He is not yet even a week old, and yet Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor has a lot of expectation on his tiny shoulders. The newborn son of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex may be only seventh in line to the throne, but at the moment of his birth last week he was at the forefront of the British psyche.
Archie’s arrival comes at a tentative and fragile crossroads in the UK’s history: as the country awaits Brexit, it is still painfully disunited over that decision to leave the EU. The departure from an inclusive, multinational trading bloc is yet to happen, but when – and if – it does, many see it as a step backwards for the UK into an insular, narrow-minded, lone country fearful of immigration and modernity.
Against that backdrop, then, some looked to the royal family, and not politics, for signs of progress. The birth of a child in the line of succession to a woman of mixed race heritage was already going to be symbolic, but the portrait of Meghan, Harry, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, all together gazing adoringly at the baby was hailed as a watershed moment for multicultural Britain.
Patrick Vernon, a social commentator, cultural historian and campaigner, told HuffPost UK this week that the presence of Doria was “significantly important as it reminds the public and the royal family there is black in the Union Jack … Britain is a multicultural and secular society - and Meghan and Harry reflect a new modernity to the royal family. When people write the history books in the future … historians cannot erase us from the history of Britain again.”
As significant – and celebratory – as the family portrait was, however, nobody should be under any illusions that Archie’s birth can solve the wide-ranging problems of racism in the UK – and it would be unfair to expect that it could.
Hate crimes in the country – of which racially motivated incidents represent the vast majority, around three-quarters – have more than doubled in the last five years. In 2017-18, police recorded more than 71,000 race hate crimes, up from 62,000 in the previous year. While there is no single cause for this shocking rise, the government reported spikes in hate crime after the 2016 Brexit referendum and the string of terrorist attacks in the UK in 2017.
Since Meghan’s marriage to Harry a year ago next week, the Duchess herself has been at the very least portrayed by some in the British press as a demanding, disruptive and difficult American blamed for driving Harry and his brother, the Duke of Cambridge apart; at worst, there has been a kind of “othering” and veiled racism.
And her newborn son was barely three days old before he was subject to overt racism: a BBC radio presenter, Danny Baker, posted on Twitter an old black and white photo of a couple with a chimpanzee dressed as a child and wrote the caption: “Royal baby leaves hospital.” While Baker swiftly deleted the tweet, claiming he hadn’t realized the racist connotations, and also claiming – bizarrely – he had had no idea the new royal baby was Meghan’s, the incident stoked a lot of pain. Baker was sacked from the BBC and later issued a more forthright apology.
In the Guardian, the journalist Micha Frazer-Carroll wrote: “Just 72 hours after his birth, newborn Archie, swaddled in privilege, has nevertheless been exposed to the realities of British prejudice … not even those at the literal top of the pecking order seem to be shielded from crass discrimination. This baby has a lifetime to come in the public eye, and, I fear, a lifetime of the lowest forms of racism too.”
What the past week has shown is that the birth of a mixed race child in the royal family cannot be used as a panacea to reassure Britons that they are an inclusive and progressive country, however much that reassurance might be needed right now, as the UK teeters on the brink of an unknown future.
At moments of crisis in the country, its citizens have often looked to the royal family for answers: during World War II, and after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to name just two occasions. Royal weddings and royal babies have been jolly distractions from the grim realities of politics but, often, little else.
Yet last year’s wedding of Harry and Meghan, which was an unashamed celebration of the heritage of both bride and groom, and the birth of their son Archie this week, along with that official portrait, have marked something more: progress in the whitest and most elite of institutions. While this baby is not going to cure the UK of racism, all of that has mattered to a lot of people.