We should feel for feckless Fergie

The Duchess of York is back in the news and back in trouble. Despite the humiliation of the cash-for

For those of you who have not had the time or inclination to catch up, Sarah Ferguson was filmed by the News of the World on 18 May offering a fake businessman access to Prince Andrew, who is a UK "trade envoy", for half a million quid. Oh Sarah, Sarah, the first rule of public life: don't trust Arab businessmen who wine you and offer you cash for indiscretions! In a hotel room! Where cameras can be hidden! Didn't the royal family teach you anything?

Didn't the royal family give you anything? For somebody who married royalty, Ferguson has been strangely socially immobile. She never quite looked the royal part, and now, if her extraordinary account of her finances is to be believed, she is living in a friend's house, off an income of £15,000 a year - a financial position that places her, according to the excellent report by the National Equality Panel in January this year, in the wealth category of an unemployed 16-to-24-year-old. Admittedly, the "friend" is the Duke of York, and her income some type of divorce payment rather than a benefits cheque, but in financial terms, the two are on a par. Except for that access.

The film is toe-curlingly awful, from the moment the duchess's eyes blink in excitement when $40,000 in cash is placed in front of her
to her admissions about her own financial circumstances - "I absolutely have not a pot to piss in" - and the naivety of the faux-businesslike conversation:

Sarah: And he [Andrew] says, "Let's play, we'll play" - as long as it's nothing to do with him . . . But you will be his friend. I will listen to the friendship talk between you two. And then I do it.
Reporter: OK.
Sarah: You two talk.
Reporter: Right.
Sarah: I listen.
Reporter: OK.
Sarah: Then I activate . . .

Starved out

This is not a monster, it's a child. And it's a child the royal family should have done more to protect. Instead, in 1996, they turfed her out with an income of £15,000 a year and permission to stay on in the matrimonial home. This is the mother of two children who are expected to be raised as princesses - just how did they expect her to do that on £15,000 a year? So the Duchess of York has been living off her children's trust funds: "My children pay for me." How humiliating, how awful. Presumably, now that the children have grown up, she doesn't officially have any entitlement to a safe place to live. Because Sarah Ferguson did what so many emotionally beaten-up, unequal, frightened wives do: she didn't play hard enough on the divorce.

Unlike Diana, who reportedly forced Prince Charles to sell his things and borrow from the Queen to meet her £17m divorce settlement, Sarah walked off with nothing because she wanted to remain on civil terms with the royal family. Well, not quite nothing: she walked off with two children she had to raise under the scrutiny of the world, amid the hostility of the media and most of the public, and with that royal tag hanging around her neck. Don't tell me she could have walked away from it; her children are fifth and sixth in line to the throne.

“I'm a complete aristocrat. Love that, don't you? I love it. It's tremendously fabulous." No, it's not, Sarah. It's awful. And they abused you. Even Andrew - especially Andrew, your "best friend" - left you with nothing, failing to ensure you gained even independence from "the firm". Lawyers call it "starving her out": the use by the man of unfair financial advantage at a time when a mother is under great stress, worrying about where her children will live, feeling her whole security and emotional worth under threat, and without a penny to her name, to get her to sign a divorce settlement that fails to leave her with adequate financial support.

He has the money, the connections, the expensive lawyers - she has the kids to look after and no stomach for a fight, nor the funds for good legal advice. How much worse would all those factors be if you were divorcing royalty, in the eye of a media storm, with two small heirs to the throne vulnerable in the middle? As she told the News of the World: "The Queen of England sent lawyers in to divorce me from Andrew . . ." Sarah was starved out.

Sting in the tale

So she has been left wheeling and dealing. Apart from the contract with Weight Watchers, there has been some PR, an introduction here or there, a word in the right ear - exactly, in other words, how business and politics operate, all the time. And the media, too, incidentally. Fleet Street is full of favours for access; bear that in mind when you consider the News of the World "sting". Whitehall hums with revolving doors through which the terribly talented offspring of journalists and political scions swap CVs and work experience.

Using family connections to gain financial advantage - whether it is £500,000 upfront or a lifetime of high salaries and good jobs - is different only in degree, not in kind. The pecuniary advantage might not be as immediate, but nobody would seriously deny that it exists.

Women who marry into the royal family have a tough time with money because they don't have anything in their own right, and when they try to earn it, there's always a problem. (Prime ministers' wives find themselves in a similar situation.) It's an appalling position for a modern woman to find herself in.

The Duchess of York is clearly profligate and could do with some financial training, but this was private money from some idiot businessman that she was playing with, and if such businessmen do exist, prepared to pay half a million quid to meet the Duke of York, should we care? I don't.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil