What he needs is a proper job: Prince Charles will not win back public esteem until he proves himself in the real world

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THE PRINCE of Wales will tonight confess on prime-time television that he committed adultery. He will add the face-saver that he was unfaithful only after it had become clear that his marriage had 'irretrievably' broken down.

This is grotesque. Adultery may be no big deal these days and there is not much back-to-basics to be found in the history of the Royal Family. But this is a matter of real politics and, for want of a better word, image. For now the Prince has blithely confirmed that the Buckingham Palace publicity machine lies and he has formalised a constitutional crisis that previously could, just about, have been dismissed as tabloid hysteria. Worse, he has chosen to do this not through an official statement but via a heavily hyped, opportunistic and entirely commercial television show.

Even worse, the Prince apparently uses the interview to flirt with the possibility of the disestablishment of the Church of England. This is, insofar as the word means anything any more, a 'real issue' generating real anguish and real concern. But raising it in this context can easily be interpreted as little more than an attempt by the Prince to ease the moral and institutional pressure on himself and his sins. As Anthony Holden, the best of the royal watchers, put it to me, this flyer looks suspiciously like a device to get Prince Charles 'off the Tampax hook'.

Somebody has gone mad. If it is not the Prince, then it is his advisers, all of whom should at once be consigned to the Home for Terminally Deranged Public Relations Operatives. The Royal Family has been behaving badly for the past five years, but all its disasters have been magnified by catastrophic mishandlings. As a result, the monarchy is now regarded with at best a kind of soapy sentimentality, but more often with pity, and at worst contempt. The very term 'monarchist' these days has to be hedged about with so many apologies and conditions that most grown-up people are too embarrassed to bother.

And 'grown-up' is the point. Not long ago it was possible for adults to engage in intelligent discussion about the role of royalty, its symbolic, cohesive function, its embodiment of history and continuity and its constitutional role as stabiliser and limiter of political power. Now such a discussion is impossible. There is simply no way in which the present royals - with the possible exception of the Queen herself - can be employed to sustain such a debate. They have subverted continuity and undermined cohesion. All that is left is an unspeakably juvenile soap opera and the petty manoeuvrings of Charles and Di. This week, for example, I am told that Diana is smouldering because she cannot appear at Wimbledon lest the move is interpreted as an attempt to upstage Charles with his Jonathan Dimbleby interview and his investiture celebrations. She is, apparently, biding her time until the autumn to give him real grief. True or not, such is the stuff of the big royal issues of the hour.

In the midst of all this is the odd, tortured figure of the Prince. Long before the scandals struck, Charles had a problem. He wanted to be somebody. This meant either being more than merely the heir to the throne or it meant elevating that position to one of real significance. His method was curious. He adopted a portfolio of issues - architecture, education, youth, alternative medicine, the environment - and turned them into a world view. He is, we all now know, green, anti-modernist, worried about the disintegration of the culture, holistically inclined, multiculturalist and yet essentially conservative. He is a mildly dissident figure with a belief, shared by many dissidents, that he is in touch with what the people are 'really' thinking.

On architecture he was wrong and he meddled disastrously, pouring a poison into the system that has yet to be expelled. His impact on British building has been wholly negative and his one attempt to put his money where his mouth is - Poundbury in Dorset - is turning into one more inert piece of nostalgic Little Englandry.

But the rest of his portfolio is harmlessly well-meaning. He feels there is something wrong and he struggles to express it. He seems to be grasping at a unity and a purpose. But its precise nature always eludes either him or his audience. His characteristic tone has become a kind of yearning frustration; he is pained by the sense that things could be done better but that something or somebody is standing in the way.

His problem is an almost complete absence of a political sense - a lack demonstrated more vividly than ever by the events of this week. He has shown no understanding of the complexities of the real world, so the impact of his attentions tends to be weak, diffused and ill-defined. It is seldom clear precisely what he wants to happen, nor whether he is ready to endure the real difficulties of getting anything done.

In his defence it can be said that this problem is not of his making. His ontological crisis is at one level that of the monarchy itself and at another that of the nation. We are in decline, we are fragmenting, we are rudderless, we are losing purpose and meaning. If the Prince expresses this, however ineffectually, then he is doing no more than fulfilling the traditional role of royalty in embodying the spirit of the nation. Like King Arthur he may be at one with the land; unfortunately when he rides forth no flowers bloom, for the land in question is modern Britain.

His holistic, community-minded impulses might even have been clairvoyant. With Tony Blair in the ascendant we are all Aristotelian communitarians now. Charles in his role as suffering, indecisive, ineffectual Prince Hamlet anticipated an anxiety and a disgust that was to become a political reality.

This week, however, he can take little comfort from this. His position is now agonising, impossible. The future offers a litany of potential humiliations. Can he be king? Will the clergy continue to damn him on Newsnight? Will Call Nick Ross debate his religion and sex life for ever? Will Chatter 88 be pecking at the scarcely breathing corpse of the monarchy until it expires, before either he or his son can accede? Will he for ever be photographed doing his public duties applauded by nobody, while Diana still charms the crowds of mums? Will she initiate a divorce? What about the children?

There is no way off the hook. There is no public relations fix that will hoist him back to acceptance, admiration and love. He can press as many virtuous buttons as he likes - environmental concern, nasty modern buildings, whatever - but it is all now meaningless gesturing, just the sort of stuff silly old Charles says while gym-fit Diana glams it about the place. Even his charity work has become tainted. Nobody really knows what it achieves, plus it is seen as the least the royals can do. So what could be easier, more convincing, than to say that it is just more anti-Diana manoeuvring?

On the whole he probably does not deserve this. He was born into an era that was bound to be nightmarish for the monarchy, he made a bad marriage and his teachers, upbringing and advisers have failed him miserably. He has been taught almost nothing of practical use about the world and he is blessed, or cursed, with an odd personality that veers between coldness and a desperate need to be loved. On balance he is at least as badly sinned against as sinning.

In this context his future course is clear. He must prove himself. He should not, as some have suggested, retreat into privacy and silence. Instead, he should sack all his advisers, drop the speeches and gestures, ditch the charities and get a real job. This should not involve high ideals or handing out money. It should involve risk and the real possibility of failure. It should involve achievements that can be measured rather than glossed and fogged by smart PRs and it should not involve, under any circumstances, any interviews, even with members of the Dimbleby family.

Instead of trying to build tacky pseudo-villages, he should be training as an architect. Instead of visiting Bengalis in the East End, he should be running their textile factories. Instead of handing out money 'to the community', he should be finding out how it is made in the City, in Tyneside or, after learning Japanese, in Tokyo. Why not? He has nothing else to do. The supposedly 'hectic' life of royalty is a comfortable lie. And, after this week, he has nothing to lose except the fawning attention of those who have so badly misguided him for so long.

(Photographs omitted)