'Bit of a loose cannon': Why Prince Harry's musings on the monarchy may not be so surprising after all

Prince Harry sparked headlines this week, but his comments on the the monarchy were only the latest forthright musings from a member of the Royal Family who has long had a penchant for raising eyebrows.

Comment that nobody wants the crown has echoes of outspoken grandfather Prince Philip

Prince Harry has suggested that no one in the Royal Family really wants to be King or Queen, and that it is duty, rather than desire, that inspires them in their roles. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

At first, it all seemed rather shocking — there was Prince Harry, fifth in line for the throne, suggesting no one in the Royal Family wants the top job.

The 32-year-old prince's interview published in a U.S. magazine raised eyebrows this week, particularly for his forthright musing over whether anyone in his family wants to be King or Queen.

"I don't think so," he told the Newsweek reporter, "but we will carry out our duties at the right time."

For many outside palace walls, such a comment came as quite a surprise, and sparked big, bold headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

There was the personable prince, talking about the "magic" of the Royal Family and how the "British public and the whole world need institutions like it." Yet he was also suggesting no one in his family has any real hankering for the role his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, has dutifully held since 1952.

Prince Harry, centre, takes his place on the Buckingham Palace balcony behind his sister-in-law, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and other members of the Royal Family after attending the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony in London on June 17. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

But was it really such a surprise?

Not if you think about how Harry has had a penchant for raising eyebrows. And not if you consider some of what he said had echoes of his equally outspoken grandfather — Prince Philip — speaking in Canada nearly five decades ago.

'Bit of a loose cannon'

"It was Harry being Harry — always a bit of a loose cannon, always saying and doing things, usually with the best of intentions, that land him in hot water," says Penny Junor, U.K.-based author of the 2014 biography Prince Harry: Brother, Soldier, Son.

"He was just being honest and to anyone who knows anything about the lives they lead, it is entirely understandable that none of them is elbowing anyone out of the way to get to the top job."

Harry's comments about how the Royal Family is "involved in modernizing the British monarchy" and how "we are not doing this for ourselves but for the greater good of the people" also conjured up memories of his grandfather.

"I think there are very striking similarities to Prince Philip's comments in Canada in the 1960s about how monarchy exists for the people rather than for the monarch," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and author of the recently published Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting.

Prince Harry meets stall holders during a visit to Borough Market after it reopened following the London Bridge attack in London this month. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

"This is the speech that has that famous quote: 'We don't come here for our health. We can think of other ways' of spending our time, which is seen as one of these Prince Philip gaffes."

But, says Harris, Philip was — like Harry now — "talking about how the modern monarchy doesn't exist in order to enrich the monarch," but is instead "an institution that is supposed to benefit the people."

John Fraser, master emeritus of the University of Toronto's Massey College and author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty, didn't think Harry's comments were "shocking at all," and saw him coming across as a "gentler version of his grandfather."

"You just isolate what he said in a headline and that seems shocking ,but when you read it, it makes logical sense," says Fraser.

"Who would voluntarily want to be surrounded by security people from the moment they wake up until the moment they die?"

Fraser also sets Philip's comments in 1969 against the context of the times, the Quiet Revolution and experiences he and Elizabeth had previously had in Quebec.

'Common knowledge'

"There were some disturbances and when the limousine went up to the legislature people turned their backs on the Queen and Prince Philip," says Fraser.

"Later when he talked, he said, you know, if we want to end this thing, let's try to do it in a civil way because we don't do this for our health. So there was a kind of statement there that there was a two-way street here; either we're welcome and we can take part in this concept or we're not and let's just finish it in a civil way."

Harry's comments were "certainly no surprise" for Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, which wants to see Canada's constitutional ties with the monarchy cut, and the country have a head of state who is democratically selected here.

"It's common knowledge [the royals are] reluctantly along for the ride," says Freda.

"We tend not to personalize the debate over the monarchy insofar as the royals go and I think … this remark by Prince Harry is proof of they don't care one way or the other and it exemplifies the argument that it's not about the royals. It's about us, it's about Canadians and what we want."

Harry's comments are only the latest public musings from a former party prince who now, along with his brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, is trying to focus public attention on youth mental health.

As part of that, Harry has talked openly in interviews and a podcast about severe emotional problems he had after the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, when he was 12.

Whether he will continue to be so open after the attention sparked by this week's comments is unclear.

'Time to stop'

"I think it would have been odd to have run a campaign as he and William have done on mental health and not mention his mother's death and the impact that had on him," says Junor.

"So I thought his podcast was good, but I think it's time to stop. We want to know they are human and have feelings as we do, but ultimately, to preserve the magic, we need them to be at one remove from us."

Prince Harry, his brother Prince William and William's wife, Kate, cheer on runners at a Heads Together cheering point along the London Marathon route on April 23. Heads Together is a mental health charity supported by the three British royals. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

Harris sees Harry's comments fitting into a larger theme of how he has been "speaking openly and honestly to the public," as he did last fall when he was sharply critical of media coverage of his girlfriend, Toronto-based actress Meghan Markle.

"It's been Prince Harry's style to engage with the public in a very forthright way," she says.

Harry's comments that point to a reluctance to assume the role of monarch could also reflect the feelings of others who took on the position over the past two centuries.

"The most recent monarch who was enthusiastic on a personal level to succeed to the throne was Queen Victoria in 1837," says Harris, noting the new role meant an independence that was welcomed by an 18-year-old whose life had been very strictly controlled by her mother.

Not so much enthusiasm

"But subsequent monarchs have not shown that same enthusiasm on a personal level as they have all recognized that there are tradeoffs that come with the position," says Harris, who noted for example that Elizabeth gave up measures of a comparatively normal life as a naval wife to Philip when she ascended to the throne. 

In the greater scheme of things, there's little to suggest Harry's comments will have any significant impact on the public perception of the House of Windsor.

"I don't think long-term they matter one way or the other," says Junor.

Fraser, who sees Harry as speaking "for his generation," doesn't think the prince is doing "any harm at the moment."

"All he is doing is making friends for the Crown."

And he doubts there will be any concerns from the palace that Harry, a prince who once courted headlines for a nude photo romp in Las Vegas, should tone down his public utterances.

"I think Harry shines in his grandmother's eyes, even when his bottom is bared."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.