British press shares the guilt. It has been very weak at challenging the lack of ethnic, religious or cultural diversity, though, in fairness, it has absolutely nailed calling out people who dislike being photographed at Wimbledon.

I should, at this point, be clear that a greater focus on diversity is actually a good idea for an institution that wishes to be relevant to the whole population and which has faced damaging accusations of racism towards one of its newest members.

Whether the champion focuses on change within the royal household or on the broader mission to represent all in society, it is right to try to do better. Even if it only improves the treatment of new members, especially those from a different background, it must only be good.

But at some point you may have to acknowledge that if diversity, fairness and a society where all are treated equally are really the goals, it is just possible that a centuries-old hereditary monarchy may not be the optimal model.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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