London – The Duke and Duchess of Sussex say the Commonwealth must acknowledge past “wrongs” in the wake of the Back Lives Matter movement.
Harry and Meghan, who despite stepping down as working royals have remained president and vice president of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, said that otherwise it was impossible for the “family of nations” to progress.
“When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past,” Harry said. In a wide-ranging video call with young Commonwealth leaders, Meghan also tackled the thorny issue of “unconscious racial bias”, accusing those who do nothing to stop it of being complicit.
It is not enough to say “Well it wasn’t me”, she said. The call may make uncomfortable viewing for the Queen, who is head of the Commonwealth and sees it as one of the greatest successes of her reign, and Prince Charles, who will succeed her.
Some found the Sussexes’ comments divisive, with critics saying the couple fundamentally misunderstood the ethos of the Commonwealth, which was set up to rectify inequalities of the past.
Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, said: “I’m surprised that he would be making comments like that. I don’t agree with what he is saying. We should look forward not back.
“As someone who has stepped out of the Royal Family he should focus on his own life and not get involved in politics. That is not the appropriate thing to do. I’m not sure his grandmother would be too pleased either.”
Buckingham Palace made clear that they had no issue with the couple’s comments or the topic of their discussion.
A senior royal aide told the Mail: “The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) was formed for young people to have a voice. If it is an important issue for young people, then it is important for the Commonwealth and right that the Trust looks at this. These are the leaders of tomorrow.”
QCT chief executive Nicola Brentnall says Harry and Meghan’s video call is part of the process of discussing how the Commonwealth’s past “of colonialism, of the subjugation of peoples and the ongoing legacy of such historic injustice” can shape the organisation and its development.
Speaking from their home in Los Angeles to four young leaders last week, the royal couple said the mistakes of the past had to be acknowledged.
Harry added: “So many people have done such an incredible job of acknowledging the past and trying to right those wrongs, but I think we all acknowledge there is so much more still to do.
“It’s not going to be easy and in some cases it’s not going to be comfortable, but it needs to be done, because, guess what, everybody benefits. There is no turning back now, everything is coming to a head.”
Meghan said: “We’re going to have to be a little uncomfortable right now, because it’s only in pushing through that discomfort that we get to the other side of this and find the place where a high tide raises all ships. Equality does not put anyone on the back foot, it puts us all on the same footing – which is a fundamental human right.”
Harry used the call to address the issue of “unconscious bias”. As a young soldier at Sandhurst in 2006, he was filmed using a hugely offensive word to describe a Pakistani colleague, and also used another derogatory racial term. When the video emerged three years later, he apologised and was sent on a diversity course.
He did not refer to this in the video call, but said: “Once you start to realise that there is that bias there, then you need to acknowledge it… and then you need to do the work to be able to become more aware….so that you can help stand up for something that is so wrong and should not be acceptable in our society today.”
Meghan spoke of how racism “hides and thrives”, talking about her own personal experience. “It’s in the quiet moments where racism and unconscious bias lies,” she said.
“And that is the shift we are seeing. It is not enough to just be a bystander and say “Well it wasn’t me”.”
That feeling was “very much manifested” in the reaction to the death of George Floyd at the hands of four white US policemen, which rekindled the Black Lives Matter movement. “It has come to a head where people have just said “enough”,” she said.
Meghan has recently seen her best friend, Canadian socialite Jessica Mulroney, accused of using her “white privilege” to threaten and bully black social media star, Sasha Exeter.
She did not refer to the incident directly but said: “It’s acknowledging whatever mistakes we’ve all made.
“If we look at the Commonwealth, and I know from the conversation that we are going to explore later on [that] we will be looking at the history of that… But if you start on that macro level, you also have to look on a more micro level with each of us individually.
“What have we done in our past that we put our hand up, and I think that this is a moment of reckoning.”
It was an issue she and Harry had discussed a great deal as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.
The couple were joined on the call by Chrisann Jarrett, co-founder of We Belong, representing young people who migrated to the UK, and Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas, as well as Mike Omoniyi, founder of The Common Sense Network in the UK, and Abdullahi Alim, who leads the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers.
Mr Omoniyi said that “any white person who thinks “How can I help” ” has to start listening to the reality of life from a black perspective. Meghan agreed and Harry added: “This change is needed and it’s coming.”
Last week Harry spoke of the “endemic institutional racism” that corrodes society and apologised for being part of a generation that has not done enough to right the wrongs of the past.
The QCT was set up to champion young leaders. It stresses that it is an independent organisation which does not represent the views of the Royal Family or the Royal Household.
The 54-nation Commonwealth is home to 2.4 billion people, 60 per cent of them under the age of 30. It emerged from the break-up of the British Empire in the first half of the 20th century.
Membership is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation, with some countries having no historical ties to the British Empire. Its aims are prosperity, democracy and peace.