The monarchy is supposedly above party politics. Politicians, however, do not always feel that commenting on royalty is beneath them.
Among the Queen’s children it is the Duke of York who has proved the easiest target. In 2011, the shadow justice secretary, Chris Bryant, in referring to the Duke’s role as a UK trade ambassador and the inappropriateness of some of his friendships suggested in the House of Commons, “isn’t it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?” When the Speaker, John Bercow, intervened to urge cautious language when speaking of a member of the royal family, Bryant maintained that Erskine May only advised against disrespectful speech in the chamber about the monarch.
Beyond Westminster there has been less restraint. In November 2019, the former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, claimed on Good Morning Britain that it was common knowledge that the Duke of York was in the habit of making racist remarks.
Asked during the general election campaign about whether Prince Andrew was “fit for purpose” following his ill-judged interview with Emily Maitlis about his relations with Jeffrey Epstein, Boris Johnson had said that “the law must take its course” but that “the monarchy is above reproach.” Labour’s women and equalities spokesperson, Dawn Butler, neatly rephrased that comment and claimed Johnson had said the royal family was above reproach, which was “unforgivable”. Johnson subsequently clarified that when he said the monarchy he meant the Queen alone.
At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, Johnson sought to keep the focus on the return of schoolchildren to their classrooms by resisting all attempts by journalists to provoke him into a comment about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s allegations. He confined himself to, “when it comes to matters to do with the royal family, the right thing for prime ministers to say is nothing and nothing is the thing that I propose to say today,” before adding, “perhaps the best thing I can say is I have always had the highest admiration for the Queen and the unifying role that she plays in our country and across the Commonwealth.”
Undaunted, Westminster lobby journalists tried again on Tuesday with such provocations as asking the prime minister’s spokesman whether Johnson thinks the royal family is racist. But even this line of enquiry failed to elicit a response. At that time, the statement from Buckingham Palace had not yet been released and Downing Street was not going to make the mistake of pronouncing at a time when the Queen was still mulling her response.
The royal family was pretty much the one call on public funds that Jeremy Corbyn did not support
That case for caution deserted Labour. Keir Starmer is too canny a politician to publicly take sides, particularly when echoing the concerns of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would be perceived as putting him at odds with the Queen, the next in line to the throne and the next in line after that. Yet, whilst expressing sorrow at the “turmoil” he depicted the royal family to be now in, Starmer offered up the opinion that “the issues that Meghan has raised of racism and mental health are serious issues.” He then continued, “this is bigger than the royal family. For too many years we have been too dismissive and too willing to put these issues to one side.”
Exactly what Starmer proposed should be done about it he sensibly preferred not say. But some of his shadow cabinet colleagues felt free to make suggestions. Both the shadow education minister, Kate Green, and the shadow schools minister, Wes Streeting, have called for an investigation into what Green calls “really distressing, shocking allegations.”
It is not clear where such calls can lead. What sanction could the investigation pronounce, beyond naming and shaming the guilty individual, if such a person there is? At any rate, the statement eventually released from the Palace that “recollections may vary” suggests that the internal inquiry has been and gone and a different inflection on the offending comment either offered or presumed.
Besides Her Majesty’s armed forces, the royal family was pretty much the one call on public funds that Jeremy Corbyn did not support. His successor is all too aware of how poorly Corbyn’s loathing for almost all manifestations of British tradition played with most voters and the repositioning of Starmer with a Union Jack in the background is an obvious and easy way of indicating the contempt for trad Britannia is over. But issues that touch on race are difficult for him. There is a natural reflex for a Labour leader to say something when the focus is upon the supposed snubbing of a woman in public life espousing unabashedly progressive views.
It may be instinctive to side with the commoner underdog against the cliché of a stuffy and aloof court. But it is not clear that the majority of Britons see the former Hollywood actress as entirely the innocent ingénue and victim that she presented to the deferentially non-inquisitorial Oprah Winfrey. On this, Boris Johnson perhaps better perceives that there is no political advantage in getting involved. To paraphrase Jacques Chirac, Labour has missed a good opportunity to shut up.
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