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

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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.

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