Royal Family

Come at me, bro: Why many can relate to William and Harry’s sibling rivalry

I think I can relate to Prince William and Prince Harry. No, really. I was once a petulant 10-year-old squabbling with my younger brother over who gets to be Player One on the Nintendo GameCube. And what is the monarchy if not a kind of giant, nationwide GameCube controller, plugged somewhere into the white cliffs of Dover?

Over the past few years, the two sons of King Charles III and the late Diana, Princess of Wales have undergone an all-too-public falling out. Harry’s beef isn’t just with William, but with the whole royal establishment – “The Firm” – otherwise known as his extended family. His withdrawal from the core of the royals has seemed to be the final tug on the schism between them. But could it simply be a case of sibling rivalry?

To a certain extent, sibling rivalries are a “natural” and “healthy” part of life, says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “For any child that acquires a sibling, there is a psychological adjustment of having to share the caregiver,” she explains. “The need is evolutionary to an extent. It is natural to want to be special and what we always have to negotiate with a sibling is this sharing of interest and attention from the parents.”

Sibling animosity can be found everywhere in popular contemporary fiction, from TV (Game of Thrones; Succession) to movies (F9; Black Panther) to best-selling books (The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett; Bella Mackie’s How to Kill Your Family). They’re tales as old as time – or, at least, as old as life on Earth. Everyone knows the story of Cain and Abel. They were the first siblings to be mentioned in the Bible, along with their slightly less well-known younger brother Seth (sort of the Paul Gallagher of the outfit). After Cain’s sacrifice was ignored by God, he turned to siblicide, bashing poor old Abel’s head in with a rock.

Now I’m not sure how analogous Harry and William’s situation is to Cain and Abel; certainly their quarrel hasn’t devolved to the point of physical violence (that we know of). Perhaps Harry and William are better understood through the lens of something less biblical: the celebrity sibling feud. From the Everly brothers to the Gallaghers, pop culture has been littered with siblings who couldn’t stand the sight of one another. The Windsors have always harboured some funny parallels with the former Oasis frontmen: for much of their public lives, Harry and Liam were regarded as the rowdy and problematic younger brothers, Noel and William the strait-laced elders. But does this still hold true? Noel has enjoyed his fair share of criticism in recent years for comments on topics such as vaccines and disabled access at concerts – even, as it would turn out, getting into a public spat with Prince Harry. William’s image, meanwhile, has hardened, pulling slowly away from the jolly newlywed that once charmed the nation.

“Any scenario in which two siblings are in the public eye – or where there is the possibility for rivalry of power – will likely spur on primitive instincts,” says Dr Touroni. “You are also more likely to compare yourself and be compared to a sibling. And so there is an inherent feeling of competition which then gets amplified by an audience.”

Such is the public nature of the royal tiff that most people feel compelled to pick a side. As the eldest of three brothers, I know my sympathies ought to lie with William. But I’m not so sure they do. If film and television are to be believed, older brothers are often domineering figures, whose main interactions with their younger kin seem to involve dispensing insults, beatings and (for want of an unproblematic term) “Chinese burns”. I was no such tyrant. But that doesn’t necessarily mean my younger siblings had it easy. When the older of my two brothers – my junior by 18 months – was very young, I used to apparently wind him up to the point where he would regularly bite me in anger. (Our exact versions of events differ in recollection.) In our teenage years, some of our bitterest feuds revolved around football: I am a Chelsea fan, while both my brothers support Arsenal. I suppose if you’re going to have a falling out, the nefarious antics of Diego Costa are as good a catalyst as any.

In school, I tended to test very well, particularly in English; both of my (equally capable) brothers say they had to suffer through teachers singing my praises in absentia, holding up my obnoxiously verbose A-level essays as gospel. Our parents never played favourites, however, and all remarks about anyone living in anyone else’s shadow have always been thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. Despite our bickering as children, my relationship with my brothers has matured into something much more sanguine now. It is a natural progression; for many, sibling rivalry is something you more or less outgrow.

The problem for Harry and William, and Noel and Liam, is that their relationships are intertwined with all manner of other corrosive factors – money, fame, power – that are not in any way part of the natural order of things. When one, and only one, of two brothers is set to inherit a throne and command of a whole country, there cannot be any real emotional parity. “Picking favourites” is not just a parental vibe but a whole royal decree.

The Gallaghers were not just brothers but collaborators; their falling out and estrangement was made all the more bitter since it accompanied the break-up of their band, Oasis. It must be a strange thing to have millions of complete strangers invest emotions in the state of your personal fraternity, yet that’s exactly what these people are going through.

The thing about the royal family is that no one really knows very much about what’s going on behind the curtain. While TV series like The Crown may delude us into thinking we’re privy to the royal family’s private affairs, or to their sympathies and grudges, the reality is that we know almost nothing for certain. Has Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle been a wedge between the two royals? Was William offended by his brother’s decision to distance himself from the monarchy? Who knows! What we do know is that William and Harry are, beneath it all, human beings. They are the only brother the other will ever know.

If the royal duo could learn to outgrow their rivalry, people would say it’s a good thing for the country – but it’s far more useful for them as people. When they are reflecting on that relationship at the ends of their lives, it’s unlikely they’ll be looking back in anger. But regret’s another matter.

William, Harry, Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton in November 2018

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