Today the Royal Society elected Andrew, Duke of York, as a “Royal Fellow”. Well, to be exact. 11% of them did. The numbers, which the Society has not made public, were as follows (as fraction of the electorate, 1300 Fellows)
Yes 147 (11%)
No 24 (2%)
Blank ballot 1 (0.08%)
Failed to vote 1128 (87%)
Hardly resounding support, then.
When I heard that the Society’s Council had nominated the Duke of York, I was sufficiently outraged to write a piece along the lines below. I was thinking about breaking the rules and going public with it before the election. I’m not particularly republican, but I do think that the Royal family still have too much influence on politics (as well as pernicious social effects).
On Monday 8th April I discussed the matter with the president, Paul Nurse. He was charm itself, but he didn’t explain what the advantages to the society were, and he didn’t agree to my proposal to mail my views to all Fellows. It seems odd that fellows have no way to communicate with each other , but that is how it is. But he did agree to set up an internal web site where Fellows could discuss the nomination in private. Most of them didn’t bother, but those who did were unanimous in supporting my views, apart from three members of Council, which had nominated him. Some people think that it is better to not to air disagreements in public. I don’t agree. I think it should be known that few people voted for this move. So here is what I wrote,
A curious fellow
The Royal Society has, on the whole, some pretty bright Fellows. It’s been around for 360 years and that, no doubt, is why it also has some quaintly archaic customs. One of them is the election of “Royal Fellows”. They are described as “Members of the Society by virtue of royal blood”, though ‘royal blood’ is a curiously unscientific idea.
The Royal Society was founded in 1660, and was granted a royal charter by Charles 2nd. The Society was a manifestation of the age of enlightenment. It might be seen as a harmless eccentricity that one of the present royal fellows said that he was rather proud to have been accused of being an enemy of the enlightenment. That, of course, was the Prince of Wales (known affectionately in the blogosphere as the Quacktitioner Royal).
The Royal Society was founded to advocate the idea that observation was what mattered, not deference to authority. The exception to that seems to be deference to “royal blood”.
But I believe it is taking deference too far to elect Prince Andrew. Not believing in science is one thing. Accusations of bribery and corruption in the sales of arms to dictators are quite another. From the leak of US diplomatic cables in 2010 we know, through cables from the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, some unsavoury facts. During discussions of bribery in Kyrgyzstan and the investigation into the Al-Yamamah arms deal, the Duke “railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the “idiocy” of almost scuttling the Al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia”. He was talking about kickbacks to a senior Saudi royal had allegedly received in exchange for a huge arms contract with BAE Systems. The cable went on “He then went on to ‘these (expletive) journalists, especially from the National [sic] Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere’ and (presumably) make it harder for British businessmen to do business. The crowd practically clapped!”. There could hardly be stronger evidence that bribery to sell arms had the approval of the Duke of York. The affair was hushed up when Tony Blair’s government shut down the investigation into the affair by the Serious Fraud Office, but the head of the SFO said that the decision to stop the investigation may have damaged “the reputation of the UK as a place which is determined to stamp out corruption”. The USA was less squeamish. A judge said that BAE’s conduct involved “deception, duplicity and knowing violations of law, I think it’s fair to say, on an enormous scale”. This is what the Duke of York was so eager to hide from the eyes of “these (expletive) journalists”.
Earlier in 2010 it was discovered that the billionaire son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s President paid the Duke of York’s representatives £15m via offshore companies, for the Duke’s mansion, Sunninghill Park. That was investigated by prosecutors in Italy and Switzerland.
It doesn’t end there. In 2011 the Duke of York got yet more bad press after revelation of his close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted in Florida for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution. In July 2011, the Duke’s role as a trade representative was ended.
As recently as 2012, the Duke was criticised for his close friendship with the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who is regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt rulers in the world. By this time, Prince Andrew had He lost the support of even the most Royalist newspapers.
A record like that makes the Duke of York an unsuitable person to be a member of any club, never mind election as a fellow of the Royal Society.
There is one section of society which regards scientists as amoral automatons, willing to shut their eyes to wrongdoing if it is in their own interest to do so. I have met very few such people, but the election of Prince Andrew can only reinforce that view.
The citation sent to me by the Royal Society mentioned none of his unsavoury history. It referred only to the ‘benefits’ that election would have for the Society. What exactly these benefits are has never been explained. They seem to amount to chairing a few meetings and dinners. Many of us would prefer not to have dinner with him. The nomination was a good example of that prime scientific crime, cherry-picking the evidence.
The proposal was accompanied by a ballot form. The form had a single box, labelled “I support the election of HRH the Duke of York KG GCVO as a Royal Fellow of the Royal Society”.
That’s the sort of ballot form used for senior posts in the Royal Society. It would be popular in Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia.
Here is the ballot form that I returned [download pdf]
5 May 2013. The Sunday Times was on to this story quickly, and it was on their front page.
The story [download pdf] quotes past president Robert May, and Peter Lawrence (prof of Molecular Biology, LMB, Cambridge) who supported my views.
5 May 2013. I had the best laugh for years when I read the post by James Wilsdon who is now professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, but was previously director of science policy at the Royal Society, so he has had an inside view. His post makes mine look gentle.
“But now, Prince Andrew has been invited into the Royal Society’s ranks. And a fair number of his fellow Fellows aren’t happy. First off the blocks was David Colquhoun, UCL’s most famous pipe-smoking pharmacologist, who on Friday launched a full-frontal attack on his blog on what he called a “right Royal cock-up”. And today, the story has hit the front pages of the Sunday Times, with even the society’s former president, Bob May, reportedly “dismayed” over Andrew’s election. ”
“Controversy surrounding his role as a UK trade envoy, and his equally unsavoury association with a convicted US sex offender led to him resigning his role as “Airmiles Andy” in July 2011. Ministers and senior officials within the Foreign Office privately breathed a sigh of relief.
It was around this time that Prince Andrew started popping up more regularly at Royal Society events, offering to chair meetings and lend his support. (I was still working there at the time as director of science policy). The sensible response would have been to steer well clear, but as I witnessed at first hand, for such an incredibly clever bunch of people, elected themselves on merit (the very antithesis of hereditary royal privilege) many fellows of the Royal Society were susceptible to feudal levels of swooning at the merest flash of royal ermine. The centrepiece of its 350th anniversary celebrations in 2010 was an orgy of obsequiousness at the Festival Hall, with no fewer than seven Royals and 2000 guests in attendance to see Prince William receive his Royal Fellowship (no doubt for his outstanding services to art history, geography and steering helicopters).”
“Full credit to David Colquhoun for shining a light into one of the darker recesses of the scientific establishment. Of course, defenders of the decision will point out that this is the “Royal” Society, and a bit of old-fashioned bowing and scraping is part of its unique British charm. But there are plenty of equally prestigious institutions with a rich royal history that have modernised those networks of patronage, and aren’t spending the 21st century with their heads rammed quite so firmly up the Windsor arse. Nullius in verba, old chaps, nullius in verba…”
As we say in the blogosphere, ROFL.
The Guardian had a lot of coverage too. James Wilsdons piece appeared also in Guardian blogs: Royal society row over election of Prince Andrew as fellow. There is also a piece on the same topic by Peter Walker, “Royal Society scientists angered by Prince Andrew’s election as fellow“.
6 May 2013. There is an account in the Daily Mail by Nick Fagge. I won’t link to it because it is a shameless cut and paste job from the Sunday Times, with several mistakes added. The Mail at its worst.
The Independent asked for an op-ed column from me on Sunday. It appeared the next day. Mostly it was a shortened version of this blog, with the links removed (I wish they wouldn’t do that). But I did get in a comment that I often make in private.
“Certainly monarchs in recent times have shown little interest in science. If I wanted a tip for the winner of the 14.30 at Newmarket, I’d ask a royal. For most other questions, I wouldn’t.”
The Independent also carried a piece by Kate Morris on the same topic.
The Times had an interesting piece, by Hannah Devlin. They quote James Wilsdon
“James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at the University of Sussex and formerly head of policy at the Royal Society, described the appointment on Twitter as “needless establishment toadying”. “Plenty of institutions with a royal history that aren’t spending the 21st century with their heads lodged quite so firmly up the Windsor a***,” he tweeted yesterday.”
“Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet said that the decision to “grovel to royal patronage” was an “embarrassment for science” and “symptomatic of Britain’s corrupt honours system”.”
The Financial Times had a short report too.
The story quickly went international. Stories appeared in the Gulf Times, the Economic Times, the Statesman (India), the Kashmir Times, the Indian Express
USA News Online reproduced both the Guardian article and James Wilsdon’s feisty piece in the Guardian.
7 May 2013
There is a report today in Paris Match “Andrew trop Royal pour la Royal Society”
8 May 2013.
Alice Thomson writes in the Times “One more reform for the Queen: her family. She needs to streamline ‘the Firm’, especially when the Royal Society treats a minor royal with absurd deference”.
Here are a few quotations.
“Yet the Fellows (or rather 11 per cent of these illustrious academics) have elected the grand young Duke of York to their number, a man who may have many hidden talents but who paddles at the shallower end of the intellectual pool.”
“it seems extraordinary that they have elected a minor member of the Royal Family who once piloted helicopters and knows more about golf than genomes.
The RS is obviously royal as well as a society but they already have Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal and Prince William. Any more and they will start looking like the Sandringham Christmas shoot. They stopped electing prime ministers after Margaret Thatcher but seem incapable of excluding the fourth in line to the throne.
This makes the Fellows appear antiquated and obsequious; but the bigger problem is what to do with these minor Royals.”
“But his tenure as special trade envoy has not been a success. He managed to turn the fairytale of the Princess and the Pea into the nightmare of the Prince and the Paedophile when he befriended the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. ”
“No 10 increasingly don’t know what to do with him. “No one knows whether to bow, shake his hand or quietly slip out of the room when he arrives,” says one minister. The Queen tried to make amends by bestowing on him the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, which allows him to wear a red, white and blue sash. ”
“The Royal Society was set up as a manifestation of the age of enlightenment. Nearly 360 years later, we should be enlightened enough to enjoy our constitutional monarchy — but we should not be bowing and scraping to the minor players in the Royal Family. They should have retired from the national stage long ago.”
This all seems very sensible to me. Incidentally, Alice Thomson is great-granddaughter of the famous physicist, J. J. Thomson, who was president of the Royal Society from 1915 to 1920.
10 May 2013 The affair has even reached Have I Got News for You. Here is the clip.
The Daily Mirror also weighed in, in fine tabloid style
The Royal Society, Britain’s top scientists’ club, has elected Prince Andrew a member.
Why? Nobody would ever accuse the Duke of York of being an intellectual. He’s as dim as a Toc H lamp.
The ballot paper permitted only a “Yes” vote, and 90% of members declined to back him.
A right royal farce. Only really clever people could make such common fools of themselves.
The nation’s best brains should stop tugging their forelock and drop “royal” from their title.
The royals don’t know a hypotenuse from a hyphen. Why not just call it The Science Society?
An interview on Voice of Russia Listen here