How cheering that the Supreme Court has come down on the side of openness. In its ruling that the Government must publish 27 of the Prince of Wales’s letters written to ministers in 2004 and 2005, the court was surely right in law, but had it wanted to it could have found arguments in favour of secrecy. That it seems instead to have a presumption in favour of publication is entirely healthy for our democracy.
Prince Charles is entitled to argue that, if he is to give candid advice to ministers, it should be confidential, just as ministers should be allowed to have private discussions among themselves and should receive advice from civil servants in confidence. This is an accepted principle of good government, and it is why there is a “policy advice” exemption in Freedom of Information law.
But the Prince is neither a minister nor a civil servant. In which case, he is entitled to argue that, as a private citizen, his correspondence with government should be confidential. In fact the Prince is not a private citizen either. As the heir to the throne, he expects to hold an important post in the British constitution. In that position he would have the right, according to our constitutional precedents, to be consulted by the government, and to encourage and to warn its ministers and especially the prime minister. He is not king yet, however, and he has a mixed record of showing that he recognises the need to earn the respect of the people if he is ever to serve in that role successfully.
One of the most comical commentaries on this case was the argument that releasing the Prince’s “black spider memos” would “undermine his neutral political status”. The way to undermine the Prince’s neutral political status would be for him to fail to be politically neutral: a cover-up would not change that.
One of the reasons people might be sceptical about the Prince is the way he has sought to keep his communications with ministers secret. There are basically two ways of gaining respect as a member of the Royal Family. One is modesty and discretion, which is how the Queen has done it. The other would be good causes and openness, a model towards which some of the younger members of the family seem to be moving. But the Prince is trying to have it both ways and it is not working. He has a reputation for meddling in semi-political matters, and yet seems reluctant to be held to account for his lobbying.
Most of the ministers who received his letters suggest that they regarded them with interest but no more, as a decorative part of the constitution rather than an efficient one. The former ministers imply that they were much too worldly wise to be influenced by princely petitioning, and no doubt they were, but we the public have the right to know precisely what was said and what was decided.
As ever, openness is the best way to build trust. That is why the British political system is moving, too slowly, towards a freedom-of-information regime in which the assumption is that everything should be published unless there are overwhelming arguments against. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has supported that principle.
The Prince’s spokesman and the Prime Minister have both said that they were “disappointed” with the court’s decision. That is the wrong response. Prince Charles’s meddling has already weakened his reputation; his resisting of openness threatens more serious damage to the monarchy. As for the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the law might be changed to reverse the court’s ruling: nothing could be better designed to undermine public confidence not just in the idea of a constitutional monarchy but in democratic politics itself.