Royale with sleaze

There is more to the House of Windsor's crisis than what the butler saw.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

If 1992 was an Annus horribilis for Queen Elizabeth II – after her beloved Windsor Castle was gutted by fire and her family’s standing continued to fall in the British public’s esteem – then 2003 must feel like a right royal pain in the Annus.

Princess Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell has hit the headlines with his book A Royal Duty. Burrell claims that Prince Philip questioned his son Prince Charles’ choice of lover (Camilla Parker Bowles over Princess Diana) in letters scribbled on A5 paper; that Diana thought some ‘dark force’ was out to kill her; and that there exists a so-called rape tape, on which former palace valet George Smith claims to have been raped by a senior royal servant and then ‘bought off’ by Prince Charles. Over the weekend, the Sunday Mirror published an interview with George Smith’s brother, who repeated claims that George also found a senior royal in bed with a servant.

Also over the weekend, a former servant took the unprecedented step of taking out an injunction against a newspaper. The Mail on Sunday said it had ‘a story involving the royal family’, which many assumed to be about the bed-hopping royal and his servant – but apparently ‘a senior royal’ wrote to the editors on Saturday ‘demanding that the story should not appear’, and on Saturday afternoon the former servant won a court order stopping the Mail from running the story (1). Of course the injunction has only heightened gossip about who the senior royal is, and what he was allegedly doing in bed with a servant (though according to George Smith’s brother, ‘you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to work out what was going on’) (2).

Outside of the titillating tabloid world, the Guardian has gone for a more upmarket version of What The Butler Saw. Mark Bolland, Prince Charles’ former deputy private secretary, told the Guardian that Charles is ‘very, very weak’. Bolland reckons it was Charles’ failure to stop the ‘fucked-up’ court case against Paul Burrell at the end of 2002 – where Burrell was accused of stealing Di’s possessions, before the case collapsed following an intervention by the Queen – which provoked Burrell to write his scurrilous book (3). Predictably Bolland has been snapped up by the News of the World, where he promises to reveal more about the weird Windsors.

So it’s been a bad month for the Windsors. As the Sydney Morning Herald summarised, Britain’s once-revered royals now appear as ‘money-grabbing, bitchy…and [possibly] guilty of covering up a serious sexual crime’.

The royals are seething. Prince William has accused Paul Burrell of a ‘cold and overt betrayal’; the Queen reportedly smashed an item of crockery upon reading ‘royal revelations’ in the Daily Mirror; and one senior royal aide has spoken of a ‘deep crisis’ facing the monarchy. But is the monarchy really being brought down by the opportunistic double act of Burrell and Bolland, with George Smith’s brother playing a supporting role? By bitter butlers with a gripe against their former bosses?

Not quite. The British monarchy is corroding from within; this is an internal crisis of confidence, being played out on the public stage as a pantomime of who said and did what to whom, when and why.

Back in 1992, it wasn’t just the burnt paintings and ruined carpets of Windsor Castle that moved the Queen to talk of an Annus horribilis; she also noted that it had been a bad year for other sections of the British establishment. ‘I suspect there are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty’, she said. The British monarchy was one of many traditional institutions knocked for six by the global shifts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. With uncertainty sweeping the Western world, with the end of politics as we knew it, and with the continuing Culture Wars against tradition and conservatism (all summed up by the Queen as ‘worldwide turmoil and uncertainty’), many an institution was left confused and bereft.

It was the British establishment’s internal sense of uncertainty, rather than any external political pressure or anything resembling a democratic, republican uprising, that drove the monarchy’s attempts to reform over the past decade. In 1994, the Queen took the decision to shorten the civil list (reducing the number of her brood who sponge off the state) and to start paying taxes; after Diana’s death in 1997 the Windsors made moves towards becoming a more open, ‘People’s Monarchy’; at the start of 2003 Prince Charles made public his accounts for the first time ever, in the name of openness and transparency.

Some on the left claimed that these royal shifts were a result of an ‘overwhelming majority of the British people’ becoming ‘incomparably hostile’ to the monarchy, and wishing it would just go away (4). Certainly people are more cynical about and disrespectful of the royal family than before – but powerful institutions are not toppled by waves of cynicism and disrespect. Indeed, it is the lack of a serious republican opposition that allows the monarchy to limp on despite the crises. The most that the republican Guardian could come up with at the height of the recent revelations was to ask whether there was a more suitable family than the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to take over the royal job (5). Hardly ‘off with their heads’.

If it was internal doubt that caused the monarchy its biggest problems over the past decade, then the Windsors’ own remedies have made things worse. After Diana’s death in August 1997, many in the British media and public accused the royals of being stuffy, isolated, anal, and even ‘an alien breed which is stuck in a timewarp’ (6). This was the catalyst for the Windsors’ shift towards becoming a more Diana-style monarchy, where, in the words of a newly employed spindoctor, they would ‘improve their communication skills’, especially ‘at a local level, through regional newspapers and other media’ (7). The Windsors started to emphasise their ordinariness, even their dysfunctionality, over the old-style image of the Imperial Family – and why should a family-like-any-other inspire loyalty and deference?

Another buzzword for the New Royals has been ‘transparency’. Many of those brought into remake the royals (including Mark Bolland) advised the Windsors to be more ‘see-through’. To this end, Charles became the first Prince of Wales to publish his accounts earlier this year, as part of a PR campaign to repair his image and demonstrate that he is an honest, tax-paying guy. Of course, he isn’t – and the media jumped on Charles’ revelations that he employs 97 people and spends thousands on going abroad as further evidence that the royals are outdated. And, many wonder, if the royals can be ‘transparent’ with their cash, what about other matters – like what exactly did Philip say to Diana and who has had affairs with whom? The Windsors have discovered that rather than allaying scandal, transparency often provokes it.

More recently, in late October 2003, the government assisted the monarchy in its transparency project by lifting the ‘veil of mystery’ surrounding the Royal Prerogative. The prerogative allows Britain’s executive, the Cabinet or prime minister, to take action without the backing of parliament, in the name of the Crown. By revealing its powers – from appointing and dismissing ministers to declaring wars – the government hoped to help the British public to better understand their monarchy.

For the republicans among us, the revelations about the Royal Prerogative served as a timely reminder for why the monarchy should be abolished. It is a profoundly anti-democratic institution, which ought to have no place in the twenty-first century. In the British Constitution it is the monarch who is sovereign, and he or she merely lends such sovereignty to parliament. The Royal Prerogative allows the executive – most often the prime minister – effectively to act like a monarch on important matters of state, to take action without the approval of parliament, much less of we the people. It was in the name of the Crown that British prime ministers launched the Gulf War of 1991 and the Kosovo War of 1999.

Yet rather than contributing to a republican sentiment, to a movement for some real democracy, the Royal Prerogative revelations simply generated further cynicism about the royals and their antics. The opening up of the prerogative to public viewing was another instance of the monarchy’s attempts to modernise backfiring and feeding into today’s scandalous climate.

The royals’ institutional crisis is so much butler backbiting, personal revelations and whispers in the night because it is generated by an internal falling apart rather than by political or public demands. This is Decline and Fall as family bickering, with the Queen reduced to smashing saucers and senior aides reduced to pleading for the former butlers and gossipmongers to ‘stop the madness’.

There is one way to stop the madness. Abolish the monarchy – and let the Windsors, and their butlers, get proper jobs.

Read on:

Di another day, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Injunction halts newspaper story on claims by former royal servant, Guardian, 3 November 2003

(2) Royal ‘in bed with flunkey’, Sun, 3 November 2003

(3) Bolland to write for News of the World, Guardian, 29 October 2003

(4) Not long to reign over us?, Socialist Review, November 1994

(5) We must call time on the woeful Windsors, Guardian, 27 October 2003

(6) See Royals without royalty, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) See Royals without royalty, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today