Apparently there is huge public interest in the Prince Harry story, or so I read here. I am not quite sure what this means. Does it mean that it is in the public interest that these pictures be published? Are they pictures we have the right to see, and the right to know about? The whole argument strikes me as bizarre.
What does interest me, though, is the historical perspective. Traditionally British monarchs have been very badly behaved people, whose eating, drinking and fornicating has tended to the excessive: think of Henry VIII, or of Charles II – both of whom are popular figures, though with slightly different constituencies of admirers. George IV is perhaps the paradigm of royal excess, and was never popular in his lifetime, though some modern aesthetes do admire him (and rightly so: he had great taste in both books and buildings.)
As for the well-behaved, well they are few and far between. James II and William IV had exemplary private lives during their reigns, but both had rather wild youths. George III was really the first ever to be a good family man; Queen Victoria, Georges V and VI, and of course our irreproachable present monarch, all get the thumbs up, but Edwards VII and VIII do not. Edward VII was a popular monarch, but his private life was not subject to much scrutiny, and most of his subjects must have had very little idea of his addiction to gambling and lady friends.
Edward VII was, as the phrase went, “fast”. He moved in fast circles. He was the first monarch to have Jewish friends and indeed Roman Catholic friends (which I find to his credit.) He was in many ways ahead of his time. He was a hugely successful monarch, a true focus of national unity: he was well known for his affability, and people loved him.
Prince Harry and his circle are what you would expect of a 27 year old unmarried Guards officer who had been to Eton. So is his behaviour in Las Vegas. If his behaviour is disappointing, it is because it is so ordinary. There are pictures of similar riotous behaviour all over Facebook. This is the sort of thing that people of his age and background do. And here is the problem: the Royal family are meant to be rather different, aren’t they? They are meant to set an example, though an example of what, I am not quite sure.
On the day of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding, the assembled friends of the couple waiting in the Abbey before the service sounded exactly as you would have expected them to sound at any wedding where an Etonian married a Marlborough girl – that particular brand of upper class was much in evidence in the loud chatter’s vowels. (I seem to remember that Dr David Starkey pointed this out at the time.)
Does this matter? Oh yes it does. The monarch and her family are supposed to be a focus of national unity. If the day comes when the monarch and her family look like and sound like a very narrow section of British society, then on that day they cease to represent the nation, or rather the illusion that they represent the nation disappears.
Prince Harry, by his behaviour, has brought that day closer. Drunken and undignified horseplay in Vegas does not shock me one bit, it merely confirms that the things I would hope to see in any Royal family – seriousness, piety, a concern for the poor, affability, an ability to put people at their ease, along with a sense of fun and an ability to enjoy oneself in a good way – the sort of qualities that are seen in some other monarchies – are qualities not apparent in Prince Harry.