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

Recruitment Genius: Reprographics Operator

£12500 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent Reprogr...

Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher

£120 - £145 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher X2 Materni...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer / Systems Administrator

£25000 - £32500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in SW London, this compan...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

How to really be a YouTube star: Be white and wealthy

Olly Lennard
 

The Tate’s secrecy about its BP sponsorship figures was shameful

David Lister
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee