Respect and authority have to be earned

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The Independent Online
SOME TIME ago I found myself standing behind the Prince of Wales at a royal premiere and realised he was quite bald on top. This image of a middle-aged prince came flooding back this week, as he threw a bit of a tantrum. At 45, the heir to the throne wants to be taken more seriously, to be released from the grim business of playing second lead in the royal soap opera.

This time it is the Government and ministers no less who are at fault for apparently failing to use him more effectively as a roaming asset, promoting British business. The Prince is flushed with success after visiting Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait where the monarchy still means that the media are kept firmly at bay and princes can be princes without fear of being exposed.

I find this outburst of his strange and unreal. The unpalatable truth that Prince Charles must face is that the heir to the throne has to take responsibility himself for carving out a proper niche in a very rapidly changing country where even the Queen concedes the principle of income tax. To be taken seriously in 1993, you have to behave seriously and wisely, and go on doing so. You have to have skills and use them in such a way that you are an asset and not a drone (the noun he used to describe delegates at the Historic Houses Association last week). And if you are possessed, as Jane Austen might have written, of very great advantages when compared with everyone else in the country, then how much more is expected of you?

It is this disparity surely between his advantages and his actual achievements that the Prince should be examining before he attacks everyone else for undervaluing him. Princes of Wales have always lived out uneasy and potentially corrupting lives, waiting for their turn. Surrounded by servants, luxury at every turn, the irritating problems that absorb most people's energy and creative edge are absent. They are free to concentrate on whatever they please: in the age of leisure it was leisure in all its permutations. In the age of duty and industriousness, it requires professional management skills.

Now Prince Charles has picked a series of interests which are well able to sustain a public presence while keeping him above party politics. But he has managed somehow to fritter away the credit and kudos instead of garnering them. The Prince's Trust has never achieved the high- profile focus of the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme. His interest in architecture, the environment and organic farming reflects well the current tide of sentiment. Yet this week, as if to underline his fogeyish irrelevance to modern Britain, there has been the launch of his latest product: Duchy Original Gingered Biscuits. And while thousands of Britons yearn to be safe from the hell of the London Underground, his aides make it known that he hopes to concentrate on saving the historic buildings of St Petersburg. Michael Cassell, the Financial Times journalist to whom Prince Charles unburdened himself, asks whether his aim to act as an international business figure would go down well in places less sympathetic than the Middle East: would the Australians sign up out of monarchist loyalty?

Unfortunately for Prince Charles, his problems are compounded by his failed marriage. There is no side- stepping the fact that his personal life, and failures as a husband and convincing father figure, bar him from widespread popularity. The Princess of Wales hogs the limelight not just because she is beautiful, but because she has taught herself how to target key social issues such as Aids. She has also managed to avoid public scandal and gaffes. All the women I know side with Diana and mark down Charles because of the way he has treated her.

In a sense the Queen has had it all much easier. She inherited the throne young, in the Fifties, when her focus on the family, children, duty and the church chimed well with the nation's aspirations. She would not have been expected to have been employed or submerged in any other areas of British life.

Prince Charles lingers in her shadow at a time in British history when people increasingly see the monarchy in a negative light, as the best alternative to an elected head of state. For the House of Windsor, as for the rest of us, these are uncomfortable times. The sad fact is that Charles has fluffed it so far.