Sunday, May 20, 2007

Prince Harry - three thoughts

While I've been away, the Ministry of Defence here in Britain has finally decided not to allow Prince Harry to go with his unit to Iraq. Harry - third in line to the throne - was due to be posted imminently with the Blues and Royals. The announcement was a complete turn-around from the impression given last month by the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt - though the general made the caveat at the time that his decision would be kept under review if the situation deteriorated.

So what can we learn from this abrupt change of heart?

1) The situation in southern Iraq has worsened. There have been reports that militants were planning to target Prince Harry specifically and evidently these are being taken seriously. The insurgency appears therefore to be strengthening, despite claims yesterday by the Prime Minister that life in Iraq is getting better.

2) The question of whether Harry would serve in either Iraq or Afghanistan has been foreseeable since the day that he joined up: its handling by the Ministry of Defence has been butter-fingered to say the least. Expectations that Harry would serve on the frontline have been raised and then dashed. The result: the British army appears to be dancing to the insurgents' tune.

3) There is a strong historical parallel (which a friend reminded me of - I can't take the credit for this one). In the First World War the then Prince of Wales, Edward (second in line to the throne and who afterwards briefly became Edward VIII) pleaded to be allowed to fight on the Western Front. This was apparently vetoed by the British general Douglas Haig, who feared that Edward would be kidnapped by the Germans and used as a pawn. Edward became a staff officer who toured the various fronts. In his biography of Edward VIII Philip Ziegler takes the view that the prince did not care for what were essentially sightseeing trips. Preparing for the visits was also a distraction for the local officials concerned. When he visited Khartoum, Edward wrote of Sir Reginald Wingate, the governor general, that "He is HRHing the whole time and never relaxes a moment."

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