Fergie on the outside looking in

Sarah Ferguson’s cash grab cost her an invite to the wedding. Still, she serves a higher purpose.

She’s not invited to The Wedding. Her daughters are coming, and her ex-husband, of course. But then, he’s the second son of Queen Elizabeth II and uncle of the groom. There’s no justice in this world. If there was, they would make “Fergie” a saint for helping in her own unique way to sustain the monarchy by setting standards its members can never live down to. This is not a joke. Well, not completely and certainly not in the case of the Sarah, the divorced duchess of York.

The lack of an invitation is not just a little bit of extra salt to add to her already festering psychic wounds. Her most recent caper guaranteed the no-show. Filmed in a sting operation set up by the wicked News of the World, she was caught accepting a pile of loot in return for access to Prince Andrew. Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars to hobnob with the dullest blade in the family should have set off alarm bells, but so desperate for money was the poor woman that not much was penetrating. It may be why we love her, or why we love to hate her. At the level of public ownership for people like pathetic, beleaguered Sarah Ferguson, the two emotions are weirdly similar.

In an equally strange way, though, we will be with her on wedding day: outside looking in. Unlike her, we can be grateful not to have been burned by proximity to the royal hearth. It’s a lesson for anyone joining the royal family. It’s a lesson for Catherine Middleton and her family as they move into a ferocious limelight: play by the rules or end up like Fergie.

The duchess is the most successful royal scarecrow in years. That’s “scarecrow” as warning. Throughout most reigns, there’s been a royal scarecrow to divert attention away from the sovereign and toward gossip, scandal and—above all—inappropriateness. Sarah is simply the latest to serve herself up to the cause, but she may prove to be the best.

So it was for Princess Michael of Kent till Fergie came along, or Princess Margaret till Princess Michael came. So it’s going to be for Prince Harry. The script is unfolding even as the royal wedding approaches and Harry struts his stuff as best man. The people who inhabit the close margins of royalty, unless they are very quiet and lead almost monastic lives, are sitting ducks. Money is often at the root. There’s never enough. Proximity to the throne brings an expensive lifestyle and the system of hereditary primogeniture ensures that within two generations even the family of a sibling of a reigning monarch will dwindle into diminished status, often with increased feelings of needing to belong coupled with dwindling bank accounts. This is all fodder for the Rupert Murdoch gutter press.

What is generally not recognized, however, is how useful a scarecrow is. I first encountered this some years ago as a foreign correspondent in London. The heir to the vast estate and fortune of the duke of Marlborough was a sad drug addict with a great propensity for front-page headlines and a noble title to adorn it: “Marquis of Blandford jailed again” trumpeted the Daily Telegraph once, allowing worried fathers and mothers everywhere in the Queen’s realms a chance to tut-tut and point out to their children the tawdry rewards of dissolution and drugs. As a lesson in what-not-to-be, he was worth his weight in gold braid and ermine.

In Canada, where we leave it to ex-prime ministers to walk off with curiously obtained cash, we are spared the problems of the lesser members of the royal family. Officially, Canada’s royal family consists of precisely four people: the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Prince William. The rest of the family firm have connections to various Canadian institutions, but Canada has been able to transform the British monarchy into the Canadian “Crown” and it’s about the niftiest constitutional trick we have ever pulled off: monarchy lite, the Crown Convenient.

We make room in our lives for Fergie’s scarecrow status and turmoil for many reasons, most of them unworthy. But there’s a positive aspect, because she reinforces the contrast to the Queen’s own sense of public duty: unswerving, unsullied and unmatched in her own long lifetime, which began in 1926 when, as her former nanny Miss Crawford noted, she lost the only privacy she ever enjoyed—inside her mother’s womb.

John Fraser’s new book, The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Fling with Royalty, will be published in 2012 by Anansi Press

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.