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‘Megxit’ Is the New Brexit in a Britain Split by Age and Politics

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LONDON — It started with the catchword “Megxit,” a tabloid editor’s clever play on Brexit, published in The Sun soon after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, announced their plans to leave Britain and live in North America part of the year.

It continued with corny jokes that Buckingham Palace is seeking a “Super Canada-plus” agreement for the Canada-bound couple, an allusion to the sweetheart trade deal Britain would like to strike with the European Union when it leaves the bloc.

And now, as the royal family races to hammer out an agreement with the couple to put the unpleasant affair behind it, commentators are comparing the royal couple’s impending breakup with Britain to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election-year promise to “Get Brexit done.”

Stoked by a zealous news media and consumed by a divided, enthralled public, the Harry-and-Meghan saga is playing out uncannily like the long-running debate over Brexit — only a whole lot juicier.

With the storms over Brexit temporarily calmed by Mr. Johnson’s victory, but the underlying economic and social issues far from resolved, the royals have become a convenient proxy, allowing people to argue about race, class, gender and British identity, through the travails of a single star-crossed couple.

“With Brexit, Britain is choosing to leave the European Union,” said Meera Selva, director of the Reuters Journalism Fellowship Program at Oxford University, “and yet with Megxit, there is this outrage that someone is choosing to leave Britain.”

“He’s leaving because he doesn’t like what he sees in Britain,” she added, referring to Harry. “That’s a message the British don’t want to hear right now.”

As the Harry-and-Meghan drama unfolds in breathless headlines and acres of news commentary, it is resurfacing the same questions that animated the Brexit debate. What kind of society do the British want: open or closed, cosmopolitan or nationalist, progressive or traditional?

The debate, as with Brexit, breaks along political and generational fault lines. Young people and liberals, many of whom voted to stay in the European Union, tend to be more sympathetic to the prince and his American wife. Older, more conservative people, a majority of whom voted to leave, tend to be more critical of the couple and defensive of Queen Elizabeth II.

Where Prince Harry and Meghan’s defenders see a multiracial, trans-Atlantic family seeking refuge from a vindictive press and the hidebound traditions of royal life, critics see a self-indulgent pair who want the perks of royalty without its responsibilities, forsaking queen and country for the stardust of Hollywood.

The critics are particularly hard on the Duchess of Sussex, as Meghan is formally known. A divorced former TV actress from a mixed-race background, Meghan Markle met Prince Harry through mutual friends in London in July 2016, a month after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Their romance unfolded against the backdrop of a charged debate over immigration and the country’s national identity.

“Meghan Markle represented change because of her racial heritage but also because of her feminism, her activism, and the fact that she is self-made, with strong ideas about her autonomy and identity,” said Afua Hirsch, who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and is the author of “Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging.”

“She happened to arrive at a moment when Brexit emboldened people who advocated for a nationalist identity and a return to Britain’s imperial past,” Ms. Hirsch continued. “It’s no surprise that this triggered a really hostile reaction.”

For many Britons, however, the couple’s wedding — with its gospel choir singing “Stand by Me” and Bishop Michael Curry of Chicago quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his freewheeling sermon — sent an electrifying message about the potential of an outsider to shake up a centuries-old institution.

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But then came the reports that the duchess was miserable in her new life and barely speaking to her in-laws. The couple’s relations with the press, which had started out well, quickly turned sour. The papers criticized them for flying on private jets and restricting access to their newborn, Archie.

BuzzFeed News, in a startling exercise, collected 20 examples of how the tabloids covered the duchess more negatively than his brother Prince William’s wife, the former Kate Middleton.

The duchess took legal action against one of the papers, The Mail on Sunday, for publishing a letter she sent her father, Thomas Markle. She now faces the prospect of a trial in which the paper’s publisher has threatened to call her father to testify.

Prince Harry and Meghan spoke hopefully of carving out a “progressive new role within this institution.” But in the end, the duchess, who had returned to Canada after their announcement, did not even take part by phone in the family conclave at Sandringham, the queen’s country home, to discuss the couple’s future.

People with ties to the palace said the queen hoped to come to an agreement within days about how the couple’s part-time status will work and how they will be allowed to finance themselves. The goal is for the royals to get back to business as usual.

Critics noted that the palace, like the Johnson government with Brexit, hopes to make a complicated problem go away with a simple piece of paper.

Still, at a time when Britain is casting off from the European Union, the monarchy and other symbols of national identity may exert greater pull than ever. Britons, for example, are busy debating whether the government should pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to ring the bell in Big Ben, which is undergoing renovation, to mark the formal moment that Britain leaves on Jan. 31.

“Once we’ve left the E.U., Britons will hold even tighter to those things that are uniquely or peculiarly British,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist, writing in The Guardian. “Some on the left might wish that would mean no more than the N.H.S.,” he said, referring to Britain’s National Health Service. “But as this week has shown yet again, for many millions it also means the royal family.”

Among the casualties of this post-Brexit conservatism, Mr. Freedland said, would be the movement to abolish the monarchy. Republicanism never got much traction in Britain, even before Brexit. But it seems even more far-fetched now, after three years of anguished national debate over Britain’s future.

Critics noted that the same Conservative Party that engineered Brexit has fanned the yearning for an imperial Britain. Prince Harry and Meghan, however, are speeding the move toward a more streamlined royal family — the kind one finds in more compact European countries like the Netherlands or Belgium.

“We have a royal family that befits the idea of an empire bestriding half the globe,” said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian. “The inability to face up to a more modest royal family gels with our inability to come to terms with Britain’s diminished role in the world.”



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