Happy Birthday, Price Andrew! Help yourself to a vice admiralty. And they say the royals are aliens...

They don’t understand civilian life, nor do they try very hard to do so

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What to give the man who has everything, a man who has been spoiled and indulged and coddled in ermine all of his life, for his 55th birthday? It is not one of life’s major milestones, but it should be marked nevertheless. And so, when on Thursday Prince Andrew gets another year older, if probably not wiser, the Queen will give to him the rank of vice-admiral. It beats socks and a Toblerone.

In fact, as queenly presents go, it’s a rather predictable choice. For her second son’s 50th birthday, she made him a rear-admiral. Perhaps next year a palace flunky could introduce HRH to the quirky, unique gift ideas of notonthehighstreet.com. The rank is an odd present for so many reasons, not least the fact that the Prince finished his active naval career 14 years ago. Thanks to a policy brought in by the Royal Navy in 2009, the Prince is permitted regular age-related promotions up the ranks, on a par with his colleagues who are still in service. How this goes down with those still slogging away at sea and grafting in the barracks, polishing their boots and buttons daily and occasionally sailing into hostile waters, is classified information.

Instead, the promotion marks the Prince’s “hugely supportive” stance towards the Senior Service and “vast amount of work over many years”, says the Royal Navy. It is the fault of such vague generosity, perhaps, that the increasingly withered institution now has nearly twice as many high-earning admirals as it does warships, and that last year had to axe 5,000 sailors and marines in defence cuts.

It is an odd present, too, given the events that have sullied the final months of Andrew’s 55th year. Last month, Virginia Roberts publicly accused him of having sex with her when she was 17 years old. Prince Andrew and Buckingham Palace have vigorously denied the claims but the scandal still rumbles on in a most unseemly manner. A picture of the Duke of York, hip to hip with the young American, his arm proprietorially circling her bare waist, refuses to disappear.

Their meeting was apparently orchestrated by Jeffrey Epstein, an old friend of the Prince and a sex offender who went to prison for soliciting prostitution with a minor. It was this same damaging friendship that in 2011 forced Prince Andrew to resign as a UK trade envoy – the only job outside of the Navy that he has ever had – and one so rigorous and over-burdened with opportunities for exotic travel that it earned him the nickname “Airmiles Andy”.

In the light of the royal’s toxic links to Epstein being raked over once more, you might think that now would be a good time to lie low. Not an easy thing to do if you have a duty to be a public face, but there are means of not fanning the flames. Bestowing a military honour on a son whose murky affiliates have just forced Buckingham Palace into a categorical denial of a sleazy kiss-and-tell shows a rare lack of self-awareness, if not an utter disregard on the part of the royals for how they are perceived by the public. This week, Helen Mirren, preparing to play the Queen on Broadway in The Audience, described the Royal Family as “aliens”. “The world they live in is so beyond our understanding,” she said. “You’ve never queued for anything. Ever, for anything. Every time you go in the street, the traffic is stopped for you.” Mirren is not far off, although of course the royals are not aliens, they are humans, and it doesn’t have to be this way. 

In her compelling new biography of Prince Charles, The Heart of a King, Catherine Mayer suggests that the royals do not understand civilian life, nor do they try very hard to do so. “People say to me: ‘Would you like to swap your life with me for 24 hours? Your life must be very strange’,” says Charles’s bluff brother, Prince Andrew. “But of course I have not experienced any other life. It’s not strange to me. The same way with the Queen. She has never experienced anything else.”

Royal protocol does not allow for anything as ungilded as normality. When Andrew found himself rudderless after leaving the Navy, Mayer writes, he hankered after learning a trade. He wanted to become a plumber, “but he wasn’t allowed to do so”.

And now, look, he’s a vice-admiral, without even getting his feet wet. That is just how it works in a family which earns nothing on merit and everything by dint of a most fortunate birth. Of course, the birthday presents they give and receive can only ever make the rest of us non-aliens look on, baffled and open-mouthed.