There’s an old Jewish sketch about a guy who makes a load of money and buys a boat. Resplendent in gold braid or whatever, he says to his father: “Look, I’m a captain now!”
“By your wife, you’re a captain,” his father replies. “By me, you’re a captain. But by a captain, you’re no captain.”
This seems to be more or less where the Queen has arrived, in the preparations for the funeral of her husband. I can imagine the Windsors starting off with the best intentions, like all families. Observe the principle of grief by concentric circles: whoever has suffered the greatest loss, let them be the focus, and deprioritise outwards until you get to Princess Michael of Kent. However, again like many families, those intentions turned out to be easier said than done.
Prince Andrew wanted to wear the uniform of an admiral – wait, stay with him. This is the honorary rank to which he would have ascended upon the occasion of his 60th birthday, had the whole happy event not been kiboshed by his association with the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein.
The prince reportedly thought of his admiralty as having been deferred, pending his return to public life – rather than totally torched, like his return to public life. Fair play: who wants to wear a vice-admiral’s uniform when the fancy one with all the buckles is just around the corner?
Yet there is one thing he has failed to consider. Reminded so insistently how old he is already, by these titles that were supposed to rain down on him, I wonder if he will ever accrue the maturity to consider it. The precise kind of predatory behaviour to which the prince stood so close but will never, until he returns the FBI’s phone calls, stand formally accused of, has very few routes back to social acceptability. And none of them involve military insignia. Not even a real George Cross could sit in the scales across from a sex trafficking scandal and leave people thinking “even stevens”.
As if that situation alone weren’t enough, the strained relations between princes Harry and William were also playing themselves out in Blues and Royals. Harry, having quit royal duties, was shorn of his honorary military titles, so may have had to dress as the rank he actually ascended to – a captain – adorned only by such medals as he literally earned. I have no idea how high a captain is and will not insult you by hastily looking it up, but I know the dress code is “a suit”, so I’m guessing it’s somewhere between sous-chef and kitchen porter.
Medal-wise, Harry is hardly one of those Chilean generals you see wandering around an arms fair, pigeon-chested with regalia, but he does have more legit baubles than William, just by dint of having spent longer in active service. So you can see this from a parent’s or grandparent’s perspective: if siblings clash on average every six minutes when they’re under five and every 11 minutes until they’re 10, then when they’re pushing 40 it’s only every six months, but it’s much uglier to watch. Sometimes it’s better not to go to the ice rink than to spend the whole time fighting about who’s better.
There are fundamental contradictions about royals in military uniform – namely, that decoration and seniority in the armed forces are generally a bit more connected. You wouldn’t get to the top without a few triumphs along the way, unless of course you’d been put there as a symbolic act, like a groom placed gently on top of a cake.
But we’re all grownups, and we all understand the hierarchy of needs here: royals have to serve their country, since it’s in their name that the concept of service resides. Yet they also have to not die: not in battle, not in a training exercise, not ever. It would be beyond catastrophic for morale. They may be as brave as lions but they would never be allowed the peril to prove it, and their decoration will therefore always be theoretical.
We’ve hitherto always been able to navigate this quite well, choosing the polite course of not mentioning it. It’s the family’s own internecine divisions and shadows of scandal that are driving these awkward dress-code situations, not criticism from outside; it’s EastEnders played as a costume drama.
And so the Queen, with all the diplomatic apparatus of the state behind her, has nevertheless taken the course that any head of the family would have: nobody is allowed to wear military dress. It’s Queen-speak for: “By me you’re an admiral …”