The marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle is being marketed as a love story for the ages.
The news media’s around-the-clock wedding coverage is fixated on all the tiny romantic details, like how Meghan Markle wears a necklace with H and M pendants on it, or how Harry proposed over a dinner of homemade roast chicken. It’s almost as if the two of them are like any other millennial couple scrambling to write their vows and nail their signature cocktail before the big day.
Except they’re not. While there’s no reason to doubt that Markle and Harry are in love, it’s worth noting that their wedding is only partially about romance. Billions of people around the world are expected to tune in to this wedding, so there’s no question that it will be a carefully orchestrated branding exercise for the royal family and, by extension, the United Kingdom.
The stakes are high: Given that Markle and Harry are from opposite sides of the pond, their marriage could be strategically deployed for soft diplomacy between the United States and the United Kingdom.
“The marriage between Harry and Meghan is an American alliance,” says royal historian Anna Whitelock. “It gives a very human face to the relationship between England and America, and creates a common, relatively uncontroversial bond between the two countries.”
The timing couldn’t be better: Things aren’t going so well between the elected leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States right now.
President Donald Trump had been slated to make his first official visit to the U.K. in January this year to open the a new U.S. embassy in London, but he cancelled the trip at the last minute. In a tweet, he explained that he was upset at Barack Obama for selling the existing American embassy for too little and building a replacement for $1 billion. (Trump was misinformed: The embassy’s sale had actually happened under George W. Bush.) Michael Wolff, a journalist who recently published an explosive book about life inside the Trump White House, said that the more likely reason Trump skipped the trip was that he was worried he would not receive “the love he believes he deserves,” from the British people.
If that was Trump’s real explanation, it would have made sense. By many accounts, Trump is not a well-liked figure in the U.K. Last year, Prime Minister Theresa May rebuked Trump for sharing propaganda videos from the far right group Britain First. London mayor Sadiq Khan said that many Londoners oppose Trump’s policies and actions, and would likely protest should he show up in their city.
None of this bears much resemblance to the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S. that Winston Churchill famously described in a 1946 speech. The former Prime Minister described how the two nations were intertwined because of their centuries-long history of military cooperation and trade. Six decades later, it’s harder to see evidence of this intimate relationship at work. This has been particularly true over the last two years as both countries have moved toward isolationism, which became clear with last year’s Brexit vote and President Donald Trump’s America First agenda.
Enter Markle and Harry. For the past two years, the world has been watching their relationship play out. Markle has made frequent trips to Harry’s cozy Nottingham Cottage home in Kensington Palace, while Harry has flitted around the world from Jamaica to Toronto to Botswana to be with her. Their courtship has had an international flair, and there’s good reason to think that the couple will continue to travel frequently–particularly since Markle’s friends and family are based largely in North America.
The British government and royal family are likely to strategically use Markle and Harry’s marriage to send a message to the world. Their relationship could be a way to suggest that the two countries are more open and globally minded than they seem right now.
Allow me to put it in the language of our times: Markle and Harry will be deployed as “brand influencers” on behalf of the United Kingdom. Their goals will include generating positive feelings among the British population toward their own country, and representing British values throughout the world. The pageantry around the royal wedding, the British people coming out to greet an American bride, and Prince Harry suddenly being related to American–could go a long way toward reigniting Churchill’s vision of the “special relationship” between the two nations.
The British royal family has taken decades to figure out how to best manage its image in the media. Things have changed a lot over the course of William and Harry’s own lifetime. When their mother, Princess Diana, died in a tragic car accident, the royal family didn’t immediately offer a public statement. To a British population grieving the loss of “the people’s princess,” this seemed like a cold, unfeeling response. “The media is a hungry beast that constantly needs feeding,” says Whitelock. “In a 24/7 media age, the royal family has got to be responsive. They realized to their detriment when Diana died.”
The monarchy has gotten much better at understanding how the media cycle works and how to use it to their own advantage. Royal weddings, for instance, have been an important way to focus the world’s attention on the most positive and uplifting aspects of the royal family. Prince William and Kate Middleton, for instance, have been tasked with making the monarchy seem more fun and relatable by doing down-to-earth things like, say, poking fun at each other during media events.
“Although royal marriages aren’t needed to consolidate political and diplomatic power, they consolidate the power of the brand,” Whitelock says. “The royal wedding is a perfect opportunity for the monarchy to get a massive platform to tell a visual story which can enhance their brand around the world.”
Markle is, in fact, perfectly poised to do the work of managing her new family’s image in the media. She has spent her entire career doing this, first as an up- and-coming actress, then as a fully fledged celebrity with a popular blog and Instagram account. Unlike Harry’s ex-girlfriends, who didn’t seem to want to face the nonstop paparazzi and scrutiny, Markle seems to be both willing and able to manage this attention. This is another reason why it is a relationship that the royal family can use to their advantage to strengthen the power they have over the media.
Whitelock points out that the concept of a love marriage within the British royal family is a very modern one. For much of history, royal weddings were anything but romantic. They were theatrical events that showcased the power of the crown. Often, they also forged alliances between foreign powers. Take Edward II, who was married in 1307 to a 12-year-old French princess called Isabella–or Henry VIII who married Catherine of Aragon in 1509 at the age of 17 to solidify England’s bond with Spain. As recently as 1840, Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Albert, because his family was connected to many European monarchs: Their children went on to marry into other royal dynasties, earning her the title, “Grandmother of Europe.”
There’s no doubt that Harry’s marriage will be different from those of his forebears. He and Markle reportedly met and fell in love in a thoroughly modern way: over drinks, on a blind date. But the monarchy still serves as an important figurehead of the state, even though its formal powers have waned over the last century.
Markle and Harry have the opportunity to tell an even wider-reaching story about the U.K.’s place in the world. Markle is older, biracial, and divorced–qualities that would certainly have been problematic in the past. Today the royal family appears to be using Markle to express how open and welcoming they are.
“The Brits will see this as a signal that the royals and the British monarchy are inclusive and represent a more diverse society,” Whitelock says. “As politics become so divisive, the relatively apolitical figures of the royals are a strong brand for Britain. They have quite a lot of power to generate tourism and positive news stories.”
Speaking of tourism, all of this wedding brouhaha should come in handy in July when President Trump plans to finally visit London. During his trip, Trump is scheduled to meet the queen and sit down for bilateral talks with May. While Downing Street has invited Trump for a full state visit, during which he would be honored with an official banquet at Buckingham Palace or a carriage procession up the mall, Trump has declined, choosing to downgrade the visit to a one-day “work trip.”
Trump turning down pomp and circumstance in his honor? Clearly, relations are still frosty between Trump and May. But perhaps they will warm up when Trump tunes in to watch the nuptials this weekend and sees the affection between Harry and Meghan. It might be a stretch, but then again, it seems like almost everybody loves a royal wedding.