IN THE nightclubs of wartime London, young blades trying to impress their girlfriends would turn up sometimes wearing German uniforms. It was an idiotic thing to do, and probably didn’t even impress the girlfriends. But it was war, and there was an excuse for foolishness. Prince Harry’s decision to attend a fancy-dress party wearing a swastika armband puts him in the same category. It was an idiotic thing to do.
And so he has apologised. "I am very sorry if I caused offence or embarrassment to anyone. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologise," was what he said. Enough? Enough for a 20-year-old, still clearly going through the post-adolescent stage of growing up? Enough for a younger brother, whose mother has died and who is living his life in the full glare of publicity? Or do we want more - and if so, what?
The concerted howl of outrage that echoed around the country following the publication of the pictures on the front page of the Sun was unmistakable: no, not enough, not nearly enough. From Michael Howard, the Tory leader, to the writers of letters in most of the press, religious leaders and TV pundits, there was a demand for more. Precisely what was less certain. Some wanted a personal apology delivered live on television; some thought he should visit Auschwitz to make a statement of contrition; others insisted on some form of punishment that would force him to see the error of his ways.
Lord Janner, a former president of the board of deputies of British Jews, who called the prince’s behaviour evil, demanded he be sent to join the army as soon as possible (which he is doing anyway) so that sense could be knocked into him. On the other hand, Doug Henderson, the former armed services minister, thought the act was so heinous he should not be allowed in to the army at all.
This ferocious need for reparation at all costs is curious, particularly in a country that likes to boast about its tradition of tolerance and forgiveness. Its shrill insistence sounds less like a demand for a swift and appropriate apology and more like its darker side - revenge. The idea that the Royal Family should have a son who is occasionally guilty of bad behaviour is seen as a flaw so deep that it demands suitable punishment - an eye for an eye, a public stoning for a swastika. It is as if Prince Harry’s critics were determined to use one stupid piece of behaviour as an excuse for venting their fury on his family, his class, perhaps even the monarchy itself. I can think of no other reason why the reaction should be so visceral.
No one doubts that the swastika is one of the most offensive symbols of our time. Even those of a younger generation who are no longer familiar with the grim statistics of the Holocaust, are aware of its power to shock and repel. That is why it is to be found spray-painted on the walls of slums, or tattooed on the arms of shaven-headed thugs. The more we have learned of Nazi horrors, the more potent it has become. The current series on Auschwitz on BBC television reminds us, if we needed reminding - and we probably do - of just what it once stood for.
But it has also been used as parody by grown-up people with a far broader understanding of the world and its recent history than one 20-year-old with a liking for clubs and pretty girls. The present hit of the West End stage is a musical, The Producers, which builds an entire show around the idea of poking fun at Hitler. Two impresarios invent a production that is bound to fail - a musical about the Nazis. It will, they assume, offend audiences to such an extent that it will be closed after the first night. To their horror, however, it becomes an overnight sensation. People cannot get enough of it, or its big number, ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
Seasoned theatre-goers, with their finely honed irony and their sophisticated grasp of parody can, of course, enjoy the show without attracting a hint of condemnation. A few hundred yards away, equally packed houses applaud Jerry Springer the Musical, full of four-letter words, blasphemy, racism and sexual jokes of the most extreme nature.
What is a young man, emerging from a relatively sheltered life, to make of all this? Invited to a party given by adults, with the fairly tasteless theme of ‘Natives and Colonials’, he picks a 25 costume that makes exactly the same joke. He arrives at the door, where scores of older people are gathered. No one apparently takes him to one side and murmurs: "Excuse me, Harry, I think you’d be better off without the armband." Perhaps, who knows, no one even thought about it. Then someone photographs him and sells the picture to the papers.
To which the chorus of critics responds - yes, but he is a prince, a possible future monarch; he should know better. The logic of this is that the price of being royal is the surrender of normal behaviour. Yet at the same time we demand that the monarchy becomes more human, hauls itself into the 21st century, makes itself more approachable, behaves more like, well, more like us. And that means making the odd stupid mistake, getting drunk once in a while, rather as urban Britain seems to do every weekend. It is the kind of thing that happens to young men, and more and more to young women.
We have to make up our minds whether we want a human being as a possible heir to the throne or a stuffed dummy. I think Harry should be allowed to work out his wild side, and I am sure he will. Meanwhile, we should be grown up enough to forgive the fact that from time to time he may make an ass of himself. We’ve all done it. Why can’t he?