Prince Charles 'black spider' letters: Memos put an end to the ludicrous idea that Britain's monarchy is politically neutral


Thursday 14 May 2015 06:32 BST

Elizabeth: Defender of the Faith. Charles: Defender of the Patagonian Toothfish. Even the most determined republican might not object too violently to the Prince of Wales voicing his anxiety about endangered species or badger culling. His knowledgeable contributions about the crisis in the beef industry were impressive, in their own way. In these letters, not meant to see the light of day until George VII was on the throne, Prince Charles comes across as a slightly cranky but well meaning, middle-aged fusspot with a little too much time on his hands. Which we knew already.

And yet there is something wrong in principle with the heir to the throne taking it upon himself to lobby the government. Included in the selection released was one to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, complaining about the helicopters used by British soldiers in Iraq. He was probably right about that, but Mr Blair was also being attacked by his political opponents on that very issue. True, badgers will never be central to the ideological struggles of our times, but the issue is still sensitive and deeply divides many in the countryside. What looks uncontroversial can prove anything but. Would it not be better if the Prince remained silent about badgers, school meals, old buildings and the rest of it?

So much the greatest benefit of the publication of the Prince of Wales’s missives to his mother’s ministers is that they provide an extremely powerful sanction against political interference by anyone in the Royal Family – acute public embarrassment. None of them will be able to approach a member of HM Government without considering how their actions might look if subsequently revealed to the public. Or at least not unless David Cameron restores their privilege, about which No 10 is making unnerving noises. They might also reflect on how their actions may be viewed by Her Majesty herself, almost always a model of constitutional rectitude – with the exception of her willingness to speak out, albeit in code, on the Union of Scotland and England. That may prove troublesome in the years ahead.

This princely fidgeting began innocently enough some decades ago. The Prince, heading into middle age, and with a family history of extreme longevity, was casting around for something to do. In the 1980s he obviously had to avoid vital and sensitive political issues, such as mass unemployment or the Cold War. He chose instead important, but not party political, subjects on which to think aloud – the environment, architecture, poverty and so on.

The Prince’s Trust skirted just on the right side of politics in its charitable work with the jobless young. William and Harry’s efforts in conservation abroad – supported by this newspaper in its charity appeals – are also sanctioned by the Foreign Office. That is how it should be. By contrast, the Prince’s interventions about much-loved buildings and climate change were more pointed and more “freelance”, and he was lucky to get away with them.

An old school of thought, and a robust one at that, holds that the monarch and their family should be seen and not heard, and confine themselves to the sort of small talk routinely encountered at Buckingham Palace garden parties. Their role is to open bypasses, dress up in Ruritanian rig-outs, read out anodyne texts supplied by ministers and civil servants, oversee genteel decline and provide plenty of soap opera-style storylines to the world’s media. Surely that’s enough to keep HRH busy?

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