The row over Prince Charles’ letters is not just legal argument vs public interest. There are real constitutional implications

By convention, the monarch has the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn

Share

Should Prince Charles’s letters to various government departments, with their unique “black spider” handwriting, be published? This may seem to be an exceedingly obscure question, but it goes to the heart of Britain’s constitutional arrangements. For were Charles, when he succeeds to the throne, to be less punctilious than his mother, Queen Elizabeth, in not taking sides in political argument, then the settlement between the monarch and Parliament, that began to take shape at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, would have been breached.

Earlier this week, Lord Dyson, the head of the civil judiciary in England, and two colleagues in the Court of Appeal, ruled that Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, had acted unlawfully when he blocked the publication of the letters. The Attorney General is appealing to the Supreme Court. Prince Charles has apparently been sending these missives since 1969, when he addressed a letter to the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, about the fate of Atlantic salmon.

We can learn a good deal about their nature from the Attorney General’s arguments before the courts. He said the 27 pieces of correspondence between Charles and ministers in seven government departments dated between September 2004 and April 2005 contain the Prince’s “most deeply held personal views and beliefs”. They are in many cases “particularly frank”. The Cabinet Office and the departments responsible for business, health, schools, environment, culture and Northern Ireland all received such correspondence. Grieve observed that a cornerstone of the British constitution was that the monarch could not be seen to be favouring one political party over another.

The Queen has never been likely to make this error. That is because she remembers the exact circumstances in which her father, George VI, unexpectedly became King. His brother, Edward VIII, had been forced to abdicate because he refused to accept the advice of the government of the day that he could not marry a twice-divorced woman, the American Wallis Simpson. His 10-year-old elder daughter, Elizabeth, well understood the importance of what had happened for she headed her diary that day, “Abdication Day”.

George VI immediately set about the important task of restoring faith in the Royal Family’s dedication to duty. After all, something that is not often mentioned had once again had been made plain: that British monarchs reign on sufferance. Parliament has absolute rights in the question of the succession to the throne.

King George VI’s premature death as the result of a thrombosis in 1952 (he was only 56 years old) meant that his elder daughter, Elizabeth, would have to complete the task he had begun. She has often spoken of her father and seems consciously to have tried to behave as he might have done. Since December 1936, a period of nearly 80 years, first George VI and then Elizabeth II have both alike carefully observed the conventions of our unwritten constitution.

But when we do see the correspondence, if we do, it may not be an easy matter to judge. For the monarch has three classic rights in his or her relationship with the government: the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. This pithy Victorian formulation was re-stated in the mid 1980s by the Queen’s private secretary, Sir William Heseltine. He said that the monarch enjoyed the right, and indeed the duty, to express his or her opinions on government policy to the prime minister. On the other hand, the monarch must act on the advice of ministers, whatever he or she thinks.

In this light, the correspondence may well show that Prince Charles, in his mid-50s at the time, had been doing nothing worse than prematurely exercising the monarch’s rights to be consulted, to advise and to warn. But whether intentionally or not, the Attorney General made it sound much more serious when he observed that any perception that Charles had disagreed with Tony Blair’s government “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.

In other words, it looks as if the Attorney General’s unspoken motive in opposing publication of the letters is that they really do show that Prince Charles had been crossing the line. We urgently need to be able to judge that for ourselves.

It’s awfully odd to protect a liar, m’lud

Was I dreaming, I wondered, as I read a report of Mr Justice Bodey’s recent remarks in the Family Court?

The summary of the case stated that a City fund manager, who had fathered a child during an affair and had lied to the courts about his wealth so as to reduce his paternity payments, couldn’t be named. Why not exactly, since none of us would entrust a single penny of our savings to a known liar?

And the unnamed fund manager well understands this because he said that if his lies were disclosed, there would be a grave risk that it would spell his financial ruin.

However, Mr Justice Bodey is reported to have stated that it was not the role of the Family Court to “proactively disclose information which might be of interest to outside agencies such as the police, the Revenue, regulatory bodies or employers”.

Let me spell that out – not to tell the police, even though a crime (perjury) might have been committed; not to tell Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, even though somebody might be highly likely to have been avoiding tax; not to tell the regulatory bodies, even though investors might be in danger of being misled; not to tell an employer, who might be horrified to learn the true character of an employee.

This doesn’t make any sense to me. I had always thought that we ordinary citizens had, at the very least, a duty to report any crime to the relevant authorities. But apparently Family Court judges don’t have to worry about any of that stuff.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine