Political Commentary: What the Prince of Wales needs is a proper education

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IT WAS January 1992 when Mr Jonathan Dimbleby told me that he hoped to make a television programme about Prince Charles. I can remember the date because we were returning to London together after an Any Questions? programme in Grantham.

At the time I did not pay much attention. The royal family I can take or leave. I have not dreamed about a single one of them in my life. Mr Dimbleby I regard as a friendly acquaintance who is usually on the side of good. As far as I was concerned, he might just as well have confided that he intended to make a programme about Mr Paul Gascoigne, Mrs Edwina Currie or the Pope.

The date is important because it shows that the project had been in Mr Dimbleby's mind for some time. The occasion was important - in view of what has been written in the last few weeks - because it became clear to me that he and the Prince were friends of fairly long standing. The relationship was, it appeared, founded in a common enthusiasm for the countryside and horses, Mr Dimbleby having been a youthful showjumper.

What this demonstrates is that, though Mr Dimbleby may well have been trying to do his chum a good turn, he was not attempting to ingratiate himself with royalty, as was suggested by several unpleasant articles (notably by one in the Spectator). In any case, the imminent knighthood that was being confidently predicted for him could come only from the Government. The Queen has a limited number of personal honours at her disposal.

In the press the show received mixed notices. The response of the public seems to have been more favourable. Mr John Major issued a statement, through the Downing Street machine, that Charles would duly inherit the Crown.

At this point we should pause for a moment. Why put out a press release at all, if the matter is so clear? Worse still, from the Prince's point of view: expressions of confidence from Downing Street have about as much value as a cheque signed 'Robert Maxwell'. Lamont, Mates, Mellor, Yeo . . . Will Windsor turn out to be the next victim of the Curse of the PM's Confidence?

So far, indeed, the Prime Minister has not exhibited an altogether sure touch in a delicate situation which calls for all the qualities of one of his heroes, Stanley Baldwin. It was Mr Major who made his own benches gasp when, after announcing the separation of Charles and the Princess, he went on to say that he had been advised that there was no reason why she should not still be crowned Queen.

This is legal cloud-cuckoo- land. Certainly the King's consort becomes Queen. It does not follow from this that the Church would feel able to crown her if she was separated from her husband - still less that the people would want her to be crowned. If they divorce, and Charles remarries during Diana's lifetime, he is living in sin according to the doctrine of the Church. He and his new wife can certainly become King and Queen. But it is difficult to see how the Church can crown either of them. It is equally difficult to see how, in the circumstances, Charles can remain head of the established Church at all.

But, if the King cannot any longer be at its head, can the Church be said to be established? The Prince is ambiguous about whether he wants it to remain established or not. His sloppy wish to be defender of all faiths rather than of one is not conclusive. The title is anomalous because the faith referred to is that of Rome. In any case, the decision is not for Charles to take. It is for the House of Commons.

This brings us to what was most shocking about Wednesday's programme. It was not his confession of adultery. This, I thought, showed him in a good light. Rather it was his ignorance of the constitution and his place in it, whether as King or as Prince of Wales. It was not just the moaning about his life's being set in concrete. The life of Mr Kenneth Clarke, say, is planned with equal precision by the civil servants. The lives of all of us are set in concrete, to a greater or lesser degree. Even journalists have engagements to fulfil, meetings to attend, articles to write, deadlines to meet. The hardest concrete of all to be set in is the knowledge that, at 64, if you are still lucky enough to be in work, you will be clocking on at eight and clocking off at five in the same factory.

No, what was more worrying was Charles's evident belief that there were areas of life where he could and should do exactly as he pleased. On divorce, for example, he said it was 'personal and private between my wife and myself. It's a matter for us, isn't it? It's not a matter for other people?' Someone, preferably Mr Major - though I can think of other Prime Ministers, notably Lord Callaghan, who would have been better suited to the task in hand - should take HRH aside and say:

'I'm sorry, Sir, but it is not a matter for you and your wife, or not for you both alone. It is a matter for other people, particularly for the elected government of whom I happen to be the head. As your children include William, your own heir, their upbringing is certainly a question on which we are entitled to be informed and to express a view.'

There are other matters on which HRH goes well beyond the bounds prudent for a prospective King. There is his approval of arms sales and his dotty proposal for a mercenary army. Nor is it for him to attack the Government over the decommissioning of the royal yacht. He seems to be under the misapprehension that, as Prince of Wales, he is a free spirit; whereas as King he would, as he lamented in the programme, be able to act only on the advice of ministers. The last is true: the first is not. Though there is a sort of tradition that the Prince of Wales is entitled (up to a point, expected) to be a bit of a lad in his youth, he is not supposed to hold any political views, and quite right too.

The conclusion must be that his education was shockingly neglected. His mother had the advantage of being taught constitutional history by C H K Marten, a schoolteacher from near Windsor, author (with G T Warner) of that model textbook The Groundwork of British History. Charles does not seem to have been so fortunate. R A Butler is supposed to have instructed him in constitutional matters at Trinity College, Cambridge. He could certainly have told him a thing or two about the choice of prime minister. One can only conclude that Rab had as little success in teaching Charles as he had in becoming prime minister.

His political heirs today are behaving in a Rab-like fashion too: putting off any thought of the time when Charles succeeds, hoping that something will turn up. They are like characters in a play by Mr Alan Ayckbourn, not noticing - or pretending not to notice - that one of them is mad. They forget the Burial Service's admonition that in the midst of life we are in death. The Queen could be gone tomorrow. They have yet to confront the truth that both Charles's separation and, it is now clear, his nature put the whole future of the monarchy in question.