For the British Royals, Less Majesty Should Be the Way Forward

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As it was once said of the volatile Irish economy, the state of the British Royal Family is catastrophic but not serious. The institution has survived the wildest antics and personal shortcomings of its members — messy divorces, internecine quarrels, sexual and financial scandals. Yet the Queen has never been more popular with her subjects and Republicanism remains a minority pursuit.

But what happens when the long reign of Elizabeth II finally draws to a close? Through her unique reticence and discretion, the monarch has avoided personal controversy for seven decades and so preserved the institution she serves. But even she cannot shield her children and grandchildren from beyond the grave. And one scandal lapping at the royal ankles has potential to be a legal — and moral — minefield which does more lasting damage than other personal upheavals.

This week in a civil lawsuit filed in a New York court, an American woman Virginia Guiffre (formerly Roberts), alleged that the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York sexually abused her when she was 17 despite knowing she was a victim of sexual trafficking. Prince Andrew has vehemently denied the charge — but the accusations are not going away and the imminent trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, a close erstwhile friend of Andrew, has added fuel to the bonfire of royal protection.

Only 18 months ago Prince Andrew let it be known he was ready to return to public duty to fill the gap left by his nephew Prince Harry, who’d departed for California and a lucrative career as a Netflix star (and consort to the real U.S. royal, his wife Meghan Markle). After a prolonged public melodrama, Harry and Meghan have given up a life of ribbon-cutting at openings in the United Kingdom. The attempt to co-opt them as a supporting cast in the royal soap opera  failed. They were right to get out, even if the manner of  their exit could have been more graceful.

That, however, leaves the spotlight on Andrew as the next in birth order after Charles, the current heir to the throne. And the brutal question for the Palace is whether to stick with him as a functioning royal — or discard him as an official figure, tarnished by accusations and, even if innocent of the charges of criminal misconduct, guilty of terrible decision making in his associations.

The royal family should have been slimmed down long ago. I know from lengthy background conversations with aides that the Prince of Wales made plans years ago to reduce the number of working royals and met internal resistance — not least from Andrew. And it is true that this is a difficult pivot for “the Firm.” The U.K. is too large a stage for a monarchy on the lines of the modest Dutch “bicycling” royal family or that of the Nordic micro-states. It is a complex weave of fractious nations, with the Crown as part of the glue that holds the disunited kingdom together. 

Still, the present state of affairs suggests that its “HRs” should be trimmed down to a few essential players. Sweden, for instance, has only four working royals. Spain has just two. Given the last king, Juan Carlos’s checkered history of expensive mistresses and dubious money-making, that seems a wise decision. 

In deference to his 95-year old mother, who likes things just the way they are and has always given her second son, Andrew, leeway,  Prince Charles won’t force the issue until he takes the throne. This delay, however, has done his family and the monarchy no favors. The fallout from Prince Andrew’s entanglement with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and convicted sex offender, continues to make headlines across the world. The accusations against him are causing irrevocable reputational damage. 

Guiffre claims she was “lent out for sexual purposes” on three occasions to the prince in London, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands by Epstein. She alleges she is the victim of battery, sexual assault and emotional distress.

Guiffre’s lawyer told the BBC on Thursday that the prince “can’t hide behind castle walls,” but so far Andrew has entered no defense in court and shows no signs of negotiating a possible financial settlement. In the past he has strongly denied assaulting Guiffre but his lawyers’ silence this week is said to be alarming Prince Charles.

The Queen’s prodigal second son, however, is caught between a rock and a hard place. If the prince makes an offer to settle, his terms could be refused and, even if accepted, it might be seen as tantamount to an admission of guilt. If the lawsuit is served on Andrew or his representatives he has 21 days to respond. If he does not, Guiffre's lawyer will ask the court to find in her favor without a trial. He can try to get the case struck out, challenge the jurisdiction of the New York court — or provide more compelling evidence than he has disputing the dates and accounts levelled against him.

 Prince Charles believes the rape accusation is an “unsolvable problem” that will inevitably consign his brother to the wilderness. He is right, but the fault is his and his mother’s in failing to grasp the nettle earlier. Andrew’s last rehabilitation from disgrace as an informal U.K. trade representative was entirely undeserved and doomed to fail.

In truth “Air Miles Andy,” as the prince is known to the British tabloids for his relentless traveling at other people’s expense, has cut a sorry figure ever since Guiffre’s allegations first surfaced some years back.

In a tin-eared interview with the BBC two years ago the Prince accepted that his decision to remain friends with Epstein after his conviction for sex offences had been wrong but “was colored by my tendency to be too honorable.” If that character reference for himself was arrogant and foolish, his claim that his reason for spending four days at Epstein’s house despite his conviction and enjoying a dinner party there was to break off the friendship face-to-face, seemed bizarre. Other details of his behavior struck the television audience as so unlikely that only 6% polled believed that he was telling the truth.

Guiffre and the prince’s accounts of events are completely at odds. He claims not to remember ever having met her. Yet a photograph taken in 2001 shows them together at the London apartment of Ghislaine Maxwell, long-term girlfriend and alleged procuress of under-age girls for Epstein. It is a photo-shopped fake, say Andrew’s people. The implication is that Guiffre is a fabulist gold-digger.

The context is grim for Andrew. Fifteen other women have said they were trafficked to Epstein’s rich friends. And another 50 have given witness statements to the police. Guiffre’s lawyers say they will produce new evidence and witness statements for a trial.

Many legal observers are puzzled that Andrew’s legal team have not set out a clear refutation of the charges against him. A carefully presented paper trail of his movements confirmed by security details and official logs would aid his case.

Whatever the legal outcome, it is time for the royal family to accept that there should be no return to public life for Andrew and that this is not a matter that can wait till the next reign. 

All families have their share of tragedies, disgraces and black sheep: few are exposed to the glare of worldwide publicity. But the price of protecting a royal whose many misjudgments entangled him in a world where social high jinx rubbed shoulders with sexual exploitation is too high for this durable but troubled Firm to pay.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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