Britain has had royal, political and policing scandals before, but never all three at once

Show caption ‘Prince Andrew is paying a large sum to a woman he claims never to have met rather than face interrogation about her accusations of sexual assault.’ Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images Opinion Britain has had royal, political and policing scandals before, but never all three at once Andrew Rawnsley Low-quality leadership, a lack of accountability and a culture of impunity are at the root of the decay of our key institutions Sun 20 Feb 2022 08.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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Fit for a prince. “By royal appointment” has traditionally been a recommendation of provenance, quality and trustworthiness. A royal handle today serves as a warning of potential ignominy. As Oscar Wilde didn’t quite write, for one prince to be embroiled in scandal may be regarded as a misfortune, two looks like a pattern. Buckingham Palace must be fervently hoping that no one has anything on Prince Edward.

Prince Andrew is paying a large sum to a woman he claims never to have met rather than face interrogation about her accusations of sexual assault before a jury in New York. Prince Charles denies knowing anything about cash for honours, but says he will help the police with their inquiries into whether a Saudi billionaire’s payments to royal charities bought the donor a gong.

At times like these, when questions swirl around the conduct of two of the Queen’s sons, it would be usual for the monarch to seek succour from her prime minister. But Boris Johnson is not the go-to person for advice on how to avoid disgrace. Some members of Her Majesty’s government are even taking secret pleasure in the travails of the crown. It would suit Downing Street if the bad odours around the House of Windsor distracted public attention from the great stink generated by Number 10.

Britain is not unfamiliar with scandals of political and royal varieties, but this combination goes to the apex of the state in a way without precedent. We have the prime minister and the heir to the throne involved in investigations by the Metropolitan police, itself so poisoned with scandal that Dame Cressida Dick has been forced to quit as commissioner of the Met. This is happening at a time when the reputations of many other estates of the realm are severely corroded. Rarely a month, or a week, passes without one institution or another being put in the dock for incompetence, misconduct, cronyism or corruption. Faith in MPs has not recovered from the expenses outrages that were exposed in 2009 and it was not long ago that parliament was rocked by inquiries and resignations over sexual harassment and bullying. The House of Lords is tainted every time the bloated ranks of unelected peers are further swollen by the introduction of more party donors and muckers of the prime minister, a sleazy game that did not start with Mr Johnson, but one that he has played with characteristic brazenness.

The bankers have never restored the trust they lost when their avaricious recklessness led to the financial crash. This year’s bumper bonus season will do nothing to endear them to those feeling the squeeze on living standards. The deaths caused by the Grenfell Tower inferno, and the legacy of misery inflicted on the tens of thousands of people trapped in unsafe and unsellable flats, have made pariahs of the construction industry.

The House of Lords is further tainted every time the bloated ranks of unelected peers are further swollen by the introduction of more party donors

The reputation of the army has been diminished by defeats on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq along with bullying and sexual assault cases. The established church has expressed its “shame” over its failures to deal with sexual predators in dog collars. The pandemic has not seen the civil service purr like a Rolls Royce, but backfire like an old banger. The prime minister’s principal private secretary sent the invites to the notorious “bring your own booze party” in the garden of Number 10 and the hapless cabinet secretary had to recuse himself from leading an inquiry into lockdown-busting in Downing Street when it was revealed that his own office had hosted a quiz.

Journalists cannot be holier than thou, because the media has also debased itself. The tabloid press was disgraced by phone-hacking. The BBC has often been on the rack, most recently over the Martin Bashir business. Not just one or two of our once-venerated institutions are in trouble. The credibility and moral authority of the entire structure of public life is shuddering.

These multiple crises in multiple institutions have features in common. One overarching theme is a paucity of high-calibre personnel. Where are the leaders with the quality and strength of character to infuse the organisations they head with decent values? The Johnson government was guaranteed to be engulfed in opprobrium from the moment that Tory MPs decided to give the premiership to an amoral man. The Queen commands huge public respect, but she is notoriously reluctant to confront issues within her family. It took a long time and intense pressure before Prince Andrew was stripped of his military titles and royal patronages. Three of the past four Met commissioners have been forced to quit. I struggle to decide whether leading London’s constabulary is too much for any one person or if the police are incapable of producing anyone with the smarts and grip to drive reform.

Where are the leaders with the quality and strength of character to infuse the organisations they head with decent values?

Other shared characteristics of dysfunctional institutions are hostility to legitimate criticism, an unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and a resistance to being held accountable. All these were factors in the Post Office scandal. Hundreds of postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and embezzlement based on faulty evidence from a computer system known to be unreliable. Ruination was brought down on the reputations, livelihoods and families of wholly innocent people. Some were imprisoned, many were heavily fined, a lot were made bankrupt. The largest miscarriage of justice in recent British history, it is absolutely despicable. Yet none of the Post Office’s leadership at the time has been held to account. Nor has anyone from Fujitsu, the company to blame for the faulty software. Nor have any of the civil servants or politicians with supervisory responsibilities. More than 20 years since the first false prosecutions, a public inquiry is finally underway, but it is too late for many of the victims, at least four of whom are believed to have taken their own lives.

The political scientist David Runciman identified another pathology of sickly institutions when he wrote that degeneration is often sourced in “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don’t apply to them.” He wrote that eight years ago and it rings even truer today.

The princes were cocooned in plush pockets of privilege from the moment they were born. The prime minister has made a career of behaving as if normal rules don’t apply to him. It is dangerous when institutions are populated with entitled characters who believe they are superior to other citizens. Unchecked, this will inevitably lead to reprehensible conduct. The abuse of power reached a murderous level in the case of Wayne Couzens, the Met officer who abducted and killed Sarah Everard. The fall of Dame Cressida was in part impelled by the publication of a searing report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct into misogyny, racism and other bigotries within the force. It revealed messages between officers in which one bragged about hitting his girlfriend, another told a female colleague he would “happily rape you”, jokes were made about killing black children and abuse was directed at Muslims and disabled people. In other walks of life, behaviour so disgusting would be career-ruining. Yet nine of the officers investigated kept their jobs and two were promoted.

From bad coppers to the delinquent at Number 10, from the lords of finance to the construction barons, from princes to dodgy parliamentarians, a culture of impunity is often at the root of institutional putrefaction. Left untreated, rot spreads. When wrongdoing by reprobate politicians goes unpunished, rogue police officers are emboldened to think that they can also get away with anything.

Once upon a time, Britons would have been astonished and appalled to find scandal simultaneously bespoiling their royal family, prime minister and largest police force. We are less shockable now. There’s a good reason, which is that there is much less naive reverence for institutions than there was in the past. There’s also a bad reason for our diminished capacity to be scandalised by scandal. We have become wearily accustomed to seeing the public trust betrayed. Where once jaws would have dropped, grotesque misconduct in public life often provokes no more than a fleeting furore or a resigned shrug. That makes us part of the problem, too. When we expect to be let down, we settle for further decay. The British won’t get better service from their institutions until they start demanding it and so insistently that they can’t be ignored.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer