Fergie's royal flush
It must be hard being a royal in the 1990s. In the good old days a bit of royal philandering was accepted as a perk of the job.
No one batted an eyelid when former Georges, Edwards and Charles whored, gambled and generally carried on in a manner unbefitting a head of church and state. Of course there was no gutter press to pay Nell Gwynne large sums to divulge how many inches Charles II had in his codpiece. But nobody in their right mind would have suggested that his royal dalliances undermined the monarchy. The king was the king for all that.
Yet today, all it needs to whip the press into a frenzy is a holiday snap of frumpy Fergie sitting on a garden swing with an eligible Texan bachelor. 'Palace rocked by depth of Fergie's friendship', warned Today; 'The Palace is concerned' declared the Daily Mail. Nobody so much as hinted that the dude's hand had been up the Duchess' skirt but the establishment is a bit jittery about the standing of the royals at present, and this latest 'controversial behaviour' touched a particularly raw nerve. It raised questions about Fergie's commitment to her husband and about her overall sense of discretion. Cavorting about with a rich, tasty American is not acceptable behaviour for today's British royal.
Despite being widely regarded as an anachronistic tourist attraction, the royal family play an important part in British life. At least they do as long as they are held in esteem. For the British middle classes, and part of the working class, the royals remain a symbol of 'what really matters' about the British way of life.
The royals are the living embodiment of three concepts which bind society together: the nation, the natural order, and the family. Of course, everyone is aware of the gap between this holy trinity and the reality of royal lives. The Queen may be a symbol of one united nation but she lives exclusively among an aristocratic elite. More people probably approve of the Queen because they think she's good for British tourism than believe she's appointed by God. And the idea that the royals are a model for family life is laughable. I'll bet Liz and Phil don't squabble over who does the washing up or the Saturday shopping. Fergie admits she spent only 42 nights with her husband in 1990, and Daily Mail readers are so intrigued at the separate lives of Charles and Di that the paper runs a 'Wales Watch' column.
But it's not what the royals do that counts, it's what they stand for.
Sunday Telegraph columnist Andrew Jay hit the nail on the head: 'In accepting the sovereign as Head of the Nation the people implicitly accept a national and moral code. They may not follow it but they know when they are breaking it.' He argues that you could more or less define British moral standards by listing everything that the British public would be shocked or disappointed to find the royals doing, even if they habitually do the same things themselves. For example you'd expect to see the Queen at a race meeting, but you'd be shocked to find her in a casino or at a dog track.
Of course you could legitimately counter that it's precisely because horses are more respectable than dogs that the Queen can be found among them. But the three R's stand: 'Royals represent respectability'. So, while the majority of us commoners might have an affair before our fifth wedding anniversary, one doesn't expect it of a royal. And the fact that you don't expect it of a royal reinforces the fact that it's an unacceptable way to behave.
Hence when royals start behaving in an 'improper' manner, it's seen to undermine all that's decent. But, if the 'unacceptable behaviour' of past royals was openly tolerated - why is everyone so uptight about it now?
There's an element of blatant chauvinism. Fergie is not a George, an Edward or a Charles, she's a Sarah. And while a man is expected to sow a few discreet wild oats, it's not acceptable for a woman. I don't believe for one minute that Andrew spent the 323 nights of 1990 apart from his wife writing letters home. I doubt if anyone cares that much. But as the song says...it's different for girls.
In addition, Fergie's 'indiscretion' comes at a time when the family as an institution is under scrutiny. Think of the number of articles you've read about the breakdown of the family, the rise in divorce, illegitimacy and teenage pregnancy. In 1989 over a third of all marriages involved at least one partner who had been married before, and for every 1000 couples who were living together in holy matrimony, 12 were being split asunder by divorce. Is it not possible that the days when marriage was 'for as long as ye both shall live' are long gone? Now there's a frightening thought for the establishment. If the bedrock of the British family can be eroded, then nothing about British life is sacred.
Columnists in the established press are probably worried that the royals are setting an altogether bad example. Presumably Andrew Jay worries that if there's any hint that Fergie has a roving eye it will give women the length and breadth of the country the licence to hunt down stray American tycoons. I say good luck to them - I can't think of a worse example to set British women than being married to a berk like Prince Andrew.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992