GENERALS, we are told, are always fighting the last war. On the showing of Jonathan Dimbleby's book, The Prince of Wales, the House of Windsor in the Sixties and Seventies devoted itself to preventing a re-run of the abdication crisis of the Thirties.
Partly, the problem was generational. Charles, it is unsurprising to learn, was not close to his parents. His mother, though not indifferent, was detached. Confident in her public role, in private she deferred to the Duke of Edinburgh as paterfamilias. Queen Victoria, of course, did the same to Albert, with equally disastrous consequences for the upbringing of their eldest son, later Edward VII.
Charles, on the other hand, would probably have got on rather well with the Prince Consort. As a boy, he preferred the library to the stable, and loved music and painting. Unfortunately, his father was Prince Philip, not Prince Albert. And Philip openly gloried in his daughter, the tomboy Anne, and reduced his sensitive eldest son to tears in the presence of guests.
Worst of all, he sent him to Gordonstoun, which, as told by the prince to Dimbleby, appears as hell on earth. The other boys were bullies, foul in word and deed. And Charles was their chosen victim, both on the rugger field and in the dorm. It would have been enough to make anybody take to drink - let alone to cherry brandy. Instead, it taught Charles a dogged stoicism, and to value the company of his elders.
The two key figures were his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Lord Mountbatten. The latter was his great-uncle, but Charles called him his 'honorary grandfather'. Both were pre-war people, for whom the abdication crisis was a watershed. For Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother it was the determining event in her life, the event that made her Queen and her husband, George VI, King.
For George, a stammerer, the public role was a perpetual agony and he smoked himself to an early death. Elizabeth never forgave her brother-in-law Edward VIII for the abdication which had placed her husband on a throne to which he was so unsuited.
For the Queen Mother, the abdication was a personal crisis; for Mountbatten, it was a political one. She feared for her husband; he feared for the wealth and worldly fame that had come to him through his carefully nurtured ties with the House of Windsor. The lessons he drew were also of an old-fashioned worldly wisdom.
These he made it his business to inculcate into the young Charles. First was the centrality of duty. 'Uncle David' (the future Edward VIII) had put his private happiness in the form of his determination to wed the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, above his public duty; Charles must never be guilty of the same offence.
Let Charles be selfish, or merely thoughtless, and the awful bogey of 'Uncle David' was invoked. The prince had muddled some holiday dates. This, Mountbatten thundered, was 'unkind and thoughtless and so typical of how your Uncle David started'. Charles's response was that he was 'becoming rather worried by all this talk about being self-centred. I'm told marriage is the only cure for me.'
Mountbatten had equally clear and old-fashioned views on this subject as well. 'In a case like yours, a man should have as many affairs as he can before settling down. But for a wife he should choose a suitable and sweet-charactered girl before she meets anyone else she might fall for.'
Charles, it is clear, followed this advice to the letter and plumped for Diana Spencer because she seemed to correspond so closely to his honorary grandfather's ideal.
Even before the marriage he had doubts about their compatibility. These were reinforced by the unasked-for advice of a couple of candid friends. But typically, it was duty - invoked this time by Prince Philip - that tipped the balance. He had gone so far, his father brusquely told him, that he risked dishonouring her and his family unless he made up his mind immediately. Charles was torn: 'I do very much want to the right thing for this country and my family - but I'm terrified of making a promise and then perhaps living to regret it.' Predictably, duty won.
This account of Charles's marriage is psychologically convincing and fully documented. It is also the opposite of the popular conception that has arisen from Andrew Morton's partisan narrative about the Princess of Wales, Diana - Her True Story. This sees Charles as taking his marriage vows cynically and breaking them quickly. Instead, it is clear it was the best of intentions that paved the way to a hell of a marriage.
Charles himself called his marriage 'a Greek tragedy'. Hegel explains tragedy as a clash of two incompatible systems of right: Antigone, in the classic instance, represents the values of the family, Creon of the state.
At the risk of bathos, the family life of our own dear Queen saw similar clashes to the House of Atreus. Charles stood for old-fashioned notions of duty and the subordination of personal happiness. He also had a pretty old-fashioned view of women.
Diana, in contrast, had no notions at all. She was pure, instinctual solipsism. Only she and her feelings existed. She even resented the Falklands war because it diverted attention from herself. Obsessed with herself, she only lived in the media's obsession with her. One of the most revealing episodes in Dimbleby's book is Diana, indifferent to all else, scrabbling frantically through the tabloids for her own pictures.
This psychological conflict is also a clash of epochs. Charles represents the family monarchy as it had been fashioned in the Twenties. You lived your public life as a model of private virtue - and if there were private problems then, as the Queen Mother had been bluntly enjoined on the occasion of her own marriage, you suffered in silence. Charles had learnt that lesson benignly from Mountbatten and brutally at Gordonstoun. Diana, on the other hand, stands for the present of media celebrity. In this, you parade your private problems for public delectation and the messier they are (a princess being sick into a lavatory bowl, for instance), then the more the public loves you.
In this war of the old and new worlds, Diana seemed to be scoring an easy victory. But Mountbatten was shrewd as well as cynical: 'Realise how fickle public support can be - it has to be earned over again every year.' Charles has also taken this lesson to heart. And in the Dimbleby film and now the book, he has shown he can play Diana at her own game - and win.
This, it is claimed, has led to another struggle: between Buckingham Palace and St James's. The Queen's advisers allegedly disapprove of Charles reversing more than 150 years of studied discretion and throwing open his private life to public gaze. His own staff at St James's, on the contrary, are enthusiastic. The Prime Minister may haver over a Freedom of Information Act. But the Prince of Wales seizes the initiative, declares one unilaterally, and is rewarded by a favourable editorial in the Sunday Times.
That may be the least he could expect. If the prince has any job at all, apart from waiting for his mother's death, it is to point the way to the future. In a cack- handed way, he is doing just that.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies