Mon 29 November 2021

Otto English explores why the British are so reluctant to discuss what the point of the Royal Family is

Some years ago, before kids and Brexit, my wife and I were invited to dinner at the home of an acquaintance who had recently moved into the area.

It didn’t go off entirely without incident.

Huddled in the front room of our host’s new home, with a glass of prosecco in hand, I made an unfortunate, light-hearted remark about bankers, forgetting – or perhaps unaware – that he worked for Citigroup.

Things didn’t improve over dinner when we – or more likely I – got onto the fascinating question as to whether Jesus had ever existed, not realising that my fellow guests were committed churchgoers. There was a brief rally during pudding, when I shut up entirely, but at some point over coffee I started on the monarchy and things went terminally downhill from there. 

As we were bundled to the door with our coats, I remember insisting that the hosts come round to our house soon – as the other guests stared vacantly at the floor from the safety of the kitchen.  

We tried to arrange it, but they were always busy. Eventually, they stopped replying to my emails. By suggesting that the abolition of the monarchy was 200 years overdue, I had broken the last great British taboo.

Unexceptional Exceptionalism

It seems incredible that, in 21st Century Britain, expressing an opinion on the monarchy should get one ejected from a dinner party in south London. But, unfortunately, any rational debate about the role of the Royal Family remains off limits for most people. 

Britain should have grown out of royalty a very long time ago. It hasn’t. The success of the Netflix show The Crown demonstrates that there is a vast audience willing to remain in thrall to this feudal institution.

Our history is still largely told through the prism of kings and queens. Royal reporters still deliver news about the mundane matters of the Windsors in hushed and reverential tones. When 97-year-old Prince Philip crashed a car he was driving earlier this year, BBC News reported that the Duke of Edinburgh was “unhurt” – leaving the small matter of the two women who had gone to hospital as a result of the accident buried in the copy.

It is the truth that dare not speak its name: that members of our Royal Family are, for the most part, singularly unexceptional and uninteresting people, raised to the status of demigods by fawning politicians, a complicit media and beguiled public.   

We really should have grown out of this a long time ago and, yet, while religion has been in steep decline over the past three decades, support for the monarchy remains as robust as ever. Seven in 10 Britons support its continuation and the number of those backing it has actually risen since the death of Princess Diana.


Queen’s Favourite

The popularity of Britain’s monarchy has much to do with the God-like omnipresence of the Queen.

You’d have to be well into your 70s to remember when her father was King. She is on our money, our stamps and our post-boxes. British people are brought up to revere the nation’s grandmother. Royal births are celebrated as major events. The weddings are national cavalcades. The magnetism of royalty impresses foreign dignitaries and remains one of those things that reinforces our sense of national exceptionalism.

The Queen is held in such high and unassailable esteem that even dedicated republicans caveat any criticism of the institution by saying things like “but of course the Queen has done a remarkable job and rarely put a foot wrong”. For the most part, perhaps she has. Elizabeth II didn’t choose the gig she was born into and she’s largely carried it off with grace and aplomb. 

However, she has done so against a backdrop of immense wealth and privilege. And, despite the narrative, her judgement has not been infallible by any means. Indeed, where her second son is concerned, she has too frequently been entirely blind to his excesses. 

Incredibly, Prince Andrew was once one of the most popular Windsors. Back in the early 1980s, he was the Royal ‘Action Man’ – adored by the tabloids and public alike. But, since the 1990s and his divorce from Sarah Ferguson, he has come to embody everything that is wrong with the institution. 

Despite being an arrogant, entitled, supercilious egotist who befriends convicted paedophiles, Prince Andrew remains the Queen’s favourite child. She doted on him as a boy and has continued to do so even as he recedes into opprobrium. 

As focus on the Duke of York’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein came under intense scrutiny in 2011, Her Majesty chose to invest him with the Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order as a birthday present. This was in addition to the solitary medal he received for serving in the Royal Navy in the Falklands. His chest heaves with baubles bestowed on him by his mother. 

But, his grand appearance in full military uniform belies his reputation. In 2015, a former member of the Metropolitan Police’s Royal Protection Command revealed that, while the Queen’s call sign was ‘The Purple One’, and her husband was referred to as ‘Phil the Greek’, Prince Andrew’s name was ‘The C**t.’

Favour for Republicans

When allegations about his friendship with Epstein between 2001 and 2011 started to circulate, Andrew was Britain’s Special Representative for International Trade and Investment. He revelled in the taxpayer-funded global travel it afforded and the opportunity to hobnob with the leaders of tyrannical regimes. 

As late as August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was defending Prince Andrew telling ITV News: “Let me tell you something, I’ve worked with Prince Andrew, I’ve seen the good he has been able to do for UK business overseas.”

But what Prince Andrew actually achieved on behalf of Britain in a decade of jet-setting at our expense remains a matter of considerable speculation. 

His demeanour in Saturday’s disastrous interview on his relationship with Epstein by the BBC’s Emily Maitlis revealed an individual more concerned with preserving his own reputation and that of the Royal Family over the lives of Epstein’s victims.  

In a way, he has done republicans a favour. As the Queen gets older and Britain looks ahead, questions need to be asked about how long this peculiar national pantomime can go on.

In trying to put matters to rest, Prince Andrew has inadvertently opened a Pandora’s Box on the purpose of the extended Royal Family and it is unlikely to be resealed any time soon.

For my part, I won’t be expecting many dinner invitations in the coming weeks.  


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