If you really want to kick away the ladder of social mobility, you have to be in government

Prince Charles is the most important public intellectual since the heyday of Sir Keith Joseph
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The Independent Online

The Prince of Wales is an unlucky prince. Through inadvertence, he often allows his enemies to strike at him. The leaked note which aroused controversy was clumsily expressed. Then again, it was a private document, never intended for publication, and his comments were the purest common sense. He did not say that people should be kept in their place. This did not prevent closet republicans - and open ones - in the media from gleefully attacking him, often on the basis of misleading headlines.

The Prince of Wales is an unlucky prince. Through inadvertence, he often allows his enemies to strike at him. The leaked note which aroused controversy was clumsily expressed. Then again, it was a private document, never intended for publication, and his comments were the purest common sense. He did not say that people should be kept in their place. This did not prevent closet republicans - and open ones - in the media from gleefully attacking him, often on the basis of misleading headlines.

The Prince has a further problem. In England, intellectuals have always been a subject for mockery. The public intellectual has never had the status that he enjoys in other countries, and Prince Charles is a public intellectual. Judged as a thinker who repeatedly asks difficult questions and tries to influence government policy, Prince Charles is the most important public intellectual since the heyday of Sir Keith Joseph.

Consider the Prince's record. He has consistently argued for real history to be taught at school. He believes that instead of empathy - imagine you are a cotton-spinner during the industrial revolution - or repeated doses of the Second World War, British children should learn about their own country's past, in a chronologically based approach to the evolution of Britain.

He has also insisted that schools ought to teach much more Shakespeare: that the greatest English writer is part of the heritage of every British child. In neither case, history or Shakespeare, is the Prince suggesting that the natural diet of public school pupils is too refined for the ignorant multitude. A propos of ignorance, in an era when many town-dwellers insist on their concern for the countryside while knowing nothing about it, Prince Charles has done more than any environmentalist to make people aware of the realities of rural life, including hunting

Then there is architecture. Prince Charles has led the battle against the baleful influence of le Corbusier. Corbusier, who even more than Albert Speer was the true architect of totalitarianism, set out to brutalise the urban landscape and to produce housing which would brutalise its inhabitants. A malign alliance between his disciples and cost-cutters in local authorities helped to produce the hideous municipal architecture which not only blights the eye, but blights the lives of those who dwell in it.

Prince Charles has struggled against all this, in practice as well as theory. He has created his own urban-scape, the village of Poundbury in Dorset. It may not be Palladio or Wren, but it consists of humane buildings, good for families. Question: if someone with the Prince's views had been in charge of British council housing since 1945, would Britain's social problems be better or worse? The answer is self-evident.

Then there is genetically modified food. Here, a strong case could be mustered against Prince Charles. He seems to disregard the point that many plants and domestic animals are themselves the product of genetic modification down the centuries. But he has an obvious counter-attack. Slow, gradual, selective breeding is one thing. It is quite another to allow the laboratory free access to the countryside. There is a powerful argument for thought and delay, to ensure that we do not do irrevocable damage to the environment in a fit of scientific over-optimism. Can anyone doubt that Prince Charles was right to highlight the GM question?

The answer to that is yes. This government, which had hoped to sneak GM through with minimum public discussion, was irritated by the Prince. He made life awkward for them. Indeed, he has often made life awkward for them. Early on in Tony Blair's reign, there were complaints that Prince Charles was wasting ministers' time by sending them memoranda.

This was unwelcome because it forced ministers to think: something which this lot have no interest in doing. Mr Blair runs the most un-intellectual and indeed anti-intellectual government since Sir Robert Walpole's. His ministers are not expected to concern themselves with ideas; they are to be mere administrative automata, waiting for instructions from their pagers. Mr Blair is not against all intellectuals. He is happy to have a few tame ones, such as Tony Giddens, among his courtiers. But he is only interested in the intellectual as sycophant. There, he differs from the Prince, who makes it a habit to seek out thinkers without assuming that they will necessarily agree with him.

The most absurd aspect of the recent criticisms of Prince Charles was the charge that he was opposed to social mobility. In reality, his record in encouraging social mobility is an outstanding one. Charity vaunteth not itself; even so, it would have been wiser for the Prince of Wales to ensure that his Prince's Trust had received more publicity. Over the past few years, the Trust has helped half a million youngsters from deprived backgrounds to get on their feet. Sixty thousand of them have set up their own businesses. As a method of bringing hope and opportunity to inner city kids from broken homes and lousy schools, the Trust has few if any equals.

The British government could learn from its successes, as could every other government in the world. The Blair government has spent tens of billions on trying to improve social mobility while the Prince's Trust has spent hundreds of millions. It is a moot point which has been more successful; there can be no dispute as to which offers better value for money. When it comes to social mobility, the Prince of Wales has a great deal to boast about. His reluctance to do so is as admirable in moral terms as it is foolish in public relations ones.

Charles Clarke is not a man who suffers from self-criticism. If he were asked who had done more for social mobility, Prince Charles or him, the answer would be an incredulous guffaw. Yet even as he was assailing Prince Charles, Mr Clarke was also announcing a measure which, if implemented, would undoubtedly set back social mobility in Britain. He wants good state schools to be obliged to take disruptive pupils.

Imagine the consequences. Take a school which is trying to educate children up to their abilities and to make them aware of the need for effort if they are to get on in life. Take less well off parents, who could never afford to send their children to Highgate School, where Charles Clarke was educated, but who are relieved to have found a state school with a disciplined ethos. Then along comes Charles Clarke to make everyone's life much harder. It is not Prince Charles who resents the fact that the less well off are trying to ape their betters, but Charles Clarke.

Prince Charles can rise above Mr Clarke's boorish attacks. Ordinary parents and children may not be able to rise above the consequences of his actions. Prince Charles has spent years creating ladders to help the inner-city poor. When Charles Clarke sees a ladder, he kicks it away. When he attacks Prince Charles, boorishness and hypocrisy are assailing thoughtfulness and social generosity.

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