Matthew Norman: A Prince and his indulgent public

We seem to have outgrown the idea that royals are crucial to our sense of self-worth

If the soon to be Lord Sugar swiftly tires of boldly going God knows where on the USS Enterprise, and should the Prime Minister wish to replace him with another gimmick-free Tsar, he could do a lot worse than the Prince of Wales.

Constitutionally this might raise the odd hackle. But desperate times and all that. The important point is that, for all his witterings about spirituality, aesthetics and ecology, the little observed but central thing about this Prince is that he is a brilliant businessman. His accounts leave no doubt about that.

Last year, Charles achieved the double whammy of substantially increasing his income while substantially reducing his income tax. How precisely he did so we will never know, because he is under no obligation to share even heavily redacted details, while his chief aide, Sir Michael Peat, says he has no intention of telling us. Yet the broad figures are with us, and splendid they are too.

While the Prince's Duchy of Cornwall income rose a little to almost £16.5m, his funding from Government grants soared by 20 per cent to just over £3m. His private expenditure fell, meanwhile, thanks to him foregoing the annual skiing holiday and Club 60-80 jolly among the rectangularly bearded Greek Orthodox priests of Mt Athos. Thanks to such heroic self-sacrifice, and the bizarre 10 per cent fall in his tax liability, he turned in a surplus of £2,175,000. And this during the worst global slump since his great uncle Edward was sucking up to the Fuhrer. A spectacular performance to put Little Lord Sugar to shame.

The intriguing point here isn't the intricate detail of how, for example, he can offset the cost of his butlers against income tax. The post of Comptroller of the Royal Specimen Jar must be filled, and if the Prince can persuade the Revenue it's a justifiable business expense, good luck to him. The fascinating thing is why almost nobody seems remotely umbraged. "A new expenses scandal?" asked the headline on The Independent's report, and the answer appears to be, "No, not really, no one gives a toss."

Not so long ago these accounts would have caused a Vesuvial eruption, with some molten fury synthesised by the Murdoch press but much genuine. And now? Well, the Daily Mirror ritually referred to the sparking of "outrage last night", but as the story hadn't broken on the last night in question, we'll take that with a jumbo tub of Saxa.

So perhaps this is the moment to mark, if not necessarily to mourn, the strange death of British republicanism, albeit that's an entity with tremendous powers of renaissance. Pistol-wielders took pot shots at Victoria during the widow's weeds era of her reign, but she was beloved again when she popped 'em.

Ever since, the tide of republicanism has flowed now and then, never more foamingly than a dozen years ago when the Queen took fright and left Balmoral to make her TV address about Diana. Then it fizzled out as quickly as it had exploded, with no lasting damage done, and that much quoted template for the apoplexy about non-royal expenses should comfort our marvellous MPs. That we are quick to anger and quicker still to relapse into apathy may just be the only strong strand of national identity that remains. That, and the monarchy itself.

The man who will inherit it, and the people he will nominally rule over, appear to have reached a happy accommodation. If he promises to stop affecting to care about us with all that faux-anguished drivel, and confines the petulant outbursts to areas as arcane to the average punter as Richard Rogers' architecture, we will no longer take any interest in him. While the Queen has become the object of veneration and deep fondness, if not exactly love, her first-born has ceased to matter at all.

This may partly be because we expect Her Maj to live as long as her mother, by which time Charles III and Camilla will be the first King and Queen (and she will be Queen) to be crowned on high-backed, wipe-clean plastic thrones, dribbling and muttering about how Countdown hasn't been the same since Richard Whiteley.

But more than that, surely, it's evidence of the very maturity that those few surviving republican voices insist is unattainable for those who are subjects rather than citizens. Whether one regards this institution as a faintly ridiculous anachronism or (as I do) the royal equivalent of Wagnerian opera – nice to know it's going on somewhere, so long as its barely audible in the background – we seem finally to have outgrown the notion that it is crucial to our sense of self-worth. And they have grown up too.

Needless to say, many of us miss the mirth. The one compelling argument for funding Charles and his sons while those Duchy biscuits and properties make such profits used to be the amusement that was provided for a few annual pence per capita. This sovereign duty they have abrogated shamefully.

In his apparent failure to fill the mistress vacancy created the day he married Camilla, Charles is a traitor to his family traditions and own form book. His sons have disappointed too. A few years ago, you'd have heavily backed Harry at even money to be plugging the gap in Jordan's life left by Peter Andre, but even he seems to be lapsing into precociously early middle age.

With his boys under control and his wife out of public view, the Prince trundles on, unembarrassed about taking £3m from an historically strained public purse while his own is swollen, and swapping private holidays for which he'd have to pay himself for public ones that look a bit like an MP's fact-finding mission to examine mango production methods on Barbados... ones like the recent jaunt by private jet to South America, with a retinue of 14, increasing his carbon footprint for a trip ostensibly concerned with climate change. And the reaction to this princely greed and majestic hypocrisy is weary indifference.

It seems that what Charles will inherit is an institution of sublime irrelevance, a kind of a Whaddever Monarchy. And that, in a country whose heraldic crest is the Shrugging Shoulder Rampant above the motto Meh, is exactly as it should be.

Comments