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Leading Article: Peace for the Prince

IS THE Prince of Wales mad, or is it the world he inhabits? You have to wonder. The Chapter of Birmingham Cathedral, it was revealed in the week of the Prince's 50th birthday, has decided that the best way to spend pounds 12,000 was on a set of new wool-polyester stoles and altar frontals which show the HP Sauce factory, a Land Rover at 45 degrees (because that's what Land Rover says a Land Rover can do) and the beautiful geometry of Spaghetti Junction as seen from the air but with the road markings removed. "God is in Spaghetti Junction," the Archdeacon told a curious press. "It is hoped that when people see the Junction on the stoles, they will pray for travellers."

When the Prince is accused of being out of touch - whether with a floundering Church of England, a soulless political culture or an increasingly unscrupulous commercial world - it is difficult not to reflect, thankfully, that at least someone is.

The death of Diana last year removed a harsh and raking light from the Prince's life. Next to her the Prince could only look stolid, dull, and repetitive, a battered old half-timbered Morris, a man in whom the tweed had entered his soul, next to the sheen and steel of the high octane sports coupe he had once so mistakenly married.

Until the fracas of recent weeks - which from the Prince's point of view has been disastrously and chaotically handled by an office that is clearly out of control - the Prince's own standing had been on the rise. His own agenda, which has not changed for the last quarter of a century, came, in a Diana-less world, to seem a good if slightly boring one: an obsession with an integrated society, with an agriculture that didn't poison people or the landscape, with towns it felt good to live in, with a sense of religion that went beyond the wool-polyester and with the re-invigorating of tradition in architecture and in language - subjects he would regularly and over many years spend hours at a stretch discussing, before his death, with Ted Hughes. All this was something to which people could clearly respond.

It bore a first-cousin relation to the New Labour platform last year and was obviously in touch with the public mood. When the history of the late 20th century comes to be written, it will be seen that what the Prince believes in permanently and seriously, politicians tend to embrace fully at election times but only lightly in between.

For all the brouhaha, the monarchy is clearly marginal to the modern state. It has no access to or leverage on the key economic decisions. It is a relict, a granny in the granny flat to whom one is polite, to be wheeled out at family gatherings, but best appreciated when silent and decorous. The Prince plays his marginality well. He upsets establishment coteries from time to time, he talks to ministers and impresses on them the urgency of his beliefs, he rails against the big players, the giant corporations set on a globalised market that will erode virtually everything he believes in, but he is under no illusion that he is anywhere near wielding power.

That is the mistake made, at intervals, by the press. This marginal figure, who does most of what he does in private, is hauled into the spotlight, as he has been in the last few weeks, is found to be wanting, because he doesn't have all the slickness necessary in a media world, and is then condemned for not being what he never wanted to be and what, by the constitution, he is barred from being: a politician.

No one should believe the Prince is now enjoying a golden age of ease and contentment. The happy faces reproduced in the papers belong to a man who has had long practice at looking good in public. He continues to feel deeply out of synch with the world in which he finds himself. He desires things to be better but sees them sliding inexorably to the worse. And the tools he has to make a difference are of the wrong scale. His whole life he has been quarrying with teaspoons.

If the country can give this man anything for his birthday, it should be this: a right to privacy, a right to silence, a right not to have Penny Junor defend him, a right to marginality, a right to life with Camilla Parker Bowles without question or prurience, a right not to be compared continuously with the beauty and elegance of his elder son, and a right, above all, not to carry the twin burdens of his country's ludicrous expectations and unthinking denigrations of him.