The Prince of Wales: And so the wait goes on

As the nation celebrates his mother's 60-year reign, the heir to her throne remains a man struggling to find a role that can keep him – and the constitution – happy

The Prince of Wales has been called many names in his 63 years, but even he might be surprised to learn that he is the Antichrist. According to a dozen online websites, he fulfils several criteria by which he can be identified as the "Beast" from the Book of Revelations: by his name, his heraldic symbols, the fact that he is "a despicable person who has not yet received a kingship". Happily for Prince Charles's feelings, he has also been designated "Saviour of the World" in the Brazilian rainforest. In the city of Tocantins, a life-size statue commissioned in 2002 shows him, in bronze, as a muscular, winged god, clad only in a loincloth. At his feet, a mass of bodies apparently trapped in mud represent the world he is saving through his enlightened approach to the environment.

Is Prince Charles God? Is he the Devil? For a mild-mannered, well-bred sexagenarian he inspires extreme reactions. And this weekend, when the nation's fond and liquefying eyes are trained on his mother as she celebrates her 60-year reign, many people will entertain mixed feelings as to whether he should be her successor. According to a ComRes poll conducted by The Independent and published yesterday, 42 per cent of the British public think he should step aside, when the Queen dies, and leave the succession to his son, the Duke of Cambridge. Forty-four per cent disagreed with the idea. This is marginally better news for Charles since the last such poll in 2010, when the figures were 42/41, with more people undecided. But the findings suggest that the public just hasn't found anything much to attract or endear them to its putative monarch.

People may have learned to forgive his alleged treatment of Princess Diana; they may approve of his evidently happy marriage to the Duchess of Cornwall, and his warm relationship with his charismatic sons. But Charles still divides British opinion on the question of whether they want him to reign over them. Why? Is it the long face, the intensely sad eyes, the side-of-the-mouth delivery, the air of whimsy partnered by an iron will? Is it his habit, on royal visits, of having a tentative go at the dance and the national costume? Is it that we've come to regard him as mostly a figure of pathos and sympathy, a lifelong Nearly Man, an apprentice who never got the job, the senior royals' very own Waity Katy? Or is it the persistent rumours that he tries to wield far too much influence for a powerless monarch-to-be?

Edward VII was 59 when he finally ascended the throne after the death of his mother Queen Victoria in 1901. Edward was 55 at his mother's Diamond Jubilee; he had to wait only another four years to become king. Charles is now 63. The Queen appears to be in excellent health and could, like the Queen Mother, live another 15 years. By that time, Charles will be 78 – a woefully advanced age at which to assume power. It's hardly surprising, under the circumstances, that Charles has in recent years begun throwing his weight around as if he were already king, making direct representations – in a way the Queen would never do – to politicians, businessmen, architects and fellow royals.

The Downing Street memoirs of Alastair Campbell record numerous episodes when then-prime minister Tony Blair reeled from the prince's attempts to influence government policy, either in long, handwritten letters (complete with inky underlinings) or in conversation: complaints about the foxhunting bill, about the government's help for farmers during the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis, in standing up for the principle of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, in speaking out over GM foods, in snubbing a visit by the Chinese. Blair once complained that the Prince was "screwing us" – ie, the Labour administration. One Campbell entry, in October 1999, reads: "TB said Charles had to understand there were limits to the extent to which [Prince Charles] could play politics with him." Recently, he has taken to haranguing the Coalition. It's said that, in its first few months, the prince lobbied no fewer than five ministers.

He's been doing it for 30 years. Nothing, however, drew more criticism that his intervention in the Chelsea Barracks development plan in 2009. The 13-acre site in the heart of London was ultimately owned by the property-investment arm of the Qatari royal family. The company was considering green-lighting a steel and glass design created by Richard Rogers's partnership. Prince Charles didn't like it and stepped in, just before the design was to go before planning chiefs. He wrote to the chairman, urging him to consider other alternatives – and the Qataris dropped Lord Rogers's plans. Rogers was furious. "Is he an architect?" he demanded. "No. Has he some professional knowledge? No. Does he have a passion? Fine, he can join the rest of the people who have a passion but ... 2,000 people think differently to him."

It's been noticed that the prince tends to use the many charities that bear his name as tools in persuading people to do what he wants. The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, for example, is used to showcase what the prince considers acceptable design or architectural schemes. He likes to offer its research facilities and advisers to property developers (such as the Qatari royal family) or to government bodies involved in renovation projects. The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health was an advisory body that urged the Department of Health to invest in homeopathic remedies. (The foundation has now closed down, after investigation by the Charities Commission.)

An air of coercive righteousness, of bullying virtue, hangs around him, and engenders suspicions that his habit of interfering in politics – he readily admits to being "a meddling prince" – pushes the limits of what the constitution allows. Much of his influence has undoubtedly been for the good. He was drawing attention to environmental issues, global warming and climate change long before they became matters of general concern. His Prince's Trust charity has a fine record of inspiring young people for 35 years. But successive heads of government have come to wish he wouldn't stick his nose in matters of policy.

Why can't he be more like his illustrious predecessor? When he was Prince of Wales, Edward VII was debarred from any access to power by his mother. She refused to let him see important government documents (though politicians later sent him cabinet papers and the like). Instead of finding a political role, he spent his time travelling, making diplomatic visits to his European cousins, sponsoring the arts, gambling, shooting, trailblazing formal dress and pleasuring his 50-odd mistresses. Would it be too much for Prince Charles to do likewise?

No matter how many polls are conducted into his popularity, or how many British people would prefer Prince William as our next king, it will make no difference to the succession. Unless he dies or chooses to turn down the job, the Prince of Wales will become King Charles III sooner or later. The Palace of Westminster must be dreading the day. According to his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, just after Charles's 60th birthday in 2008, some of his advisers began informally discussing how the monarch's role might be revised, in order to "allow King Charles III to speak out on matters of national and international importance in ways that at the moment would be unthinkable".

What a prospect. To whichever PM holds power on that day, it may well seem as if the Antichrist has landed.

A Life In Brief

Born: 14 November 1948, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, eldest son of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Family: Married twice (Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles), two sons, William and Harry.

Education: Hill House School, Cheam Preparatory School, Gordonstoun, Trinity College, Cambridge.

Career: On his mother's accession to the throne in 1952, he became heir apparent. In 1969 he was invested as the Prince of Wales. Served in the RAF and Royal Navy 1971-76.

He says: "I learned the way a monkey learns – by watching its parents."

They say: "He seemed to believe his significance lay in what he believed and did. The truth was simply that his significance lay in who he was." Jeremy Paxman

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