Making the rounds on social media is a photo of Daniel Craig as James Bond, the infamous spy, with the Queen. “All of Parliament, Ma’am?” Bond asks. “Yes 007, the bloody lot,” the Queen replies.

The joke illustrates how important the monarchy remains as a pillar of national unity at a fraught moment of political tension over Brexit. Britain’s sense of fragility gives the monarchy an opportunity to show its enduring value, as well as present pitfalls for members of the royal family to step over the line into the political sphere. Both elements are in evidence.

Prince William, second in line to the throne after his father Prince Charles, emblemized the royal family’s unifying role when it was revealed that he completed a three-week internship at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, the security service, MI5, and the signals intelligence arm GCHQ.

That is the kind of service that the British expect from a prospective monarch, wholly above politics and consistent with Britain’s national brand. Britain’s proficiency in the black arts is a popular theme in its global image, from 007 to the recent PBS ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents’ series.

William’s service with British Intelligence stood unexceptionably above politics. But in the present atmosphere, with a weak government and a deeply divided Parliament, the temptation is growing for royals to step into territory that might potentially politicize the palace. And that could create hazards for the monarchy.

There are some un-royal things going on in the royal family. After the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle — moved out of Kensington Palace and indicated by word and deed that they have a vision of their future other than as ‘family members’ supporting the monarchy, as in the royal tradition.

Celebrity politics

Meghan and Harry tend to blur the boundary that separates royal status from celebrity and politics. Controversially, the Sussexes hired Sara Latham, a highly political publicist to ratchet up Meghan’s profile as a worldwide star of international causes. Public reaction to Meghan’s less-than-royal attitude has been unfriendly. Prince Harry’s heartfelt commitment to continue the legacy of his beloved mother Diana has gone off course since his marriage to Meghan, who seems to have brought an unwelcome tone of politicized celebrity to the royal family.

The unwelcome part of the mix is Latham, Hillary Clinton’s former publicist and the newly-appointed (and taxpayer-funded) PR manager for the royal couple. Latham has begun a warrior-style campaign to raise Meghan’s shaky standing with the public, and to use Prince Harry’s popularity to make a powerhouse out of the House of Sussex. As the former PR adviser to one of the least liked women in politics, Latham is an ironic choice, but her deep roots in the Labour and Democratic Parties make her one of the world’s most powerful PR minders.

The appointment of an American political operator for a part of the royal family is unprecedented and has been questioned in the UK. Latham has worked with her fair share of politicians – the Obamas, Clintons and other world leaders. So exactly how did she  land a job at Buckingham Palace? After all, royal family members have significant influence but are supposed to remain well above politics. George Clooney, the movie star and celebrity friend of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, helped raise money for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and might have played a part in their introduction.

Which leads to another interesting element in the caper. Just how did Amal Clooney become so woven into the fabric of many facets of recent royal affairs? A guest at the wedding, orchestrator of Meghan’s controversial baby shower, dinners at the palace and, last month, having a prize for inspirational women named in her honor, the coveted Amal Clooney Award, for The Prince’s Trust International, a youth charity set up by the Prince of Wales in 2015.

The Clooneys meet Prince Charles at the launch of the award in Amal’s name in March. Photo: Prince’s Trust International

By no coincidence, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt just announced the appointment of Amal Clooney – in her day job an international human rights lawyer – to act as the foreign secretary’s special envoy on media freedom. It is most un-British for the Foreign Office to avail itself of such celebrity star power.

Latham wasted no time in utilizing social media methods she learned in American politics. Her first sally was to launch the Sussex Royal Instagram platform, with 4 million followers (largely under 30s) signing up within the first few hours. Next up is the forthcoming birth of Harry’s and Meghan’s first baby, which will recharge the media circus with a plethora of exclusive baby photos and a revival of the romantic fairytale between Harry and Meghan.

In the Latham scenario, Harry and Meghan’s awaited baby will become a symbol of a different kind of royal identity, more at home in Hollywood and celebrity politics than in the thousand-year history of the monarchy. 

The royal-celebrity-political nexus that is emerging under Latham’s guidance threatens to politicize the royal family in a way that it has never been seen before. Like everything else, Baby Sussex will become a political prop for the redoubtable Ms Latham. We can expect to see a revolving door at Kensington Palace for status-seeking celebrities and the transformation of the Duchess of Sussex into a celebrity extraordinaire, with more than a toe in politics. The risk is that the royal family will be exploited for some political agenda at a moment of national fragility.

Almost as fast as the speed of the Duke and Duchess’ Instagram launch, Meghan became the most scrutinized and disliked member of the royals. And, judging from a sample of the British press and analysis of reader comments on posted articles, her aspirations go further than the ‘life of a wife of the second son’. So, Latham has embarked on a rather dubious PR campaign to turn this around, a powerful driver of product publicity, with a warrior, attack, attack, attack style. The PR machine will keep shoving and manipulating, grinding itself against a British public who know the difference between celebrity and royalty.

Protecting Meghan’s image from the public’s antipathy to un-royal behavior will be quite a challenge for Latham, who after all, was not entirely successful with Hillary Clinton. Little dissonances keep showing up, for example, the Sussexes’ ostentatious criticism of the addictive computer game Fortnite, while they install a $46,000 multi-media system in their unborn child’s nursery. Releasing new photos of the couple fighting an elephant hunt in Botswana jar with the fact that Harry hunts animals on home ground as a sport. Sending your baby gifts to the LunchBox Fund is admirable but means less when you wear $90,000 outfits at public occasions.

The royals have traditionally resisted the blurring of lines between royalty, politics and celebrity. The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride, giving a sense of stability and continuity and an aura of the sacred. Let’s hope that Latham, who tends to have a short tenure on her high-profile projects, quickly recognizes that the monarchy supports the ideal of voluntary service and that in these roles, it’s the Sovereign who is supported and not surpassed by their immediate family.

Perhaps Prince William’s internship at MI6 is a subtle nod that Her Majesty’s Secret Service understand this. The future monarch goes ‘clandestine’ at intelligence HQ while the Duchess of Cambridge plants higher than usual hedges around the grounds of Kensington Palace to shield the privacy of the future heirs to the throne. That stands in marked contrast to the celebrity culture around the Sussex household.