Another week, another royal “scandal”. I insert the quote marks because a real scandal requires a quorum of the Queen’s subjects to be scandalized. It is unlikely that this is the case in the story of the Prince of Wales or his staff procuring a CBE for Saudi moneybags who donated £1.5 million to some of the prince’s favourite projects, notable restoration of the Castle of Mey and Dumfries House.
The real cause for dismay is that nobody is any longer surprised by any folly committed by any royal in pursuit of cash or to procure some jollification. The Queen herself, of course, is above such things, as she has been all her life. But the rest are dogged by a common lack of judgment and sense of entitlement that repeatedly leads to trouble.
Those of us eager to conserve our monarchy care about this more than do the young, who would not cross the street to shake a princely hand. I share Matthew Parris’s view that Britain has more Elizabethists than monarchists. The incumbent cannot go on forever. In the next reign, the Crown could quickly find itself in trouble, unless “the Firm”, as royals themselves call it, runs itself better.
The Queen has always acted more like a chairman than a chief executive, of whom there is none. Though the family sometimes speaks to each other, they seldom communicate. Nobody has ever cracked the whip, whether to Prince Andrew, his daughters, or Princess Michael of Kent, to say: “You shouldn’t do that.”
We may leave Harry and Meghan out of it because they will play no role in the monarchy’s future. It is hard to imagine any further insults they might serve up to American TV hosts that will influence the British people, the only real stakeholders in this soap.
What matters, instead, is how the core royal family steers itself to secure the future of the institution and the happiness of its members. In this case, the Prince of Wales would have a sort of defense. How else does anybody suppose much charitable giving is fixed? Britain is littered with rich people, some of them disreputable, who have purchased honours and titles with donations to good causes.
Decades ago, as a newspaper editor, I found myself enlisted as a go-between when the Good and Great wanted our proprietor, Conrad Black, to contribute some millions to a purpose dear to the G and G. The chairman of the responsible body told me: “You can promise Conrad a tax break, and tell him the gift will greatly accelerate his peerage.” The transaction did not happen, but the conversation was typical of many, now as then.
The Prince of Wales finds himself embarrassed by the claims, or at least he should be, for somewhat different reasons. First, whatever governments may do, the heir to the throne should not be selling CBEs as is alleged. Second, while royal patronage can be a big help to charities and the Prince’s Trust does good work, it is doubtful that he should have an own-brand organization because fundraising for it requires passage through many minefields.
Next, this alleged deal appears to have been brokered by one of many of his past and present employees who does not deserve his confidence. He is a poor people-picker. The curse upon royalty is that almost all those who want to hang out with them, either as friends or staff, are ipso facto unfit to do so.
It is hard to decide whether he looks worse if he did, or did not, have personal knowledge of this supposed transaction, which was apparently made in his name. For those who think such a comment unjust to his lifelong good intentions, a fair question is: “Can we imagine the Queen doing it?” If the answer is “No”, I rest my case.
There are frequent leaks from Clarence House that when the prince assumes the throne we shall see a slimmed-down royal family, which of course is overdue. We should also see a slimmed-down portfolio of palaces. Above all, the monarch needs a dramatic enhancement of advice, and evidence that it gets followed, measured especially in the things the next king does not allow himself to do.
Royal private secretaries are treated as servants, no more and no less. I have known several, and some have been wise. But few are willing to offer tough advice, such as every corporate or institutional boss expects to receive because they know there is not a cat’s chance of its acceptance. It was one of the prince’s intimate acquaintances who once characterized him to me, with a theatrical sigh, as “a spoilt baby”, adding: “I used to think Camilla could sort him out, but it is too late”.
The keyword, applicable to everybody successful in any walk of life, is discipline. The Prince of Wales can only hope to make a success of the throne if he appoints better people and learns — odd word this, to use about a prospective king — humility. He is right about some important things, wrong about others, as are we all, but he is not Stephen Hawking nor Solomon.
He is an averagely intelligent, eccentric septuagenarian, who will only prosper beneath a crown if he scores fewer own goals and makes fewer unforced errors.
The ghastly truth — ghastly for somebody with a very human desire to do things — is that his best course, and that of Prince William after him, is to stick to asking Saudi tycoons, and the rest of us: “Have you come far?”