Blue Blooded Black Sheep
When the long-term survival of their institution is at peril the Royal Family acts swiftly and ruthlessly. Fortunately for Prince Andrew, there are a few ancestors of his who have also been treated the same way. Andrew Roberts, distinguished biographer of Napoleon and Churchill, on scandals and embarrassments at Buckingham Palace.
Great Britain’s royal family, the House of Windsor, are great survivors. The forcing of Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Queen Elizabeth II’s middle son, from public life is a prime example of this. When one of the team is letting the rest of the side down, he is ruthlessly despatched. Whether he was guilty of actually having sex with a minor, the American woman Victoria Guiffre, was ultimately immaterial. He was damaging the Windsor brand, so he had to go.
It seems quite extraordinary that Prince Andrew should have agreed to an interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, a hugely experienced and professional interviewer who is far, far cleverer than him. She was fair-minded during the interview, but devastatingly incisive, allowing the prince to condemn himself repeatedly out of his own mouth. He was not tricked into doing so, indeed Ms Maitlis gave him opportunity after opportunity to show some emotional intelligence when it came to sympathizing with the victims of his paedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein. He took none of them. The only person for whom he felt pity was himself, consistently describing himself as a ‘victim’.
He clearly had neither thought the interview through beforehand nor do what every politician and CEO would have done, which is to role-play the interview with a public relations advisor. He just assumed that because he knew himself to be innocent of the allegation of having sex with the underage Ms Guiffre, that fact would inevitably emerge in the interview. It did not. Instead he tied himself in knots, and worst of all refused to distance himself effectively from his friendship with Mr Epstein, even after Epstein’s suicide. He described his own actions as ‘too honourable’, at which point an outraged nation of viewers lost all sympathy with him.
As did the Royal Family. They seem not to have been informed beforehand of the interview, except possibly (though not certainly) the Queen herself, who at the age of 93 might be forgiven for hoping that she would not need to deal with paedophilia accusations against her (supposedly favourite) son. Prince Charles is reported to be furious that his and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall’s visit to New Zealand, an important Commonwealth country ver which he will one day reign, has been completely overshadowed by his younger brother’s deranged decision to go on TV.
When the Royal Family needs to act to defend itself, it does so swiftly and ruthlessly. It was the Queen who insisted that Prince Charles divorce Princess Diana; it was she who made it clear that her sister Prince Margaret must give up her love affair with Group-Captain Peter Townsend, and it was she who overturned hundreds of years of tradition by agreeing to pay tax in 1992. The continuation of the Royal House is its ultimate concern, and the sheltering of a suspected paedophile was not going to be considered, even though he is most probably innocent. (The other people Ms Guiffre accuses of having slept with her include the famously uxorious American lawyer Alan Dershowitz and the immensely distinguished Senator George Mitchell.)
Of course the BBC – which is largely run by soft-republicans who consider the monarchy a laughably outmoded institution – have leapt on the scandal to try to suggest that there is something wrong with the concept of monarchy itself. In its flagship radio current affairs programme Any Questions on 23rdNovember, it brought up the prospect of the end of the monarchy in the context of Prince Andrew’s humiliation. This is absurd, because although Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, is a republican, very few other Britons are. The monarchy is supported by well over 80% of the population, in poll after poll. Boris Johnson has rightly said that the institution – as opposed to Prince Andrew himself - is ‘above reproach’.
Yet in order to remain so popular, the Family has occasionally to behave in the way that it has done recently, and cast black sheep adrift. Fortunately for Prince Andrew, there are a few ancestors of his who have also been treated in this way, so there is precedent for unpopular royals being punished if they are judged to be detracting from the long-term survival of the institution.
The most recent example is of course the Duke of Windsor who abdicated as King Edward VIII in December 1936 and was then forced into a life of exile by his family, and never allowed back to Britain except for a few days at a time. Such was the animosity felt against him for the way that he had put his twice-divorced American girlfriend Wallis Simpson before his duty to the Throne and Empire, that he was treated like the family’s black sheep until the day he died thirty-six years later.
An earlier example was the Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, the younger son of King George III who was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite this eminence, when it turned out that Frederick’s witty, flamboyant and wildly prodigal former mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, had been selling Army commissions in 1809, he was forced to resign, even though the House of Commons acquitted him of corruption by a majority of 82. The King never for a moment doubted what he called Frederick’s ‘perfect integrity and his conscientious attention to public duty’, but nonetheless he still allowed him to be forced from office to protect the Throne.
It will be truly tragic if Prince Andrew does not have the opportunity to clear his name. Whether the FBI are interested in interviewing him or not, he ought immediately to fly to New York and insist on telling them everything he knows about Epstein’s crimes, which is probably next to nothing. It is the one move that could save him now, and persuade public opinion that he has nothing to hide. The alternative is to have people suspect the worst of him for the rest of his life, which would be a truly dreadful a prospect for anyone, royal or not.
Your Royal Highness, book that ticket!
Andrew Roberts’s ‘Churchill: Walking with Destiny’ is published by Penguin.