Prince Charles is locked in the past and out of tune with his nation

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For a man who appears so mild-mannered in public, Prince Charles somehow manages to stir up an extraordinary amount of controversy. Controversy by itself is no bad thing ordinarily - except when you are heir to the throne and waiting to become a nation's sovereign.

For a man who appears so mild-mannered in public, Prince Charles somehow manages to stir up an extraordinary amount of controversy. Controversy by itself is no bad thing ordinarily - except when you are heir to the throne and waiting to become a nation's sovereign.

That is why the opinions that have come to light this week as the result of claims by a former employee at an employment tribunal are so fascinating. It is fair to observe that they were not intended for public scrutiny. They were expressed in a memo that would have remained private, had the employee, Ms Elaine Day, not decided to take her case for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal to court. If anything, however, this makes them more significant: they offer an insight into how the Prince of Wales really thinks and acts. From everything that we have learned about the Prince over the years, they ring true - and are highly disturbing.

In his memo, the Prince revealed a cast of mind that is hopelessly outmoded. "Old-fashioned", was how the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, described it, with admirable restraint. It was not so much that the Prince had voiced frustration with people who, in his view, "think they can all be pop stars, High Court judges ... without putting in the necessary work or having natural ability", it was the clear inference that most people have no right to aspire to something better. "Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?" he asked.

Ms Day, who had precipitated his remarks by enquiring - perish the thought - about promotion prospects, was certainly in no doubt about how to interpret his words. "I completely felt," she told the tribunal, "that people could not rise above their station." The same hide-bound, class-bound view seems implicit in many of Prince Charles's public attitudes. The sad truth appears to be that the man destined to become our next monarch still hankers after a time when everyone knew and accepted their station in life. There is an even worse possibility: he may not just hanker after such an order, but believe it still pertains.

There is certainly a strand of opinion in this country that laments the passing of old social distinctions and the established order they exemplified. Prince Charles's characterisation of Ms Day as "so PC it frightens me rigid" could have come straight out of the male-only dining rooms of certain so-called gentlemen's clubs. But such bigotry is of a certain generation and should fade away with it. It is a relic, and it does not challenge the social change that has swept Britain over the past half century.

What makes the Prince's views so disquieting is that, while he will inherit a kingdom that has been adapting itself to modernity with often striking success, his whole view of the world seems frozen in the distant past. It is this that makes so many of his subjects question his fitness to be their king. His rigid espousal of traditional architectural styles, his concern at modern teaching methods, the way he has conducted himself as Duke of Cornwall, what we have glimpsed of the way he runs his households and his private life - even his watercolours - seem locked in another age. His mother, dare we say, seems more attuned to the concerns of today.

Unlike some of his royal contemporaries abroad, Prince Charles is no playboy. He has treated his responsibilities seriously. His Prince's Trust has a record of accomplishment. His views on the environment, sustainable development, organic farming and the rest have much to recommend them. A common thread, however, is his inclination always to view the future through a prism of nostalgia and conservatism. We also know that he does not present his views only from the public platform that is available to him, but in a barrage of private letters to politicians. This comes perilously close to seeking a degree of political influence that is not, and should not be, his. A modern monarch needs to be in touch with his subjects, not building barricades against them.

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