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Story highlights

Jane Merrick: What makes this royal couple special is the way Harry has broken out of the tight constraints of royal protocol

In Markle, young girls in the UK and US have a role model who is not a princess but an independent-minded feminist and career woman, Merrick says

Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Just as Princess Diana broke down the stuffiest of royal traditions and conventions, her younger son – and his new fiancée – are modernizing the royal family all over again.

Prince Harry’s engagement to actress Meghan Markle is not the first to join a senior member of the British royal family with an American, nor with an American who has been married once before. The comparisons between their engagement and that of Edward VIII, who gave up the throne so he could marry divorced American Wallis Simpson, end there, however.

What makes this royal couple different from any other around the British throne is the way Harry has – with, it seems, the positive influence of Meghan – broken out of the tight constraints of royal protocol to discuss grief, mental health and to share his searingly honest admission of not always wanting to be a prince.

Harry and Meghan began dating 18 months ago, and so it is surely no coincidence that the prince’s transformation from someone who partied hard into a taboo-breaking royal role model has happened over a similar period of time. The watershed moment came in April of this year, when Harry gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon about his battle with mental health problems following the death of his mother 20 years ago.

The significance of this moment cannot be overstated: for the many people who suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, one of the toughest challenges can often be talking about it openly. It is still, in our modern society of social media sharing, a taboo for many. For a member of the royal family, whose members guard their private lives as closely as their crown jewels, such openness was extraordinary.

By discussing the anxiety he felt conducting royal engagements, the “total chaos” he felt even in his late 20s as he still struggled to come to terms with the death of his mother even after nearly two decades, Harry was changing not only the royal family but also the way society discusses mental health.

Then, in an interview with Newsweek in June, Harry suggested his reluctance at wanting to be a prince. “Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen?” he said. “I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.”

Later in the summer, he spoke with raw honesty over how he felt about the way his mother was treated by the media and the royal family and, again, his attitude to being a prince. In interviews he and his brother William, the Duke of Cambridge, gave to mark the 20th anniversary of Diana’s tragic death, the princes revealed in intimate detail how they had struggled to deal with their grief.

Harry and his brother talked about having to put on their “prince hats” when, aged just 12 and 15, they had to walk behind their mother’s hearse with their father, uncle and grandfather. Such honesty – and a hint that he would often want to remove such a hat and be a normal boy and young man – makes the 33-year-old prince seem very unroyal and normal.

What is refreshing, too, is that – unlike his parents – he has fallen in love and become engaged with little signs of interference from the Queen or other senior members of the royal family and their courtiers. There has been no attempt to stop him marrying a divorcée – unlike the constitutional crisis caused in 1936 when Edward VIII planned to marry Mrs. Simpson.

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Of course, Prince Harry is not on the throne and is unlikely ever to become king, as he is currently fifth in line and – with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting a baby in the spring – about to be sixth. And society has changed in 80 years – the British royals themselves are no longer strangers to divorce.

For Meghan, who has spoken of her experiences as a mixed-race woman in America, the origins of her own feminism as a young schoolgirl growing up in Los Angeles and Donald Trump’s misogyny, is someone who has worked hard at her career as an actress. She, too, brings a refreshing modernity to the royal family, whose resistance to change is renowned. It is clear she will be a role model for young women and girls in the UK and US – but not because they aspire to be a princess. They have in her someone to look up to who describes herself as being a proud feminist, career-focused, independent-minded and above all, a strong woman.