Prince Andrew has withdrawn from public life and his royal duties. Robert Hazell, who has just completed work on a comparative study of European monarchies, offers six lessons that the monarchy can learn from the events that led to the prince leaving a front-line royal role.
Following the announcement that Prince Andrew is to withdraw from public life, we have been putting the finishing touches to a book about the constitutional monarchies of Europe, to be published next year by Hart. So it seems a suitable moment to reflect on some of the comparative lessons we have learned, and to ask whether the situation Prince Andrew finds himself in could have happened in any of the other European monarchies. The short answer is that it could have happened in any one of them, and the response would have been equally swift. We put our royal families on a pedestal, and expect them to be models of good behaviour – something we do not seem now to expect of the politicians who are our real rulers. So one of the many paradoxes of monarchy is that this seemingly unaccountable institution, based upon heredity, in practice has proved to be quite closely accountable: a point returned to at the end of this post.
Our comparative study looked at seven other constitutional monarchies in Europe, in addition to the UK. In 1900 every country in Europe was a monarchy, save for just three: France, Switzerland and San Marino. By 2000 most countries in Europe had become republics, with the only exceptions being the Scandinavian monarchies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Spain and the UK. These monarchies have survived partly for geopolitical reasons, most of the other European monarchies having disappeared at the end of the First or Second World Wars. But they have survived also by being quick to reject royals who step out of line, or in Prince Andrew’s words ‘let the side down’: modern monarchy depends ultimately on the support of the public, and it has to be keenly responsive to public opinion. So what are the lessons to be learned from these other monarchies; and what risks do they face in the future?
Lesson One: keep the Firm small. The greater the size of the royal family, the greater the risk that one of its members may get into trouble and cause reputational damage; and the greater the risk of criticism about excessive cost, and too many hangers-on. So in Norway the royal family consists of just four people: the King and Queen, Crown Prince and Princess. And in Sweden last month the King, under political and parliamentary pressure, removed five of his grandchildren from the royal family, and dropped their HRH titles. But the size of the royal family will vary depending on the size of the country concerned. The UK, with a population more than 10 times that of Norway, needs a larger royal family to fulfil all the demands for royal patronage and visits. The Norwegian royals carried out 866 public engagements last year; the British royal family conducted over four times that number, with around 3,800 engagements. And the Firm is four times the size, with 15 members of the family undertaking public duties (reduced to 14 now that Prince Andrew has withdrawn). Prince Charles has been reported as wishing to strip down the royal family to just himself, his children and their wives, and his grandchildren: if there were just six adult members available for public duties, they would have to scale back significantly the number of patronages they accept and engagements they undertake. It is a difficult balance to strike: change on this scale could considerably reduce the monarchy’s public profile and, unless managed carefully, adversely affect attitudes to the royal family.
Lesson Two: be wary about trade missions. Prince Andrew has been in trouble before over his role as trade envoy, in particular over his close links with the rulers of Kazakhstan, and with the financier David Rowland. Chris Bryant MP, a former minister, said ‘When I was at the Foreign Office it was very difficult to see in whose interests he [the Prince] was acting’. Similar difficulties have arisen with other monarchies. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was forced to resign from his role as Inspector General of the Dutch armed forces over the Lockheed arms scandal. Prince Laurent, known in Belgium as the ‘Clown Prince’, got involved with Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in a reforestation project which failed. The most serious consequences have been felt in Spain, where King Juan Carlos helped the Spanish government to win a 7 billion euro high speed rail contract in Saudi Arabia; continuing (but unproven) allegations that Juan Carlos received kickbacks on the deal have been very damaging to the monarchy, and were part of the reason for his decision to abdicate in 2014.
Lesson Three: be wary about fundraising. All royals are expected to help with fundraising for the organisations of which they are patrons, and all the European heirs apparent have charitable foundations. Few have endowments sufficient to fund all their operations. The Prince of Wales’ Prince’s Trust has to raise at least £60 million a year to fund its work with young people. Prince Andrew looked to commercial sponsors to fund his flagship Pitch@Palace project. To raise large sums for their charitable work, the royals need to cultivate the rich and wealthy. Libby Purves has written: ‘Prince Andrew dazzles easily when confronted with immense wealth and apparent power’. There was a reason for him to be drawn to the wealthy and powerful: he needed contributions for the Prince Andrew Charitable Trust. The royals need to develop guidelines for their fundraising, to ensure their charitable activities are not compromised by money from dubious sources.
Lesson Four: Keep tight control of royal PR. All royal families can suffer PR mishaps or disasters. King Carl XVI Gustaf incurred fierce criticism back in Sweden when he made complimentary remarks about his hosts on a state visit to Brunei. Crown Princess Máxima of the Netherlands (originally from Argentina) got into hot water over seemingly innocuous remarks about Dutch identity – in a country where royal communications are managed not by the Palace, but by the Office of the Prime Minister. One consequence of Prince Andrew’s interview will be reassertion of central control of all royal press and PR by Buckingham Palace. It is not clear whether they had approved Prince Andrew’s decision to speak to Newsnight, but in future all the other royal households are bound to be subject to tighter clearance: save for Clarence House, where the Prince of Wales has greater autonomy.
Lesson Five: Understand better the plight of the minor royals, and allow them a means of escape. They lead lives of great privilege, but lack fundamental freedoms: freedom to marry whom they like, free choice of careers, the right to privacy and family life which ordinary citizens take for granted. The strict rules on marriage have caused grief to younger Princes in Sweden, to Princess Margaret in Britain, and led to Dutch Princes and Princesses being removed from the line of succession. Their privacy is frequently invaded by paparazzi, gossip magazines and the tabloid press. Their choice of careers is limited to military and public service: if they seek to earn a living in business or the professions they risk being accused of exploiting their title for commercial gain. We found very few cases of royals deliberately opting out of the royal family in order to pursue their own career or to gain more of a private life. This might be because of their strong sense of public service, or lack of imagination; but it might also be because of insufficient recognition that an alternative path is open to them. This would involve renouncing public duties, public funding and royal titles, and leading a private life. But it would not necessarily be easy, to ‘leave’ the family one is born into, and its associated duties; and the media and the public might still consider the person to be one of the royals.
Lesson Six: although hereditary, the monarchy is accountable, just like any other public institution. Prince Andrew has learned that in dramatic fashion: within a week he has been obliged to withdraw from public duties, relinquish his patronage of 230 organisations, and seen his office removed from Buckingham Palace. But here too he is not alone: royals who step out of line can lose their jobs, and monarchs who step out of line can lose their thrones. King Edward VIII is not the only European monarch forced to abdicate during the last century. The Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg had to abdicate because of her conduct during the First World War; and King Leopold III of Belgium because of his failures in the Second World War. Most recently, King Juan Carlos of Spain abdicated in 2014, when opinion polls showed that two thirds of Spaniards felt he should leave the throne.
Modern monarchies are continuously held to account, in a range of different ways. They are all regulated by law: as we have seen in the UK, in the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 (the latter making the rules of succession gender neutral, a change already made in all the other European monarchies except Spain). They are subject to public funding, which can go down as well as up: the Spanish monarchy is the least well funded, in part because it is the least popular of all the European monarchies; and Prince Laurent of Belgium has had his allowance cut by the Belgian government. They are subject to scrutiny in the media: alongside all the fawning coverage and glossy pictures, there is more serious investigative journalism which keeps all the monarchies on their toes, scrutinising their expenditure, their hunting trips, their choice of friends. The media also commission regular opinion polls, in all the European monarchies, asking if people are satisfied with the monarch’s performance, is the royal family paid too much, should the monarch abdicate, should the country become a republic. Support for the monarchy remains high in all countries, with polls regularly showing that 60–80% of the people wish to retain the monarchy – ratings which politicians would die for.
This final lesson, about the accountability of the monarchy, is the most important. In a radio interview the royal historian Robert Lacey compared the downfall of Prince Andrew to the abdication of King Edward VIII, and the execution of Charles I. Overly dramatic, perhaps, since we no longer execute unpopular kings; but individual monarchs can be forced to abdicate; and support for the institution as a whole can be tested in a referendum. During the twentieth century there were 18 referendums held on the monarchy in nine European countries. It was through referendums that the monarchy came to an end in Italy and Greece, and was restored in Spain; and through referendums that the future of the monarchy was endorsed in Belgium, Denmark and Norway. The monarchy may seem the very antithesis of a democratic or accountable institution; but ultimately continuation of the monarchy depends on the continuing support of the people.
The Unit’s regular newsletter, Monitor, was published in November and covers the monarch’s role in the prorogation crisis, as well as the other key constitutional events of the past four months. To download the new issue, click here.
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About the author
Professor Robert Hazell was the first Director of the Constitution Unit, and closely involved with helping the Cabinet Office draft the Cabinet Manual. He is currently working on a comparative study of European monarchies, due to be published next year.
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