The Queen’s decision to hand over some of her more onerous public duties to her eldest son is being called a “gentle succession” by insiders at Buckingham Palace and a “right royal job share” by less reverent commentators. The move certainly takes Britain into uncharted constitutional waters. This is no regency, where deputised monarchs are required to conduct themselves as though they were wearing the crown for real. Instead, it is an unprecedented half-way house with nothing governing Prince Charles’s role and behaviour except common sense.
It can only be hoped, then, that the heir to the throne follows his mother’s eminent example. Over the course of her six-decade reign, the Queen has been highly effective at maintaining the dignity – and popularity – of the monarchy, in no small part thanks to a studied reticence about her own views.
As Prince of Wales, Charles has shown no such restraint. He has been particularly energetic on the topic of architecture, famously describing the National Gallery extension as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend”. But he has also spoken out on any number of other matters, from the plight of farmers, to the pension industry, to industrialisation. Even now, with a semi-monarchial role beckoning, the Prince of Wales is throwing his weight behind a push for alternative therapies to be accepted by mainstream medicine.
In the absence of a written constitution, Britain has no formal rules restricting a monarch’s right to exploit the public platform upon which they have been so arbitrarily placed. As political power seeped away, however, Britain’s kings and queens have – largely – grasped the limitations of their position and curbed their tongues. The notable exception, of course, was Edward VIII. His remark that “something must be done” for impoverished Welsh miners not only added to the political establishment’s mistrust of their wayward sovereign, it may even have hastened his departure.
It is reasonable enough for the Queen, aged 87, to slow down. But as Charles – Britain’s longest serving heir apparent – nears the throne, he must leave his hobby-horses behind.