I read Prince Harry’s Spare so you don’t have to
His new memoir is an entertaining read, but its treatment of racism and colonialism leaves much to be desired
To say that Prince Harry is stupid is hardly an original observation. As he writes in his new memoir, Spare, the press has characterised him that way for almost his entire life, and he himself is relentlessly self-deprecating about his own lack of academic aptitude.
This popular conception isn’t entirely fair. Sneering about someone’s intelligence always feels vaguely snobbish, even if they’re a member of the Royal Family. And hey, people can be clever in different ways: Harry knows how to identify a wide range of African birds and can fly an Apache helicopter. How many of his detractors can say the same? But there are countless moments in Spare where stupidity is by far the most charitable explanation for his behaviour and opinions. Now that Harry is being positioned as a campaigner against racism, and has a larger platform to talk about it than perhaps any other individual on the planet, it matters that his understanding of the issue is so superficial and banal.
While Harry has often been portrayed as whiny and ungrateful, it’s obvious that many of his grievances are justified. When it comes to media intrusion, in particular, he has a pretty unanswerable case. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his experience of being thrust into the public eye after the death of his mother sounds like child abuse. While some would argue this is a reasonable trade-off for being born into a life of privilege, surely there isn’t any threshold of privilege at which it’s acceptable to treat children that way. Even as an adult, the way he is constantly stalked and harassed by the press sounds hellish. Spare captures how alienating it must be to lead a life where every single person you come into contact with has a huge financial incentive to betray your trust, something which happens to him often.
So I can get behind his loathing towards the British media and the way he rants about journalists (“all the plotters and stalkers and liars”, the “thugs and losers”, “the arseholes”) in a register that lands somewhere between a Donald Trump tweet and Father Ted’s acceptance speech. People sometimes like to make the case for republicanism on the basis that it would free the Royal Family from their lives of gilded captivity. That wouldn’t be at the top of my list of reasons, not least because the Royals themselves don’t want to be liberated (even Harry can’t bring himself to denounce the monarchy as a concept). But honestly, it sounds like a nightmare. Being rich would be cool, but it’s hard to see what value is added by being a member of the Royal Family. Maybe this explains why they often feel so hard done by – if you went to school surrounded by people who were just as wealthy as you but enjoyed greater freedom, of course you would envy them. At one point, Harry writes, “Some kinds of fame provide extra freedom, maybe, I suppose, but royal fame was fancy captivity.”
While it’s made more explicit in the Netflix documentary, colonialism is a theme which crops up in Spare, seemingly building up to an epiphany which never materialises. Reflecting back on an early visit to Africa, Harry writes that the Anglo-Zulu War “was an outgrowth of imperialism, colonialism and nationalism – in short, theft.” Gradually, he begins to realise that the British Empire’s legacy is murkier and more complex than he’d imagined in his childhood. What he doesn’t do, however, is apply that framework to the contemporary world, which is most evident in the sections which deal with his time in Afghanistan. By now you’ve probably heard the quote about him killing 25 Afghani insurgents, who he saw as “chess pieces” rather than people. While his tone is not boastful, reading it in context certainly doesn’t do him any favours.
Writing about the war, he says that the local population hated the occupying army, and complains of young children throwing rocks at his helicopter. He doesn’t pause to consider why they might be doing that. “Afghanistan was a war of mistakes, a war of enormous collateral damage, thousands of innocents killed and maimed,” he writes, which makes it sound like a well-meaning venture gone tragically awry. But you don’t need to defend the Taliban to recognise that the US, with the UK alongside it, was securing its own imperial interests and motivated, at least partly, by resource extraction. Whether or not you think Afghanistan was a colonial war is subjective, and depends on your worldview (I’d say that it is.) But Harry never once questions the fundamental righteousness of the mission: “I had questions and qualms about the war, but none of these was moral,” he writes. Let’s be clear: someone who doesn’t have any moral qualms about the war in Afghanistan is not a credible voice on the subject of colonialism. He occasionally wonders whether western military presence was only strengthening the Taliban, and serving to recruit more insurgents. But when he leaves, his only real regret is the Afghanis he didn’t kill.
Spare also recounts the lifelong affection which Harry has for the continent of Africa which, while sincere, feels condescending. For Harry, Africa is a place of respite, somewhere more honest, authentic and real than the UK, somewhere he finds himself again and again, and feels close to “magic”. Botswana, the country he visits most, is described as “the birthplace of all humankind. Most sparsely populated nation of earth. True garden of Eden, with 40 per cent of land given over to nature.” At one point, his friend tells him, “I think your body was born in Britain, but your soul was born here in Africa,” which he describes as the best compliment he’s ever received.
But however earnest he may be, it’s not hard to imagine some moustached Victorian general saying the same things. These are colonial attitudes; the romanticisation of Africa’s historic underdevelopment (a deliberate process, in which Harry’s family are surely more complicit than most); the essentialisation of an entire continent as static, unchanging and sometimes mystical. During the colonial era, the British often characterised people in Africa as savage, lazy and barbaric, but there was a flipside to this: sometimes the continent was imbued with ostensibly positive and alluring qualities, like innocence, exoticism and sensuality. These stereotypes emerged from the same relationship of domination that colonialism established, and still ultimately reified the idea that Africa was inferior, along with the people who lived there. Harry’s love for Africa seems sincere, but when he waxes lyrical about its utopian qualities (mostly defined by the absence of modernity and its possibilities for adventure), he’s arguably playing into the same dynamic.
Harry’s reflections on racism feel somehow worse. At one point he claims – somewhat incredibly – that he didn’t know that the word “P*ki” was a slur. Even if this is true, he’s not beating the stupid allegations any time soon. I understand that these people lead sheltered lives, but how could you have reached the age of 24, in the year 2009, without realising this was offensive? Surely you would have gleaned that knowledge from films and TV shows, if nothing else? It’s a poor advertisement for Eton and another reason to abolish the monarchy – an institution obviously incapable of producing people fit for adult life.
I don’t doubt that Harry, having seen the way that his wife was treated, feels a genuine moral anger about racism. But his attitude towards it is strangely selective. During a recent ITV interview, he defended Lady Susan Hussey – an aristocrat and godmother to his brother – who recently resigned from her position in the royal household after repeatedly asking Ngozi Fulani, a Black British woman and founder of domestic violence charity Sistah Space, where she was really from. Harry cites the ensuing controversy as an example of the British media’s rapacious cruelty, but that isn’t quite right: large swathes of the press rushed to defend Hussey (including, but not limited to, The Spectator, The Daily Mail, and Philip Schofield on This Morning) and, as much as anything, the incident was wielded as proof of ‘wokeness gone mad’. Fulani, meanwhile, received such an onslaught of abuse that Sistah Space was forced to temporarily suspend its operations, depriving vulnerable Black women of a vital service. Based on interventions like this, can we really view Prince Harry as someone speaking truth to power and campaigning against injustice?
‘Spare is entertaining as a work of salacious celebrity gossip. But it shows that therapy, unconscious bias workshops and “lived experience” are no substitute for cracking open a book’
Similarly unhelpful is his insistence on the concept of ‘unconscious bias’, which is how he describes any incident of racism in which the perpetrator is not being deliberately malicious. I don’t think this is a helpful distinction: of course, people can be racist without knowing it and without trying to cause harm. We live in a racist society and almost all white people will have at some point have had or expressed racist viewpoints. I think it would be better if we could admit that without being defensive or seeing it as a moral stain on our character – while realising we have a responsibility to own up to it. Trying to rebrand this kind of reflexive racism as something more palatable, something which is “no one’s fault”, feels like another form of deflection.
Spare wasn’t ever expected to be an incisive anti-colonial critique, drawing on the works of Edward Said or Angela Davis. But this is someone being touted as a campaigner against racism, and the book is already the fastest-selling non-fiction title of all time. It’s unfortunate what he has to say – about everything other than the British media – is so lacking. Racism might be morally straightforward (we can hopefully all agree that it’s Bad), but the ways that it plays out and the historical context in which it developed are nuanced and complex. Harry seems like a nice enough guy, with his heart in the right place, and Spare is entertaining as a work of salacious celebrity gossip. But it shows that therapy, unconscious bias workshops and “lived experience” are no substitute for cracking open a book.