August on Royal Deeside. Soft rain falls without cease on the Caledonian pine forests, it soaks into the ancient peatlands and it darkens the pelts of the red deer chewing heather out on the moor. Behold the beauty and the glory of the Scottish land and skies, from deep inside a luxurious estate where the troubles of the world melt into this velvety panorama. Certainly, one has always found this to be the case. One has taken peaceful refuge here every summer since one was one. However, one’s tranquillity is being tested this year, most sorely.
Recent newspaper headlines and strident television bulletins will have made uncomfortable reading and viewing for the Queen during her annual holiday at Balmoral. Fresh revelations about the Duke of York’s friendship with the late Jeffrey Epstein are causing further embarrassment in a snowballing scandal that threatens to engulf her beleaguered second son. Eco-warriors the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been criticised for taking four private jet flights in 11 days, two of them paid for by Elton John. Yet they see no hypocrisy in their elitist, planet-destroying travel plans.
Meanwhile it has been revealed that a Hong Kong businessman has being paying fistfuls of dollars to willing royals for years. Dr Jonny Hon gives a £100,000 stipend to Zara Tindall to advise him on horse racing matters (‘it’s over there, the one with four legs’) and has given almost £300,000 to the Duchess of York for ‘marketing and promotion’ and being a non-executive director of his film company (‘pass me the paperclips’). In return he gets lots of lovely handshaking access to the Windsors — and he certainly seems pleased with his deal.
Inside Balmoral Castle, in the canyons of my mind, a 93-year-old woman switches on both bars of the electric fire in her sitting room and shivers as she buttons up the cardigan of her twinset. For HM the Queen is feeling a distinct chill in the air that has nothing to do with the weather; a change in the climate that has little to do with greenhouse gases. As several of her children and grandchildren continue to disport themselves like the entitled spawn of a dodgy Eurotrash autocrat, perhaps she must be asking herself: is any of this my fault?
Taken individually, these inglorious instances on the York-Sussex-Tindall axis would be bad enough. Together they form a storm front of folly and greed; a mutual lack of judgment that adds up to a bad business for the Queen to unpack at a time in her life when she should be putting her feet up and reflecting upon a blameless life of unstinting duty.
Look at her! A woman and a monarch who has always chosen decent but unfashionable causes and charities to champion; a stalwart figurehead who has never ridden a bandwagon nor embraced a voguish cause just to harvest some chic credibility with the fast set.
In 67 years on the throne the Queen has managed to avoid the greasy clutches of conmen and the siren call of celebrity, always following her own wise counsel instead. Yet some of the younger members just will not heed her gold standards of propriety, whether through wilful arrogance or the inability to resist the largesse of empty men with deep pockets who yearn for prestige by proxy.
The Duke of York allowed himself to be caught in a sad-sack trap, becoming a bauble in the crown of an evil billionaire who had everything but respect. For Epstein, having a pet British royal on the scene gave a veneer of decorum to his lifestyle — and even perhaps his unhealthy interest in young girls. The Duke has strenuously denied having sex with a 17-year-old called Virginia Roberts Giuffre — the issue at the heart of the scandal — and this week pronounced himself ‘appalled’ at the sex abuse claims against his former friend. There is nothing to suggest he is not speaking the truth. Yet as he enjoyed the free flights and the lavish hospitality, as he frolicked among the penis-shaped soaps and the sexually charged art and the unaccompanied young girls who haunted Epstein’s homes, what was Andrew thinking? He was thinking this is what I deserve. For what has he had in his entire life that was not given to him?
Consider that two weeks before Christmas in 2010, the Duke was photographed at the door of Epstein’s mansion in New York. By this time, the financier had pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14 and had served just over a year in jail. As the images emerged in the media over the weekend, I imagine the Queen pouring a steadying sherry and asking herself: what in the name of snickerdoodles was that idiot Andrew doing there?
What indeed? A more sensible or worldly member of the royal family might have given the unrepentant predator a wide berth. But the man the Times this week called ‘the Duke of Hazard’ was then still fast friends with the man the Daily Mirror called the ‘perv tycoon’. Now the Duke of York is bunkered down in a golfing complex in Spain, taking comfort in the more innocent pleasure of the lush greens while being supported by his former wife, the Duchess of York. Should I pause to note that Epstein also paid off some of Sarah’s personal debts, which she later admitted was ‘a gigantic error of judgment’? I think I shall.
At least the Duchess’s ever-readiness — now mirrored by Zara Tindall’s newfound enthusiasm — to be the financial beneficiary of random businessmen has a positive side. It shows a willingness by these inspiring women not to take money from the public purse. So perhaps they are to be commended, not condemned after all?
Well, almost. It would be more admirable still if they chose a quieter and more frugal existence on the wooden bench of royal life, like many of the more minor Windsors, instead of insisting upon the cushioning balm of the overstuffed sofa at all times.
This brings us to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose every move seems fraught with controversy and hullabaloo, as they continue to move around the fleshpots of Europe like two fugitives on a witness protection programme. Heads down, hats on, Harry and Meghan slip in and out of airports desperate not to be noticed. And no wonder, for you can either preach about climate change or you can fly on private jets. You can’t do both, no matter how many rainforests Sir Elton John promises to plant with his bare hands.
Despite their environmental campaigning and their laughable pledge not to have more than two children for the sake of the planet, the couple have made it painfully clear that their comfort, their privacy and their ease of passage are not going to be compromised for any cause, no matter how green or noble. Meanwhile any criticism of their behaviour is increasingly seen, especially by their celebrity pals, as bullying. Sir Elton John bankrolled the Sussexes’ controversial flights plus their holiday at his villa in the south of France, and his sub-sequent frenzied tweets wailed about the ‘relentless and untrue assassinations on their character’ and even invoked the fate of Princess Diana. Up in Balmoral, I imagine the Queen pressing a moss-scented pomander to her reddening cheek. This isn’t helping, she whispers into the silent gloaming.
The problem is that Harry and Meghan can’t have it both ways, and everyone can see that except them. Their refusal to choose between a taxpayer-funded life and a private life is at the root of all the current tensions and the endless disparaging headlines. The former life choice has behavioural constraints embodied by the Queen, while the latter offers the freedom they so crave; where they could jet anywhere on Air Caviar, refuse to name Archie’s godparents, spend the whole summer on a yacht with Beyoncé and Jay Z and guest edit glossy publications such as Vogue, while no one would bat an eye. Instead they insist upon this queasy middle ground, where they happily accept a £2.4 million taxpayer-funded revamp of Frogmore Cottage while living like A-list stars resentful of our good-natured interest in their wellbeing and their baby.
‘We had a garden party to celebrate Harry and Meghan’s wedding,’ a Daily Mail reader wrote to me recently. ‘Now I wouldn’t go to the end of the street to see them.’ And it is clear that many feel the same way. Never in the course of royal history has so much public goodwill been squandered so quickly and so thoughtlessly, amid the suspicion that H&M are just not that interested in the dopes back home who paid for their £5,000 copper bath, their fixtures and their fittings. With important announcements such as Archie’s birth, always released at an hour that is most beneficial to the US morning media, their priorities towards attracting a more global and less critical audience are clear. Even American chat show host Ellen DeGeneres recently met with the Sussexes in England to ‘talk about their work on wildlife conservation’. The question is, does all this negativity mean that the royals could become an endangered species themselves?
The Queen will breathe a sigh of relief to note that the monarchy is not in crisis. Not yet, anyway: polls show it’s as popular as ever. Yet there is a feeling that, while the Queen deserves our respect, certain other members of her family should try harder. Much harder. There is a turbulence in the air, a contagion of bad behaviour that taints the good deeds and hard work of other royals, causing understandable resentment. These miscreants could do worse than follow the example of the Queen; this force of nature in pastel separates who has never put a foot wrong nor allowed selfish needs or creature comforts to impede her sense of duty.
Her Majesty’s unflagging popularity over the decades stems from her insistence that the Crown must always come before the person. While she is in charge, the public understand in their bones that in any conflict between her ego and national duty, the Crown will always win. That is one reason why there is so much trust and affection in our mutual relationship. Can Andrew and Harry, Meghan and Zara and the rest of the grotty gang redeem themselves and rise to these standards of public service and veneration? Given that the Queen will not always be around to steer them through the troubled times ahead, one does wonder. Back in Balmoral, another dark night falls on the House of Windsor.
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