The Sunday Times

March 6th, 2011

Three royals only: an easy rule to save us from Andrew the buffoon

Deference is a dangerous drug. It is highly addictive. There are some people whom it cannot corrupt, such as the Queen or her father or, indeed, the great actor Paul Newman, but most people’s personalities are horribly disordered by deference. Think of poor Charlie Sheen. And Prince Andrew.

Under ordinary circumstances this unremarkable man might have been obliged to be polite, hard-working and aware of his limitations. As things are, because he is fourth in line to the throne, he has been surrounded all his life by deference and the excessive attentions of people half crazed by red carpet fever: it is said that Andrew has among his retinue a valet who travels with a 6ft ironing board, claiming that “no one knows how to iron His Royal Highness’s trousers like me”. Such stuff is beyond parody, almost guaranteed to turn a man of modest intelligence and weak character into a delinquent.

In his case, it has. Jetting about, often at public expense, Airmiles Andy spends his time with some of the worst of international kleptocrats, tyrants and sleazeballs, with shady financiers and dodgy Middle Easterners — the sort of people he ought to stay well clear of — and accepts freebies and hospitality from them. He is followed everywhere by the whiff of scandal, by stories of astonishing rudeness, self-indulgence and greed.

None of this might matter very much if he were just another idle playboy princeling. His antics are not good for the House of Windsor but, luckily for it and for us, there is little chance of his succeeding to the throne. Yet somehow — inappropriately, unaccountably, absurdly — 10 years ago he was given the sort of job that was tailor-made to encourage his weakness and almost bound to bring discredit on this country.

In 2001 the government got together with the Queen and let her appoint him Britain’s special representative for international trade and investment. How on earth they persuaded themselves that this was a good idea is one of life’s many mysteries. What can the Queen have been thinking of? In this role Andrew has, entirely predictably, been a bit of a disaster. It almost defies belief that a senior member of the royal family should openly slag off the Serious Fraud Office for its “idiocy” in its fight against international corruption — at a business brunch in Kyrgyzstan, no less, to add dramatic irony to injury. At the same time, the Duke of York laughed indulgently about corruption, insulted the French and famously stated that Americans don’t understand geography.

According to a watching US ambassador, this was rude “? la British” and it’s typical of the man. The duke was known among the British diplomatic community in the Gulf as HBH: His Buffoon Highness.

Much worse than all this are Prince Andrew’s personal associations. In his world, although he has to meet all kinds of dubious people — the poor Queen herself has to be nice to torturers and mass murderers in the course of her official duties as well — he does not have to associate with them privately. But he does, to the point of scandal, as if rules and morals were for lesser mortals. This has brought him to the disgrace of open criticism in the House of Commons. Last Wednesday, Chris Bryant MP asked: “Isn’t it especially difficult to explain the behaviour of the special ambassador for trade who is not only a close friend of Saif Gadaffi but is also a close friend of a convicted Libyan gun smuggler, Tarek Kaituni? Isn’t it about time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?” Even the most ardent of royalists would think so, surely. Prince Andrew is not merely an embarrassment to the monarchy; he is a threat to it, because he so obviously fails to understand the delicate constitutional deal that the monarchy did long ago with the public as the price of its survival, and the strict constraints imposed by that deal.

What can be done to protect the monarchy from rogue royals? Those of us who support it are all too aware that monarchy is fragile. If it is to survive its Andrews and its Fergies, as well as all its other challenges, I think it urgently needs to make certain changes.

First, and most important, none of the royal family — not a single one — should have an official government position of any kind, apart from the reigning monarch, and that role should be no greater than it is now. That would save a lot of embarrassment caused by rogue royals. It certainly would have forestalled the scandal created when Fergie tried to sell introductions to Prince Andrew, who does have saleable commercial clout, thanks to his official role.

The royal family should also slash the number of active members on its (and our) payroll. Only the three closest to the throne should be on the public stage, and only the next two should be waiting tactfully in the wings. Everyone except the three closest in line should cease to have any official roles or residences or public subsidies, though they could take on any ceremonial or unofficial roles they liked, if the monarch chose to subsidise them privately. Otherwise they should sink back into the pleasant anonymity of the lower upper classes.

Finally, there should be more openness about what the leading royal figures actually do and say in their official royal roles, for example in talking to ministers. The royal family and both the last government and the present coalition have resisted this, and ministers have firmly opposed requests made by the press under freedom of information laws. This is an error from the point of view of the family itself.

Prince Charles has a reputation for bombarding ministers with letters in his famous black-spider handwriting on all kinds of contentious subjects. There are many who think this is improper lobbying and who welcome last week’s decision by the Scottish information commissioner that ministers must reveal whether they have been lobbied by Prince Charles on environmental issues. Only with such openness is it possible for the public to feel confident that the royal family is staying within its constitutional confines, and that its members are not being seduced by all the deference around them into thinking they deserve more power and influence — and trying to get it and use it.

Finally, perhaps some true friend of the royal family might suggest to it that it reflects on the dangers of deference, especially to anyone with a weakness in that direction.