The royal family is engaged in frantic damage limitation ahead of the Queen’s platinum jubilee this summer. The Duke of York’s court case, which could turn out to be a high-octane festival of royal humiliation, risks contaminating the celebrations. This should have nothing to do with Britain’s monarchy, except that it has everything to do with it. The essence of monarchy is its image; right now, the royal family’s public appearance looks messy.
The lifestyles of the Queen’s son and grandson, the dukes of York and Sussex, have acquired the aura of a Shakespearean tragedy appropriate to their titles. The Duke of Sussex has done nothing wrong; as yet, neither has the Duke of York. Prince Harry was merely seeking to profit from his only marketable asset – royalty. Prince Andrew used the same asset to win unsavoury friendships, one of which laid him open to what he regards as outrageous blackmail, as yet untested in a court of law. His desperate hope was that a New York judge would disallow Virginia Giuffre’s suit. But American lawyers do not volunteer to starve.
The Queen may not have power, but she can wield tools of emphasis. Just as the Duke of Sussex was shorn of even the slightest royal status, so his uncle has been stripped of titles, badges, regiments, charities and patronages. Like a disgraced medieval saint, he is cast out of heaven into the jaws of hell. His fault is not a matter of right or wrong – he may yet prove a victim of a gross unfairness – but of embarrassment, shame and misery, caused to his mother and family and the institution they represent.
Monarchy depends for public support not on votes but on a fragile, intangible underpinning of public opinion. It needs to be loved for its dignities, its ceremonies and its anniversaries. It must be beyond criticism, pure as the driven snow. It can be tedious and boring. The one thing it cannot be is scandalous – least of all sexually scandalous. Sex was always a royal taboo; for royalty was about heredity, as James II and Edward VIII learned to their cost.
As for Prince Charles, he has spent a quarter of a century purifying his image after his own purgatory years. He has carefully fashioned himself as a genial and blameless middle-aged monarch in waiting. As his moment approaches, the last thing he needs is his brother’s alleged antics flashed in headlines round the world. As he found with his second son, he must preserve royalty on its eerie, untainted pedestal.
How a nation embodies its statehood is bequeathed to it by history. A virtue of inherited monarchy – perhaps its sole virtue – is that it takes succession beyond argument. It also puts beyond argument any suggestion that the monarch should exercise political power. If monarchy strays into politics or controversy – or shame – it ceases to embody its nation.
That was the fundamental risk taken by the Queen – reportedly against her better judgment – when she decided in the 1960s to depart from the custom of other postwar European monarchs and present Britain’s monarchy as a “royal family”. While monarchs in Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands were retreating into bourgeois semi-obscurity – where they have wisely stayed – the Queen turned monarchy into a family firm under a blaze of televised publicity.
Royal offspring – who were then still children – became instant celebrities. A cast list of entitled princes, princesses, dukes and duchesses prowled the gossip columns and monarchy magazines. Inevitably they became accidents waiting to happen. It was hard to see these junior royals as anything but victims as they stumbled through life’s perils, but the chief risk was to monarchy itself. So it has proved.
The single best decision Prince Charles could make on assuming the throne is, quite simply, to abolish the royal family. He should go Scandinavian. Monarchs do not die young. The throne needs only an heir and a spare. The rest of the family should become commoners and lead normal lives. Perhaps inadvertently, that process started this week.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist