Why the Scandal Around Buckingham Palace’s Racist 1960s Hiring Policy Still Resonates

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For some jobs at Buckingham Palace, the royal family has advertised openly in newspapers—it’s even possible to apply online to become, say, a communications officer or housekeeping assistant. But for the jobs closest to Queen Elizabeth and her family, the hiring seems to be done internally—and, until recent decades, little attention has been paid toward creating a diverse workplace.

In the 1980s, journalists and commentators noted that the palace rarely hired people of color; even in 2000, nearly all senior staffers were white. But details had been difficult to come by until last week, when The Guardian uncovered documents revealing the palace’s discriminatory hiring practices in the 1960s. The newspaper discovered a summary of a February 1968 meeting between palace courtiers and government officials about securing an exemption from a proposed anti-discrimination law. According to the government’s minutes, Charles Tryon, 2nd Baron Tryon, who was responsible for managing the queen’s finances, explained that it was not the palace’s practice to hire “coloured immigrants or foreigners” for office and clerical jobs, but only as domestic servants.

It’s not necessarily a surprise that the palace was not a meritocratic, multicultural workplace in the late 1960s, the years when consciousness about racism and discrimination changed in both the U.K. and the U.S. But thanks to the controversy around Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s royal exit—and their allegations of racism within the family in a March interview with Oprah Winfrey—the revelation about the palace’s clearly racist practice is enough to make anyone wonder how much has really changed. Even if Prince William was correct in saying that the royals are “very much not a racist family,” Meghan and Harry have both been careful to say that their biggest complaints have to do with the institution that surrounds them.

According to the palace, things are different now. “Claims based on a second-hand account of conversations from over 50 years ago should not be used to draw or infer conclusions about modern day events or operations,” a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said in a statement to E! News last week. “The Royal Household and the Sovereign comply with the provisions of the Equality Act, in principle and in practise. This is reflected in the diversity, inclusion and dignity at work policies, procedures and practises within the Royal Household. Any complaints that might be raised under the Act follow a formal process that provides a means of hearing and remedying any complaint.”

Still, the image of the queen’s representatives negotiating the palace out of an anti-discrimination law is symbolically powerful. The Guardian found the documents in the National Archives, and they provide new insight into Tryon, a longtime aide of the queen who hasn’t made a huge impact in the history books. The son of a prominent Conservative Party politician, Tryon served as the keeper of the privy purse from 1952 until 1971. Though his title might sound a bit informal, the role is more like the Firm’s chief financial officer, and its occupant is usually one of the most powerful people in the palace.

In addition to monitoring accounts, the keeper meets with the queen regularly to discuss the family’s financial dealings. In 2003, The Telegraph reported that Tryon once advised the queen and Princess Margaret that spending too much money on Kensington Palace renovations was unwise. The keeper of the privy purse also seems to have served as an intermediary between the queen and the government on financial and staffing matters. In 1969, The Observer reported that “when times are hard, he discreetly presses for a little bit of butter for the royal slice of bread.”

In this capacity, Tryon, his deputy, and their legal adviser took the 1968 meeting with T.G. Weiler, a civil servant in the Home Office. According to the documents uncovered by The Guardian, the subject of the meeting was to discuss the queen’s interests when it came to proposed ammendments to the country’s anti-discrimination law, the Race Relations Act. Under the proposed ammendments, employees would be able to file racial discrimination claims against their employers to the Race Relations Board.

According to Weiler, Tryon and his colleagues claimed that the palace wanted to follow the “general principle” of the law, but they were concerned about subjecting the queen to its legal mechanism. Applying the proposed legislation to the palace, they said, “would, for the first time, make it legal to criticize the Household.” The palace wanted an exemption along the lines of what the diplomatic offices had already secured, as permission to continue their current practice of not considering foreigners for those clerical jobs. (It’s not hard to imagine that a Black or Asian senior staffer might have then seemed utterly impossible to Tryon.) In his notes from the meeting, Weiler suggests drafting the law so that “persons in the public service of the Crown” were included, thus subtly leaving out the royal household. “There would still, however, be a risk that the position of the Household might be raised in the press or in the course of the debates,” he cautioned.

The Guardian’s reporters concluded that the meeting took place because the palace’s opposition could tank the bill. “Civil servants at the Home Office appear to have believed that they should not request queen’s consent for parliament to debate the race relations bill until her advisers were satisfied it could not be enforced against her in the courts,” they wrote. When the act was passed in October 1968, an exemption stipulated that the board would send any complaints against the royal household to the home secretary, keeping it outside of the legal system.

When public allegations of racism in the royal family have arisen in the past, some defenders have emphasized the queen’s fondness for the countries of the multiracial Commonwealth. But that defense disregards the fact that the palace’s actions extend far beyond the queen, and her courtiers aren’t always bound by her own emotions. In historian Adrian Tinniswood’s 2018 book Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household, he notes that the queen’s grandfather, George V, preferred to appoint his friends as senior courtiers rather than stick with the servants who had supported his father and grandmother. Frequently the people who took those jobs were military veterans, and by the time of the Edward VIII abdication crisis, many of them believed that their job was to support the king in discharging his duty to the country.

But relying on friends can lead the royal circle to be insular, and those bonds have been passed down over generations. Tryon’s son, Anthony, became good friends with Prince Charles, and asked the prince to be his own son’s godfather. Now, when a senior palace aide is quoted, we rarely know who they are, but we can make a pretty good guess about what their background might be. These are some of the sources who seemed the most concerned about the damage done to the dignity of the monarchy as Meghan and Harry began to speak publicly about their experiences within the Firm.

In some ways, the palace’s position in the 1968 meeting was a reflection of the long-held Windsor principle that the monarch must have some degree of privacy, financial independence, and mystique in order to fulfill their duties to the constitution. Despite that high-minded justification, it was clearly hypocritical for Tryon to say the palace wanted to follow the “general principle” of the law while he explained their blatantly discriminatory hiring policy. Maybe it’s understandable that the queen’s senior courtiers didn’t expect that their country was about to change quite as much as it did. In the years after World War II, as the empire dissolved and was reconstituted as the Commonwealth, immigration to the U.K. from former colonies increased dramatically, and their arrival really has changed the ethnic makeup of the country.

The palace has since updated its hiring practices, though it’s difficult to tell when they finally changed. The Guardian’s investigation found that the palace didn’t keep records about their employee’s racial backgrounds until the 1990s, when a handful of nonwhite staffers were employed in clerical and domestic roles. But as Meghan’s time in the family proves, the values of tradition and inclusion are bound to come into conflict in a multiracial society. By attacking her character and downplaying revelations like the racist hiring policy, some palace aides seem committed to denying such a conflict exists at all.

A March study overseen by the British Future think tank found that a majority of Black Brits felt that race wasn’t discussed enough in the U.K. As the nation’s head of state, the monarch has a duty to somehow accommodate and reflect those people, even if it might seem too progressive for a very old institution. As the House of Windsor has acknowledged many times in the past, sometimes a bit of change is necessary to ensure their survival. Back in the 1960s the palace seemed to be more concerned with maintaining their mystique than with fully embracing a changing Britain.

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