In a long and distinguished career of insults towards foreigners and poor people, Philip Mountbatten's latest thick-witted opinion is hardly a star candidate. On a midweek visit to Luton and Dunstable Hospital, he said to a uniformed nurse: “The Philippines must be half empty – you’re all here running the NHS.” The nurse laughed.
It’s been a busy week in the royals’ PR department. An erudite and mildly insulting essay by Hilary Mantel had earlier led to an outbreak of solidarity with Kate Middleton, and yesterday pictures of Harry Wales hugging a rich 24-year-old socialite on a ski slope were widely circulated.
In previous lives, I had close dealings with people who have worked for the royals. Yesterday morning, I phoned one about Philip’s comment. “The minute any royal expresses any opinion, they get slaughtered,” he said.
And this is a constant refrain among apologists for the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, to give them their proper name (they changed it to “Windsor” in 1917 out of embarrassment at sounding too German). It is really two assertions in one: first, our royals are not allowed to have opinions; and, second, they get an unfair press. Both are false.
On the first, last week a story in The Daily Telegraph, house journal of the royals, began: “The Prince of Wales was secretly given sway over dozens of new laws, including those to ban hunting and to introduce the Government’s green deal.” So perhaps opinions in public are an issue; but so long as they are conveyed in secret, and on issues close to Charles Windsor’s heart, having opinions is not a problem for the royals, thank you very much.
As to the second, no subject in history has led to more sycophancy and propaganda, or general abandonment of journalistic scepticism, than British royalty, as any sober reflection on the Diamond Jubilee alone would conclude.
So what my friend in the royal household was really trying to say is that, if only we could see the royals for who they are, unfiltered by media judgement, we should love them. And here, too, apologists for royalty are wrong.
Behind the mask
The trouble with modern monarchy, like any oxymoron, is that it doesn’t bear much looking into. Britain’s emotional contract with our royal family is based on ignorance, and requires a steady flow of propaganda for its nourishment. When we remove the mask from them, as Mantel did this week, what is left – old buffoons who missed the 20th century; young toffs on the pull in Verbier – doesn’t scrub up too well.
This would be fine if those buffoons and toffs were left to go about their silly business; but the trouble is, when the mask slips far enough, what is exposed is the emotional infancy of a people too scared to elect their Head of State.