A prince for all politicians The politics of a prince

Charles's meetings last week presage the making of a modern monarchy, says Henry Porter
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The Independent Online
"Prince Charles," predicted the Daily Mail last Monday, "will risk an onslaught from Tory MPs this week by delivering an unprecedented royal seal of approval to Labour's central policy." By the end of the week we were still waiting for the onslaught. None had come - barely a squeak from Teresa Gorman and nothing at all from the Tory front bench, which these days sits inert and sullen like the massed defendants of a fraud trial.

So the Prince of Wales was allowed to have his best week since his ex- wife gave her interview to Panorama. While she was on the receiving end of many opportunistic hugs from Mohamed al-Fayed, he appeared alongside three cabinet ministers, including the Chancellor, and then openly threw a birthday party for Camilla Parker Bowles on his lawn at Highgrove, an event that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

The only real cloud of the week was provided by Lord Blake who was fielded by the Daily Mail as a constitutional expert, which, in anthropological terms, is to present him as a village elder, or wise-old-fart-who-should- be-listened-to. The historian did his best to rise to the newspaper's brief by declaring that the Prince's support for Labour's welfare-to-work programme imperilled the tradition that all members of the family should be political castrati. He argued that the Queen has never given any hint of her political preferences and that the Prince was straying into contentious waters.

In the first place, the Queen has not been as politically chaste as Lord Blake suggests. At the time of Margaret Thatcher's bungling opposition to sanctions against South Africa, the head of state let it be known that she was extremely worried about the unity of the Commonwealth. Not only that: Her Majesty's "concerns", for which read downright opposition, extended to the overall feel of Mrs Thatcher's regime and its apparent lack of care for the unemployed and underprivileged.

And in the second, Prince Charles's passions about youth unemployment and inner-city decay pre-date New Labour's political emphasis by at least a decade. The Prince's Trust was New Labour before New Labour was invented. The younger generation in the Labour Party moved towards his views, not he to theirs. So what was he meant to do on 1 May? Was he to abhor his convictions in the cause of neutrality, or to keep on saying what he believes? Of course he was right do the latter. And now he should continue to seek support for the Prince's Trust as well as welcoming New Labour's thinking, for the very good reason that introducing young people to the work habit is hardly likely to split the country apart.

The point that the Conservative peer Lord Blake misses is that we have moved into a period of consensus politics, during which the Government is addressing problems that were ignored during the Conservative years, largely because of the Tories' unyielding antipathy to anything that smacked of compassion. Prince Charles has done nothing more compromising than espousing the one-nation politics that set his mother against Mrs Thatcher. It is almost - but not quite - an apolitical stance, aimed at improving society generally by attending to the problems that sooner or later will affect us all.

If, instead, the Prince had removed himself on 1 May to the discreet distance suggested by the noble Lord, thence to confine his interests to polo, salmon fishing and horticulture, one can imagine the accusations that would have been levelled.

Here is a man, they would say, who is disengaged from the life of the nation and idles with his mistress on his country estate - an awkward relic of Edwardian hedonism who has no place in modern Britain.

Presumably Lord Blake is a royalist to his last blue corpuscle, so it's surprising that he has not understood that Prince Charles's meetings this week with Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, probably strengthen the monarchy, rather than weaken it. The Prince is moving among his own post-war generation at a moment when constitutional reformers are preparing to challenge the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, which, after all, is only a few paces away from challenging his own hereditary rights.

The logic behind his meetings will not have occurred to the Daily Mail which has become utterly opposed to the Prince, partly because it has lost its head over Diana, but also because it may have miscalculated what its readership is prepared to accept. Daily Mail readers voted Labour in large numbers on 1 May and took little notice of its Eurosceptic panic during the election campaign. One suspects that they may also ignore the current coverage awarded to the Prince, which kicked off last week by attacking his relations with the Government and also his personal morality. Remarks made by Lord Nolan on the evil of adultery in public life were presented by the paper as if they'd been aimed solely at the Prince and Camilla. This was followed on Wednesday by Lord Blake having his say. Then on Thursday the paper repeated his fears and also ran a front-page story which revealed that Tony Blair was actively considering the implications of a marriage between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Finally, on Friday it gave prominence to Charles's local vicar, the Rev John Hawthorne, who observed that the Prince was "an unrepentant adulterer" who could never be king "with that woman in tow". It is safe to assume, therefore, that the brilliant but not always timely editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, has got the bit between his teeth on this one and may oppose a marriage in which Camilla becomes the second Princess of Wales, if only because it will push the first Princess of Wales a little further towards the margins.

The striking feature of his campaign is that he is relying on a much older generation to make the arguments. Lords Blake (aged 80) and Nolan (aged 68) are hardly in the forefront of modern thinking and they probably do not appreciate that the public is no longer very shocked by the idea of Charles's adultery. One senses, also, that most people accept that a marriage to Camilla would be preferable to "keeping her in tow".

Naturally there will be a commotion, particularly in the Church of England, which you would have thought might keep its head down on the subject of adultery, given the number of priests that have been reported as erring with their parishioners. This is to say nothing of the problems the church is having with a sizeable and militant group of gay clergymen, who want to practise as they preach.

Nevertheless, the Rev Hawthorne (aged 65) presumes to lecture the Prince on his responsibilities as the next Defender of the Faith, which he believes are inconsistent with his adultery. The simple answer to that is to ensure that if Charles does inherit the throne, he does not become Defender of the Faith. Disestablishment of the church is long overdue and it would make a fine part of any programme of constitutional reform to remove the Church of England's privileged position in the life of the nation. Its status as the official church dates back to a time when Henry VIII was at war with Rome after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533. As must be obvious, even to the Rev Hawthorne, the agenda has moved on somewhat since then and, besides, it may seem appropriate that an established church which began with a royal divorce should end with one.

Things are advancing quickly. The Prime Minister's private secretary has filed his memo on the effects of a remarriage and Peter Mandelson has apparently been deployed to lunch everyone in sight to discuss the implications. Clearly they are preparing for some sort of announcement. It seems likely that a prime minister whose liberal instincts extended to sending good wishes to the Gay Pride rally in London will see few reasons for obstructing Prince Charles. Mr Blair may be a paragon of probity but he appreciates that many of his colleagues have found happiness in second marriages, some of which were the result of adulterous affairs.

Since the spring the Prince of Wales has shown that he has a pretty good grasp of politics and also of how to get his own way. As Lord Blake may eventually come to realise, last week's meetings were just as much about Mrs Parker Bowles as they were about youth unemployment.