Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and fifth in line to the British throne, has hit the headlines again, this time at the center of a scandal involving U.S. financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
A 30-year-old American woman, Virginia Roberts, has accused Epstein of forcing her to have sex with the prince on three occasions, including once in 2001 when she was under the age of consent. The claim was made as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed by two female plaintiffs who say they were sexually exploited by Epstein over a number of years.
Buckingham Palace dismisses the allegation as “categorically untrue” and insists that Andrew is innocent of any “impropriety.”
However, media coverage of the scandal has sparked a national debate about the suitability of Andrew for public life — and shone an unflattering light not only on Britain’s monarchy but also on the workings of the country’s political and social elites. In particular, their willingness to arm and finance foreign dictatorships has raised questions about how seriously they take Britain’s professed commitment to liberal values.
In 2011, after years of negative media attention, the prince resigned from his position as a special representative for U.K. trade and investment — a member of the royal family formally tasked with promoting British business interests overseas. In that capacity, he helped facilitate arms deals between British companies and governments that frequently violate human rights.
Over the course of three trips to the Middle East in 2009 and 2010, for example, Andrew secured the sale of $240,000 worth of ammunition and body armor to the Yemeni government, which went on to use lethal force against pro-democracy demonstrators in a series of brutal crackdowns. During that period, he developed close links to Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who stands accused by civil liberties groups of rigging elections and harassing journalists.
Supporters of the prince claim his royal status gave British firms an advantage in international trade negotiations, with one palace spokesman quoted in the U.K. press as saying, “We don’t send him to developed countries like France and Sweden, where a member of the royal family would not make a difference, but in developing countries or the Far East, a prince can get in because of who he is.”
But critics argue that his efforts have given aid and comfort to some of the world’s worst dictatorships.
“The prince has consistently used his position to promote arms sales and boost some of the most unpleasant governments in the world,” said Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT). “His arms sales haven’t just given military support to corrupt and repressive regimes. They’ve lent those regimes political and international legitimacy.”
Despite the criticisms they have prompted, Andrew’s actions are consistent with the British arms industry’s approach to fighting for global market share. The U.K. is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, selling billions of dollars’ worth of war materiel every year to states such as China and Saudi Arabia.
During last year’s Gaza conflict, CAAT threatened to take the British government to court over the export of military hardware to Israel. In 2009 then–Foreign Secretary David Miliband confirmed that equipment manufactured in Britain was “almost certainly” used by the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead in Gaza.
Andrew and the arms industry on whose behalf he has lobbied foreign potentates are hardly alone as a representative of the British elite’s behaving in ways that undermine Britain's liberal credentials.
Tony Blair, who, while serving as prime minister from 1997 and 2007, argued that the West had an obligation to take action — military, if necessary — against states that oppress their citizens, also appears to have grown comfortable dealing with foreign strongmen.
It emerged last year that Blair was paid millions of dollars to advise Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan.
In a letter dated July 2012, Blair advised Nazarbayev on how to respond to Western media questions about the slaughter in December 2011 of 14 protesters by Kazakh police. “I think it best to meet head on the Zhanaozen issue,” Blair wrote. “The fact is you have made changes following it, but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”
Blair has cultivated extensive links to Saudi Arabia. Two months ago, it was revealed that Blair's consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, in 2010 arranged multimillion-dollar oil deals between PetroSaudi, an oil and gas company founded by a senior member of the Saudi royal family, and Chinese state officials in exchange for $60,000 per month and a 2 percent commission on future transactions.
The contract, leaked to The London Sunday Times, read, “Each party will ensure that no announcements, statements or documentation containing any reference to either party or to Tony Blair will be published or made without the prior express written consent of the other party.”
The PetroSaudi deal is typical of Blair's lucrative post–prime ministerial career. His international business network reportedly enjoyed a bumper year in 2013.
Britain’s monarchy, of course, is in no way answerable to the country’s democratically elected institutions, but Blair’s parlaying his erstwhile role as prime minister accountable to Parliament into that of a freewheeling global influence peddler has raised questions about the behavior of the country’s elites more generally.
The British public may disapprove of Andrew actions, but there is very little that can be done to rein them in. And the same is true today for Blair — regardless of the consequences of their behavior for Britain’s international reputation.