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Analysis | When the heir and the reserve don’t care about each other

Remark

Our fascination with sibling rivalry and resentment of the firstborn’s right to succeed, weaves its way through ancient myths and legends. For every Old Testament Cain who kills Abel, there is a Jacob who outwits a slow-witted older brother Esau to win his father’s inheritance.

These archetypes are no less powerful today. The huge success of the HBO series Succession, about the children of the Roy family who plot for supremacy in their father Logan’s media empire, is built on it. And real life imitates art. In 2010, British voters were transfixed by the two Miliband brothers’ battle for leadership of the Labor Party. The older prince of the party, David, assumed the prize was his until his younger sibling Ed unexpectedly challenged him and won. During a luncheon I had with the loser the week after his defeat, David picked up my copy of The Guardian, which his brother had supported, and mockingly threw it on the floor. Soon after, he left the UK for exile in New York and refused to speak to his brother for many months afterwards.

With the publication this week of his autobiography, Spare, and lengthy interviews on British and American network television, Prince Harry has skillfully directed and produced his own melodrama. Wrecking details of his feuds with William, Prince of Wales, will guarantee the feuding brothers a place in history. Because this story really resonates. Around the world, any less-than-perfect family — that is, all families — can relate. But for the rest of us, there’s less at stake: The aggrieved parties don’t get time with Oprah Winfrey.

In ways big and small, Buckingham Palace has often made Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and King Charles’s second son, feel second to none. Now he is retaliating by publishing a telling autobiography written by an accomplished American writer. The title comes from a joke Charles told his mother, Princess Diana, at Harry’s birth; His job was done because he now had “an heir and reserve”.

British tabloid newspapers have already pilloried Harry for betraying the family secrets as he published every last piece of juicy gossip. The indiscreet and lurid material copied from early sightings of the book will drive massive advance sales and global exposure.

Commentators have often made light-hearted references to “the Royal Soap Opera”, but this is the primetime version. Harry tells us how he struggled with William and was thrown to the ground on a dog bowl which broke and injured his back. We learn how the prince lost his virginity to an elderly woman in a field behind a bar. He snorts cocaine, takes magic mushrooms and smokes marijuana. To the dismay of former army comrades, the Duke of Sussex also talks about his total of 25 Taliban fighters, dispatched from an Apache helicopter while on patrol in Afghanistan. Harry says he felt nothing at the time – they were like “chess pieces” being removed from the board. Bragging about the number of Taliban he helped kill will hardly increase his personal security.

The Duke scores some shrewd hits as he denounces the hellish pact between Buckingham Palace and the major tabloids. In fact, he accuses his family of throwing his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to the wolves to improve their own personal press coverage.

His brother and father have refused to respond in kind. King Charles is hardly in a position to rebuke his youngest son for “allowing magic to seep into daylight” – which would ruin the monarchy’s spell, as Walter Bagehot warned in the 19th century. As Prince of Wales, Charles contributed to a biography and a television interview in which he confessed that his marriage had never been a true love match. His wife, Diana, retaliated in kind, calling his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the king’s wife, “the third person” in their marriage.

The king loosened up slightly in his son’s interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby on Sunday night: his parenting skills were gently mocked, but the son’s affection for his father also shone through. For all the alleged froideur of stuffy British royals, Harry credited him for apologizing for not giving him the therapy he so clearly needed after his mother’s death.

The real venom is reserved for his brother, whom he accuses of “talking” the Fleet Street newspaper line about Meghan’s allegedly self-indulgent ways. No one can judge the veracity of claims about incidents that took place behind closed palace doors, but something went profoundly wrong in an already competitive relationship. Fights between boys are commonplace, but when two adults argue over whether Harry’s beard should be shaved off for his wedding day, it seems absurd, if not pathetic.

William and his wife Kate clearly had no connection with Meghan from the start. Nothing unusual in that, but Harry claims they mistrusted his wife because she was a divorcee, biracial, and an actress. Afterwards, they couldn’t stop bickering, not even at their grandfather Philip’s funeral. Charles, we learn, was forced to plead with them, “Please boys, don’t make my last years a misery.” His wish cannot be granted.

Reconciliation with estranged relatives is Harry’s stated goal, but it’s hard to imagine him going about it the right way. I expect his father will invite him to his coronation in an unofficial capacity. Yet the estranged duke’s war against the institutional bureaucracy of the Royal Firm will continue. But if it’s as rotten as he suggests, why is he still holding on to his title?

Harry is asked that question by Anderson Copper in the US 60 Minutes interview. The Prince’s answer: “And what would that matter?”

It would be wiser to sever his official ties with the palace while salvaging something from the wreckage of his private relationship with his brother. But maybe Harry just likes being royal because he’s used to it and it suits him and his wife. There’s the paradox of the story: the man who shook the monarchy to its foundations by storming out somehow can’t let go of the old firm.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Advice from Frederick the Great for negotiations with Ukraine: Andreas Kluth

Harry and Meghan are doing themselves no favors: Martin Ivens

Who Are the Nepo Babies Among Us?: Adrian Wooldridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Before that, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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