There are, it seems, three ways to endanger your job if you’re a public figure: you can call into a radio show to denigrate your boss as a clown, you can claim an affection for Hitler, or you can be linked to the Gaddafis. Howard Davies, the head of Britain’s prestigious London School of Economics, has just tendered his resignation over the LSE’s cosy relationship with Saif Gaddafi. Meanwhile Prince Andrew’s association with the Libyan—critics depict it as a close friendship; an unnamed “royal source” told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that the Prince had met Gaddafi Junior precisely twice, on both occasions at the request of the U.K. government of the time—has stirred up a flurry of calls, led by a former minister during a House of Commons session on Libya, for the Queen‘s second son to be stripped of his role as a trade envoy. I’m not an instinctive monarchist, but in this case let me pin my Union Flag to the mast at the outset: Prince Andrew aka the Duke of York—or “Duck of York” as I always think of him, for reasons I’ll explain—does exactly what he’s been tasked and trained to do, and perfectly represents Britain, or at least a significant strain of British public life. Before Britons shoot the messenger—or envoy—they might consider the wider contexts in which he operates.
The Duke became the UK Special Representative for Trade and Investment, under the aegis of the British government trade promotion body, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), in October 2001. His value to UKTI is baldly described on its website:
The Duke’s unique position gives him unrivalled access to members of royal families, heads of state, government ministers and chief executives to companies. He is able to reaffirm the importance the UK attaches to bilateral relationships at the very highest levels; to lobby on behalf of British business.
In other words, who better to schmooze Gulf royals or status-obsessed politicians and tycoons across the globe than a scion of the House of Windsor? It’s stretching a point to say his involvement confirms the importance Britain places on the bilateral relationships in question—before taking the unpaid role, the Duke was at a loose end, retired from the Navy and since the birth of his nephews William and Harry no longer the “spare” who would be called upon should anything happen to his big brother, the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales. But that’s a nuance that escapes many of the Duke’s key contacts abroad and that British business figures, intoxicated by a brush with royalty, happily overlook.
In 2004 I traveled with the Duke on his trade mission to China, the only journalist in a small retinue that did, yes, include a valet, but otherwise consisted of two advisers, three police protection officers and a representative from UKTI. In Shanghai, we entered the hotel to find the lobby festooned with a large banner, proclaiming: WELCOME TO THE DUCK OF YORK. The Duck took a beat longer to laugh than the rest of the party, but then laughed at least as heartily as the rest of us. It was a reaction I came to recognize during the days that followed. Messages sometimes take longer to reach the
DuckDuke than us ordinary folk, but that’s because the messages have further to travel. The Windsors look and sound like an upper middle class British family, but are actually benign beings from another galaxy: Planet Royal. It’s a subject I broached with the Duke in this 2006 interview. He responded: “People say to me ‘would you like to swap your life with me for 24 hours? Your life must be very strange.’ [But] it’s not strange to me.”
During the China trip, I became keenly aware of the disconnect between our worlds. Driven everywhere in convoy, he had never noticed in the rearview mirror the undignified scramble of people lower down the pecking order hurling themselves into already moving vehicles at the back of the column once the red carpet was cleared and the lead car set off. During one such dash I broke a shoe and discarded the other rather than walking lopsided into a tea ceremony with the Mayor of Beijing. Was going barefoot a fashion statement, the Duke asked me later and with genuine interest. On another occasion, Beijing students told him they feared the dilution of Chinese culture as their country increasingly engages with the west. “I shouldn’t worry,” he said. “We’ve had American TV shows in Britain for years and that hasn’t affected our culture at all.”
The description of the Duke in a cable from a U.S. diplomat based in Kyrgyzstan and leaked by Wikileaks last year, speaking “rude language a la British,” was not unfamiliar. He can be blunt and abrasive, although the instances of this I observed appeared to be interplanetary miscommunications rather than malign in intent. And another phrase in the cable, about the British businessmen at the brunch “roaring their approval,” strikes a chord of recognition. During the China trip’s action-packed schedule of meetings with officials and entrepreneurs, tours of industrial sites and mind-numbingly dull soirées, the Duke was clearly doing the business for UKTI. Deals were struck, contacts were forged. Most of the people he met responded positively to him; it was only a few toffee-nosed British government officials who rolled their eyes at their royal charge.
Yet government put the Duke into the role and government not only set the terms of that role but determined his trade targets. The Duke has broken bread with all sorts of people who might induce at least as much queasiness as Saif Gaddafi, and encouraged him to beat the drum for businesses as varied as pig farming and arms manufacture. He does so at the behest of Queen and country, in a manner entirely consistent with the sense of duty that obtains on Planet Royal. That he failed to ask how some of these trade relationships could sit with Britain’s democratic values is hardly surprising: there is a convention that actively discourages Britain’s royals from intervening in politics. Indeed Prince Charles more often than not attracts opprobrium for doing just that.
The question asked in Parliament and daily cropping up in some corners of the British press is whether the Duke is fit to be a special envoy. The real question must surely be how Britain should best reconcile ethics with economics.
And there’s another issue, thrown into sharper focus as Britain looks forward to a certain wedding. Since the Duke’s name was paired with Gaddafi’s, Britain’s tabloids have carried a series of stories about his private friendships with tarnished figures such as Jeffrey Epstein, a hedge fund magnate convicted of soliciting prostitution; The Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade argues in this piece that such friendships are “bringing the royal family into disrepute.” That assumes Britons have a clear sense of how the royal family should behave, and what it stands for. Such certainties have eroded.
So will the Duke keep his job? David Cameron told Parliament he was “not aware of the particular connections” between the royal and Saif Gaddafi but would be “very happy to look into them.” So I asked the Prime Minister’s spokesman a couple of days later where the matter stood. The Duke, said the spokesman, “is doing a very important job.”