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Kevin Cullen

The abdication of stiff upper lips

Queen Elizabeth II, with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in less complicated times.
Queen Elizabeth II, with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in less complicated times. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images/File 2018

Before weighing in on the British royal family, a stipulation:

The idea that someone is entitled to anything, much less unimaginable riches and endless attention, because of their bloodline is utterly preposterous.

But as an open admirer of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, for his efforts to help veterans and her outreach to the marginalized, and having read some of the vile racist abuse she has been subjected to, a few thoughts.

Whatever you think of the royal family — and, given my tribe’s history, it isn’t much — it’s hard not to cheer for Harry and his brother. Their mother was hounded to death by the baying pack of hyenas who make money selling photographs of royals to quench some inexplicable desire to know what these people had for dinner or where they spend their many, myriad holidays.


Even typing that word — royals — is ludicrous, unless you’re referring to the baseball team in Kansas City or have a memory like Bob Ryan and can talk with some authority about the basketball team in Cincinnati that once employed the best point guard ever in Oscar Robertson.

But Harry and William seem different. Perhaps because they lost their mother when they were so young, Harry and William, in partnership with their wives, have been determined to do what Diana did, something which had previously escaped so many of the royals, and that’s damn the protocol and be empathetic.

Unless you are of a certain age, you can’t imagine how much of a cultural shift Diana helped produce, worldwide, when she touched someone with AIDS.

In 1997, I arrived in London just as most Britons woke up to the news that Diana was dead. For the next week, I experienced firsthand a giant pushback by British people, angered at the way Queen Elizabeth and the royal family had treated Diana, in life, and in death.


Most British people made it clear they favored Diana’s brand of heartfelt empathy over the time-honored tradition of stiff upper lips and stiff little fingers. It took the queen, detached and aloof, a week to acknowledge popular sentiment.

That tone deafness was not isolated. In his exquisitely written and acted series, “The Crown,” Peter Morgan explored Queen Elizabeth’s biggest blunder in a reign that next month will mark 67 years. In 1966, an avalanche of coal waste ran down a mountain in Wales, smothering the town of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

The queen didn’t visit Aberfan for eight days. She has suggested it was her concern that a royal visit would detract from rescue efforts. Whatever the reason, it betrayed a stunning lack of insight.

The recent decision by Harry and his wife to step back from their duties and become more financially independent was dismissed by some as selfish and ungrateful. There were some in the UK, and even on this side of the pond, who wanted the queen to assert her authority and slap down her presumptuous grandson and his uppity wife.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that big family sit-down in Sandringham, which had all the makings of a sequel to “Knives Out.” The queen channeled her former daughter-in-law’s compassion. In a statement, the queen made it clear that she didn’t like Harry and Meghan’s decision, but that she was supporting their “desire to create a new life as a young family.”


Years ago, plagued by immaturity, I was more inclined to embrace the vulgar sentiments about the queen that republicans painted on the gabled walls of West Belfast. Then, in 2011, I was in Dublin as she became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland. She spoke with great dignity, humility, and, yes, empathy. She purged a lot of ghosts and demons then.

On Monday, she did right by her family. And her nation.

The queen is 93 now, and, like very few of us, getting better with age.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.