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The maverick prince should sound off more, not less

Simon Jenkins

The Prince of Wales suffers from epistolary incontinence. The condition is familiar to politicians and newsmen and should be a cause for understanding, not criticism. It does not threaten the monarchy or ministerial responsibility or the British constitution. Yet for some reason it reduces the political establishment to hysterics.
Whenever the prince has one of his attacks he is warned, like his namesake in Verdi’s Don Carlos, to “beware the Grand Inquisitor”, that is the press as proxy for public opinion. The prince is told to remember his place. His place is to wait in silence.

Hence the ton of bricks that fell on Prince Charles’s head during last week’s trial, in which he is suing The Mail on Sunday for breach of confidentiality in publishing his leaked diaries. The suit is grotesquely ill-advised. It ensured the global dissemination of otherwise transient tittle-tattle. It also offended not one principle of litigation but two. Never sue unless you are sure to win and never sue anyway, as it always ends in tears.

From the evidence submitted by the prince’s former aide, Mark Bolland, the diaries appear to have been widely and chaotically distributed to as many as 40 people. While the prince is surely entitled to claim privacy for strictly personal papers, he can hardly claim it for an entertaining and opinionated journal circulated to friends and acquaintances. According to Bolland, he even discussed publishing it in book form. The prince cannot have it both ways.

This is a pity because of the two ways the path of publicity is the easiest to defend. The prince is known to want to contribute to public debate. He writes letters to ministers underlined in red ink on matters as various as upland farm subsidies, Tibet, the compensation culture, care homes, architecture, alternative medicine and GM crops. He defends hunting. He claims farmers are treated “worse than ethnic minorities”. He attacks the lord chancellor’s craving for litigation. He savages Alistair Darling’s crude bid to drive care homes out of business.

This is all excellent stuff that has nothing to do with the monarch or her office. The prince is not in need of care and protection as a minor or lunatic. He issues no commands under royal seal and keeps the regimental regalia under lock and key. The fair hills of Gloucestershire are not rife with the rhetoric of revolt.

Leftwingers who protest at an unelected landowner expressing his views to ministers are granting modern royalty a significance way beyond its merits. As for the prince being unelected, what about Blair’s Blackadder court of cronies, placemen, consultants of the privy purse and ermined ladies of the bedchamber? The prince was said in evidence to regard himself as a “dissident”. The description is so redolent of history as to be a constitutional precedent in itself. Under the Hanoverians the heir to the throne supported opposition to his father’s government almost as a matter of course. The future Edward VII was a pain in the neck to Queen Victoria. He sat in the Lords and served on royal commissions on such contentious subjects as “housing and the working class” and “the aged poor”.

The future Edward VIII took up the cause of the unemployed and ex-servicemen so ardently that Lloyd George warned him: “If you are one day to be a constitutional monarch, you must first be a constitutional Prince of Wales.” The remark has been awarded great significance by historians, but it was just Lloyd George irritated at a popular figure upstaging his own radicalism. A measure of the emptiness of that remark was that the prince was toppled as king in 1936 not for his politics but for his love life. As his great-nephew has found, that tends to rank higher in the public interest.

Prince Charles’s most recent outing into controversy comes from the disclosure in court of his account of the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. I was present at this ceremony and in the celebrated charter jet and can attest that the prince’s caustic recollections are if anything understated.

Everyone in that plane wondered who on earth allocated the seats. The placement at the gargantuan “banquet of a thousand” was equally eccentric, with Rupert Murdoch put at a lowly reporters’ table. The prince’s description of the Chinese leaders as “appalling old waxworks” was accurate reporting. As for his having to stand uncovered in a thunderstorm and read a fast decomposing speech, his reflection on “the things I do for England” was fair comment. It is only a shame it has waited nine years for publication.

Ministers are said to resent having to spend time responding to the prince’s “red ink” missives. They find themselves having to meet him, brief him and listen to his earnest complaints. The poor dears can always say they are too busy. The prince cannot send them to the Tower. I suspect they are secretly flattered at getting more attention from St James’s Palace than from Downing Street. It is odd how they happily dance attendance on unelected newspaper editors, television interviewers and City tycoons.

The prince has not trespassed on the one domain that might indeed jeopardise his standing, party politics. There was a brief wobble in 1981-82 when he fell in love with the Social Democratic party. I vaguely recall his saying, when challenged on this enthusiasm, that it was not really a party, more a sort of club. But he stayed on the rails. He later resisted a mischievous suggestion in 2002 that he run for Tory leader as the post was no longer party-political and everyone was doing it.

Such monarchy pundits as Vernon Bogdanor claim that an expression of opinion by the heir to the throne “reflects on the political neutrality of the sovereign”. But who says? Whatever is on the notepaper, Her Majesty’s government answers to parliament not Buckingham Palace, let alone St James’s.

The royal family could demand that the earth be flat and the school curriculum be led by intelligent design and it would make no difference to government policy. To claim that constitutional monarchy is threatened by the prince’s views on medicine, botany, architecture or Buddhism is palpably absurd.

The monarchy is an abstraction, a totem, a figurehead. So long as its current custodian turns up on parade, his or her personal opinions are of no political account. Those of the monarch’s children are even less so.

The prince is not the king and may not be so for a long time. He has no power at all. Given his mother’s refusal to retire, he is condemned to spend his mature years in waiting mode. That is the system, but there is no reason why it should deny him the liberty to express his views in public. It “reflects on” the neutrality of the monarch only in the judgment of fastidious commentators.

The Queen is perfectly capable of guarding her neutrality unaided. If the prince appears to compromise his own neutrality in advance of ascending the throne I am sure democracy. the Commonwealth and the world will cope.

Prince Charles is essentially a celebrity. My complaint is that he does not use that celebrity even more vigorously to bang the drum for causes in which he believes. Political debate in Britain is conducted too much within the stifling world of Westminster and the metropolitan media. Anything that blows freshness into that world is welcome. In the era of the blogosphere, opinion is hardly a union closed shop.

There is no end to the topics on which the prince might chide and embarrass people, groups, institutions, even governments at home and abroad. Why should we not know his view on British soldiers in Afghanistan, on John Prescott’s love of concrete, on the European constitution, on faith schools and foundation hospitals? Who is he going to frighten that he must be censored? The British constitution is the most flexible in the world. It is whatever politics chooses to make it at any moment in time. It is robust enough to tolerate a maverick prince and if he discomfits a few ministers, so much the better. Ministers answer to parliament, not to him, and are powerful enough already.

All the prince can do is add another voice to public debate. To the constitution that voice is an echo in the antechamber of an impotent throne. To the rest of us it should be freedom of speech. I think we can handle it.