Gerald Warner: History repeats itself as farce to anti-monarchists' delight
'CONDUCT of the Duke of York: I trust, therefore, HRH the Duke of York will this night find that however exalted his rank, however powerful his influence, the voice of the people, through their representatives, will prevail over corruption…" That extract from Hansard records the remarks of Gwyllym Wardle MP opening the debate in the House of Commons on allegations of misconduct by the Duke of York.
The prince referred to, however, was not the beleaguered former spouse of Fergie, but Frederick, Duke of York, second son of George III and commander-in-chief of the British army. The debate took place on 27 January, 1809, when the Duke was alleged to have connived at the lucrative sale of commissions in the army by his mistress Mary Anne Clarke (whose great-great-granddaughter was the novelist Daphne du Maurier). He resigned in consequence. Well, one might think, plus a change. At a remove of two centuries, one Duke of York recalls the conduct of another.
The significance of this earlier royal scandal, though, goes beyond the entertaining congruence of titles and allegations: it, too, had a further dimension, beyond the superficial historical symmetry. The earlier Duke of York was reinstated as commander-in-chief two years later, partly because his accusers had by then been largely discredited, partly because his contribution to Britain's military effectiveness was too valuable to be discarded during the emergency of the Napoleonic Wars. It was due to his efforts on the home front that Wellington had an efficient war machine at his disposal with which to defeat Bonaparte. He also compensated for the commissions scandal by founding Sandhurst.
So, there were two sides to the scandal involving Frederick, Duke of York, and the same can be said for the contemporary embarrassment of the present bearer of the title. The most obvious aspect of l'affaire York is the one that is indefensible. For one of the Queen's sons to associate with a convicted criminal and to solicit from him money to pay his ex-wife's debts is disgraceful. Ever since the prince formed a msalliance with the appalling Fergie the couple have been associated in the public eye with the kind of vulgar demi-monde that is incompatible with the dignity of the monarchy. Their conduct recalls the Blairs and their circle. They epitomise the undisciplined, feckless self-indulgence that has made their generation of the Royal Family a corrosive influence upon the stability of the monarchy.
It should be clearly understood that the Duke of York forming an association with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein is objectionable because he is a royal prince, not because he is a British trade envoy - a role in which dubious connections are more likely to be an asset than a disqualification.How has he performed in that role? Both Labour and Conservative politicians associated with Britain's development of commercial interests - including the Labour chairman of the House of Commons business select committee - are unanimous in their praise of what he has achieved.
The prince is a buffoon, we are told. Did the powers-that-be not already know that when they appointed him envoy? Had he previously frequented Oxford high tables? Is his itching-powder and whoopee-cushion sense of humour a recent development? Moreover, the people he has scandalised with his conduct on overseas trips appear to be politically correct British officials rather than the potentates with whom he is treating who may well share many of his non-PC attitudes. His appointment is not meritocratic, whine critics, he is only in the post because he is a prince. Well, of course. Tell the Sheikh of Araby that Joe Bloggs, from Milton Keynes, is at the door soliciting trade links and he will react with indifference: the Duke of York can command a very different reception.
The underlying agenda is, as usual, to subvert the monarchy. The hypocrisy of some critics is beyond caricature. The Duke visited Libya; yes, and who sent him? The latest complaint is his links with Azerbaijan whose human rights record is deemed unsatisfactory. Do we not have an embassy there? Yes indeed, along with 157 other countries; and our ambassador in Baku is Dr Carolyn Browne, former director of the Human Rights Department of the Foreign Office. There is a Special Envoy from the European Commission there too, understandably since the country is one of the most important sites for oil development in the world. So what is the problem with Andrew ingratiating himself there?
One of the 19th-century duke's defenders claimed that the real purpose of his traducers was "to run down the Royal Family through the Duke of York". The same applies today. The regrettable fact is that through his unsavoury social contacts the Queen's second son is playing into the hands of the monarchy's enemies.
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