Prince Harry’s recent interview in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province shows he has to learn to guard his tongue, to speak more like royalty and less like an Army officer
”Grief is the price we pay for love,” the Queen said in her message to New Yorkers after the 9/11 attacks. Next time she chats to her grandson, she might add: “Discretion is the price we pay for privilege.”
Never in her 86 years has the Queen been a fraction as indiscreet as Prince Harry was in his interview to mark the end of his tour of duty in Helmand Province this week.
Much of his charm comes from his open, laddish approach to life – it was striking that, after his exploits in Las Vegas last year, hundreds of soldiers rushed to support him, emulating his naked pose. And he himself admits in the interview that he isn’t the brightest soldier, dreading his written military tests just as he hated school exams.
But this time, in his cavalier approach to killing the enemy, the take-me-as-you-find-me attitude has let him down. “Take a life to save a life,” he said, before making an unfortunate comparison between his skill as an Apache helicopter gunner and his talent for computer games: “It’s a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think that I’m probably quite useful.”
The unfair thing for the Prince is that his remarks wouldn’t be unusual or outrageous in the mouth of one normal soldier talking to another. Whenever I’ve met young soldiers, they are always itching to get to the front line. And, among themselves, they talk openly – often in a jokey, slangy way – about combat. Who are we, back home in comfort and safety, to criticise them for their gallows humour and bravado?
Of course soldiers kill people – and that’s what we expect them to do. I’d have thought Army recruiting officers will even be secretly delighted at the thrills and spills of military life as revealed by Prince Harry, as he rushed to his helicopter, hand on pistol, sunglasses in position. It’s a lot more glamorous than manning a guard post in Catterick on a wet Saturday afternoon.
But, once the TV cameras turn up, it’s time to stop the officers’ mess banter, and draw a veil over the bloody facts of military life. Prince Harry is not good at drawing veils over things, even if he is intensely admirable for putting his life at risk in the service of his country, and his grandmother. How many other members of the gilded, super-rich Boujis set are living in deep discomfort in the Afghanistan desert, with an empty ammunition box for a bedside table, scrambled at any moment to confront enemy fire – as Prince Harry was in the middle of his interview?
But, still, he isn’t like other soldiers, much as he’d like to be. He acknowledged as much in the interview, when he turned to his behaviour in Las Vegas. “It was probably a classic example of me probably being too much Army, and not enough Prince,” he said.
Whether he likes it or not, Prince Harry has to play that official prince role, and accept the compromises that go with it. However much he would prefer to live a normal life, to go out on dangerous foot patrols as one of the guys and not to be gawped at in the mess, that just isn’t going to happen.
The privilege and position of royalty – even if you are in the hazy, grey zone as the spare, not the heir; a role clumsily handled by both Princess Margaret and Prince Andrew – require compromises. Prince Harry’s grandmother understands that implicitly, and has never put a foot wrong. His father may occasionally chafe at the restrictions, but he essentially accepts the obligations of royal blood – and he is constantly reminding his younger son of them, as Prince Harry revealed in the interview.
Royal service isn’t a pick and mix game. You can’t just pull out the plums – the money, the girls, the servants, the palaces, the private jets. You have to do the dreary bits, too. And the biggest royal compromise of all is the need to keep your controversial views to yourself. Prince Charles hasn’t always understood this, either. A few years ago, he asked Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, for advice on how he should behave.
Sir Peregrine told him never to give interviews – following his mother’s example – never to say anything outspoken, and just to stick to his royal duties. Prince Charles buried his head in his hands in despair at the suggestion. But Sir Peregrine was right – and Prince Harry would do well to follow his advice, too, and button his lip, particularly when it comes to his hatred of the press.
After the way his mother was hounded to her death by the paparazzi, that hatred is understandable. But his position demands that he should edit out those thoughts when he is on public display. He conspicuously failed to do so in this latest interview.
Of course we know that he only gave such a long interview as part of one of those familiar deals where the Royal family are left alone for a bit, in return for a little up-close access. But he only sounded churlish by saying that explicitly in the interview.
Again and again, he went back to the bad behaviour of the press, both towards the Duchess of Cambridge and towards him over the Las Vegas story. He admitted that he let himself and his family down then, but quickly followed up by saying he was in a private area and so could expect a certain amount of privacy. In an ideal world, that is true – but, as he acknowledged, when everyone around him has a phone, and every phone has a camera, that is an unrealistic expectation.
Prince Harry’s late mother fostered an emotional, let-it-all-hang-out approach in her sons; in her younger son, particularly. The Duke of Cambridge is more guarded and diplomatic in his interviews, although, sources say, he shares his brother’s dislike of the press.
That openness has tremendous benefits and explains much of Harry’s Prince Hal, Jack-the-lad appeal. Throughout much of the interview, he showed a winning lack of stuffiness, talking openly about his helicopter’s “travel johns” – portable loos – and his inability to make a bed.
When he put on a Santa hat, complete with pigtails, for Christmas celebrations, there was no feeling of him condescending, of larking along with his comrades to assume the mantle of normality for a moment. Harry is a natural Army officer through and through, not a VIP doing an imitation of one, and you can see how frustrating it is for him not to live the natural officer life.
He is still young – only 28 – and the roistering Prince Hal days can, in theory, go on for ever: succession disasters notwithstanding, he will never become King Henry IX. But it’ll soon be time to put away childish things. What now looks like hot blood and instinctive reactions will be petulant oafishness in 10 years’ time.
To maintain his popularity, and a proper role, the loose-tongued Spencer emotion will, sometimes, have to give way to the stiff Windsor upper lip.