British royals behaving badly

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 11, 2011

LONDON (AP) — How do you solve a problem like Prince Andrew?
The embarrassing antics of Queen Elizabeth II’s second son are just the latest royal misdemeanors to vex British politicians. From Prince Harry and his Nazi costume to the Duke of Windsor and his Nazi sympathies, members of the monarch’s family have often troubled governments — who find there is little they can do to rein in wayward royals.
Andrew is facing pressure to step down as a British trade envoy because of a string of unfortunate relationships. He hosted the son of Tunisia’s dictator shortly before a popular uprising overthrew the leader, associated with the Libyan leader’s son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, and is friends with billionaire U.S. sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant, a former government minister, has called for Andrew to be fired because of his “boorish gaffes and dodgy friendships,” and historian Max Hastings wrote in an article Tuesday that “a man as bereft of judgment, taste and discretion as the prince” should never have been allowed to represent Britain.
The government has given Andrew its backing, albeit tersely. Prime Minister David Cameron, through a spokesman, expressed “full confidence” in the prince. And Business Secretary Vince Cable noted that the government has no power to fire him — he’s a volunteer, not an employee.
Andrew’s royal status leaves politicians in a bind. When Bryant raised the subject of the prince in the House of Commons, he was reprimanded by Speaker John Bercow, who said references to the royal family in Parliament should be “very rare, very sparing and very respectful.”
As with so much in Britain’s unwritten constitution, that tradition — lawmakers shouldn’t discuss the royals, because they can’t answer back — is the product of custom rather than law. But it means politicians often find there is little they can do but grimace and bear it when royals go astray.
Prince Charles has been writing to politicians for years with his suggestions on agriculture, architecture and the environment. Some see it as well-intentioned advice, others as meddling.
The gaffes of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, are so plentiful that they have been compiled into a book, “Duke of Hazard.” He once asked a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” On another occasion he joked to a blind woman: “Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?”
Philip, at least, has a clearly defined role as the queen’s consort, and diligently carries out scores of public engagements as he approaches his 90th birthday.
It’s often the younger offspring of the royal family — those not expected to inherit the throne — who get into trouble. The tradition stretches at least as far back as George, Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV — a notorious 15th-century drinker commemorated by Shakespeare as having drowned in a vat of wine.
Monarchs are supposed to have “an heir and a spare” — but what to do with the spare, who often seems to have too much time on his or her hands?
The queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret — the first modern senior royal to divorce — had a racy reputation and liked to associate with celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Jazzman Louis Armstrong once called her “one hip chick.”
Prince Harry had a wild-child reputation during a youth in which he was caught smoking marijuana, nightclubbed his way through London’s hot spots and attended a costume party wearing a swastika and German military uniform.
Harry apologized for the Nazi costume, and his later military career and good grace in public have gone some way to compensate for his youthful misbehavior.
The king of all problematic royals was Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after he gave up the throne in 1936 to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson — an episode chronicled in the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech.”
There was little precedent to suggest what role an ex-king should have, and the duke’s pro-German views became increasingly problematic as Britain was drawn into war with Nazi Germany.
The duke, who met Hitler during a trip to Germany in 1937, has been accused of sympathizing with the Nazi cause; government documents show that then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill reprimanded him for airing his “defeatist” opinions.
In 1940 he was appointed governor of the Bahamas, a post that kept him far from Europe and the war. He and the duchess lived out their lives drifting around the world in aimless luxury.
Modern-day royals like Andrew are keen to appear more useful. But “Air Miles Andy,” as he is known in the tabloid press, doesn’t seem to have done much recently for Britain’s image — or his own. In one of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan describes with barely concealed horror a 2008 lunch with the prince as an “astonishingly candid” affair in which the prince railed against “our stupid British and American governments” and said endemic Central Asian corruption “sounds exactly like France.”
Constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor said Andrew deserves a second chance, and thinks the royals are often unfairly criticized.
“They’re born to the role, they don’t choose it,” he said. “They have to work for their privileges, and they put in a lot of hours.
“We don’t notice the things they do well, because it’s not reported. We only notice when something goes wrong.”