Duke of moral hazards

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is unimpressed by some of the Windsor clan

June 3, 2010

"You get a lot of bang for your book," according to a University of Nevada professor of sociology and resource economics who led research into the impact of books in the home. "Having as few as 20 books", Mariah Evans is quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph, "has a significant impact ... and the more books you add, the greater the benefit."

Intuitively, the conclusion sounds right. It tallies with academics' experiences as well as their prejudices. Most of the counter-examples that will occur to readers of Times Higher Education concern students who have managed to transcend homes indifferent or hostile to "book learning".

Early exposure to intellectual and aesthetic values improves a child's chances of accessing higher education and material rewards. It also enhances life. If you think more and admire more and appreciate more and understand more, then you enjoy more. Ignorance confers, at best, bovine contentment. Learning opens up the prospect of happiness.

But imagine a family with incomparable advantages, with one of the world's greatest private libraries at its disposal and with homes full of paintings, sculptures and craftsmanship that represent the greatest achievements of the Western tradition - along with a goodly sprinkling of outstanding works acquired from many other cultures.

Imagine that members of such a household have privileged access to the best in music, theatre and film, and the freedom and resources to travel wherever they like and to see, if they wish, the art and learning of the entire world.

Suppose that the family concerned is so revered and prestigious that its members can meet whomever they wish, and that almost every man or woman of talent or achievement in learning, thought, creativity or performance would accept an invitation to talk to them.

Suppose finally that the children of such a family have the benefit of the most expensive and protracted form of education ever devised, with teachers who spare no pains or costs to share with them the fruits of the world's most accomplished and enlightened minds.

The outcome, if the British Royal Family is a reliable example, could be a boorish, meretricious, dim-witted and morally shifty brood.

The intellectual and moral shortcomings of the royals are a hard subject for the British media to broach, because a sort of divinity still hedges the Queen, whom common decency usually exempts from criticism on the grounds that she is constitutionally debarred from the right of reply - although in practice, "the Palace" is always there to brief on her behalf.

Despite the Windsors' follies and excesses, they have not yet succeeded in alienating public sentiment. Any writer who infringes the taboo that protects them, along with any organ brave enough to publish a critique, risks a backlash from readers. But the time has come to say openly that some members of the Royal Family are a reproach to themselves, a disgrace to their educational advantages, and a waste of the costs and confidence of the British people.

The Duke of York, in particular, provokes me to this denunciation. Two current stories in the press have made readers despair of his worthiness or usefulness as an ornament or representative of the realm.

First, socialite Goga Ashkenazi appeared in the pages of Hello! magazine, boasting of her friendship with him, exhibiting rather too much trashy glamour and pouting at recollections of the deal in which one of her former lovers bought the Duke's sometime marital home reportedly at £3 million above its market value.

In abandoning the showy, shapeless house and leaving it empty, the tycoon who bought it evinced better taste than the vendor: only someone intellectually shallow and aesthetically myopic could inhabit it.

In the second story, the Duchess of York was caught on tape trying to sell introductions to the Duke, who is Britain's "roving ambassador for trade". There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on his part, but the two stories make him look stupid in selecting his friends.

If Prince Andrew has never displayed any of the cerebral effects his educational advantages might have conferred, his brothers deserve commendation for their intellectual and artistic aspirations. Members of the younger generation of the family, however, seem utterly unpenetrated by the influence of expensive schooling.

Their variously modest and miserable examination performances - which in Prince Harry's case would have disgraced deprived victims of social disadvantage - have been the prelude to lives of depressing narrowness.

In selecting company, the royal twentysomethings prefer celebrity to merit. Their idea of a good time is a noisy, sweaty night in a slickly, sickeningly glitzy dive. Their behaviour - on occasions causing taxpayers' money to be wasted on jaunts for their own pleasure, sometimes without even being able to disguise it with a flimsy pretence of public service - can be sensible only if part of a strategy to outrage the people and unburden the princes from tedious futures as heads of state.

In Europe, Britain is notorious for mistrusting the power of intellect and confiding in unchallenging idiocy. But two questions arise. How long will the British go on indulging their defiantly dim royals? And can the research at Nevada be right in seeing an intellectually well-stocked home as a guarantee of educational excellence?

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