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Prince Andrew needn't worry: the royal family is protected from public accountability by law
'The gas can be turned up and the gas can be turned down," the minister said, but he stressed that there was no question of removing the prince. "The royals go on, that is what they do," he said.
This statement was made over the weekend, as pro-democracy movements swept across the Middle East and the Saudi royal family clamped down on protests to ensure its continuation. But the statement was not about the House of Saud; it was made by a British government minister about the House of Saxe-Coburg, aka the Windsors.
Apparently the power the royal family wield and the public money they claim is entirely a matter for their own conscience. Prince Andrew, the minister says, cannot be sacked from his "voluntary role" as Britain's special trade representative despite becoming a national embarrassment.
To the roll call of his disreputable friends – the relatives of Muammar Gaddafi, Tunisia's former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the son-in-law of the Kazakhstan president – we can add Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier who pleaded guilty in a Florida court in 2008 to a charge of solicitation involving a minor.
Yet when the former foreign minister, Chris Bryant, asked in the Commons, "Isn't it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?", he was scolded by John Bercow. "References to members of the royal family should be very rare, very sparing and very respectful," the Speaker said. "We have to be very careful in our handling of these matters."
Do we? Why? Are we living in Thailand, where it is illegal to criticise the royal family? Or Brunei, where the constitution states: "His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity."
We get a glimpse of how the rest of the world views the trade envoy in action from the leaked diplomatic cables. The US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, described how Andrew spoke "cockily" at a two-hour brunch with British and Canadian business people, leading a discussion that "verged on the rude". He attacked Britain's serious fraud office and journalists for their "idiocy" in investigating the al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia, which involved alleged kickbacks to a Saudi royal in exchange for the BAE Systems contract that would equip and train the Saudi security forces (the same forces now suppressing the pro-democracy movement).
Such insights are rare, and come courtesy of leaks or, in the case of Epstein, public records. Meanwhile, the PR department of Buckingham Palace has a budget of at least £500,000, and each of the major royals also have press officers – Prince Charles has Manchester United's former PR Paddy Harveson on side; Princes William and Harry employ Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, a former SAS officer, as well as their own assistant press secretary, Miguel Head, who previously worked at the Ministry of Defence.
The royal family are protected from public accountability by law. Last May, in the "washup" of government business, an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act was pushed through granting the royals an absolute exemption from the public's right to know. Even before this, they were not covered by the law directly. Instead the public had a limited right to make freedom of information requests to public bodies about royal funding and lobbying of public officials. Now even that minimal accountability has been eliminated.
This is a travesty. As long as the royal family can take public money and influence public policy without any form of public accountability then we are subjects, not citizens – and in no position to lecture anyone else about democracy.
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