Suspended in inaction: Prince Charles (1980) by Bryan Organ.
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From the archive: Christopher Hitchens on Prince Charles

First published 21 December 1979.

The British royal family is a rather uninspiring and dowdy crew of people; indeed its general dullness is part of the protective covering which has helped it to avoid being identified with the last quarter-century of national decline. The monarchy seems to most people a thing apart from civil society, which is probably why it is almost the last surviving specimen of its kind.

How much longer can this go on? In the case of the present Queen, the great thing has been continuity. She is the last of the imperial British monarchs. After all, as the New Statesman put it shortly before the Jubilee:

In 1952, the Tories had just got back to office, Churchill had made his famous address to Congress, Monty was at NATO HQ, Stalin ruled Russia, Chiang’s men were fighting a rearguard action against the Chinese Communists on the Burma frontier. Virtually the whole of Africa was still partitioned among the colonial powers, and the British authorities had just informed the UN that they did not see their way to abolishing flogging in the mandated territories.

How different, how very different . . . At this moment, it is the full-time job of a large number of courtiers to groom a successor to Elizabeth II; a successor more suited to the sleazy, corrupt, confined and corporate society we have become, or to “the exciting challenge of the last quarter of the 20th century”, as they would and do put it.

Anthony Holden was granted a fairly close look at the young king in the making, and My Lord Weidenfeld of Chelsea makes an ideal publisher for the result (Charles Prince of Wales, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 6.95). The lineaments of the new-style monarchy start to become apparent very early on:

Royal links with industry, for instance, are traditional . . . In his early thirties, Prince Charles has begun to extend those links into the virgin royal territory of the trade unions, as befits the times. In 1979 he attended the annual conference of the Iron and Steel Trades Federation, carefully selected as one of the few unions which had then submitted to the Callaghan Government’s pay policy.

Above politics, too, don’t you see. And a slight change of tempo from the boring harangues about “getting your finger out” from his wholly unacceptable father.

Selected sweetheart trade unions apart, the Prince is not lost for contacts in the board-room either. Holden tells us that:

Perhaps the most significant appointment [to join his staff] was that in 1978 of a 35-year-old diplomat, Oliver Everett, to be assistant private secretary. Everett’s birdlike appearance belies his athletic prowess, notably as a polo-player of even more accomplishment than his master [there’s glory for you]; more important, he has organised such initiatives as the Prince of Wales’s tour of British industry under the auspices of the National Economic Development Office.

In the same spirit of buccaneering enterprise, the Prince leases his rich oyster-beds on the River Helston in Cornwall to Mac Fisheries Ltd, who thereby subcontract and market about a million oysters a year. This decision shows his up-to-dateness in the matter of his Cornish dukedom.

Towards his Welsh subjects the Prince is hardly less go-ahead. We learn that:

Visiting Expo ’70 in Tokyo, he met the president of the Sony electronics conglomerate, and learned of their plans to build a plant somewhere in Western Europe. “Why not try Wales?” suggested its Prince . . . Two years later, Prince Charles was able to open the new Sony plant in Bridgend, Glamorgan . . .

Where they could certainly do with the work. At home, abroad, there is the same unsleeping salesmanship—the head of PR for Great Britain Incorporated.

Not that Prince Charles is indifferent to the greater issues. His personal library and reading habits are also scrutinised by Holden, who reveals that “E F Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful is something of a bible, but he will fall asleep over a novel”. (This last, even though “anything by Alexander Solzhenitsyn” is considered absorbing.)

So it is hardly a surprise to discover that his religious convictions were first encouraged by the Rt Rev Robert Woods, when Dean of Windsor and Chaplain to the Queen. Now Bishop of Worcester, Woods is gratified to find the Prince “unassailed by doubts”. Not bad for a boy of more than thirty years of age. But of course, there are twentieth-century challenges out there just waiting to be met. “As the future head of the Anglican Church he is anxious to use his position to encourage rapprochement with Rome.” Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Anything else would look hidebound and, well, traditional.

Even more indicative of the new-style bourgeois monarchy is the retinue of private secretaries as described here. The Hon Edward Adeane is a man much in tune with the times:

To work for the Prince, he gave up a lucrative practice as a libel barrister, with such disparate clients as Lady Falkender and the Tory Party, The Times and Playboy magazine.

Adeane went to Eton and Cambridge all right, but there is nothing fuddy-duddy about him. Any more than there is about the Hon John Baring, chairman of the merchant bank, who looks after the new and dynamic financing of the Duchy of Cornwall. Even the royal choice of friends has to be trimmed. The Nicholas Soames lot, for instance, are written off as “upper-class twits”. “The Prince these days,” says Holden, “favours more substantial figures such as his barrister friend Richard Beckett, who serves on . . . one of his trusts, and Hywell Jones, a socialist economist who shared his staircase at Cambridge.” A socialist, of course, among one’s friends would be de rigueur.

Sometimes the description of his efforts with his “circle” are downright laughable. Torn between his kinship with the well-born and his need to appear modern, Charles causes sentences like this to be written about him, and his chums the Tollemaches (Timothy and Alexandra):

Though heir to the Tollemache and Cobbold brewery fortune, the fifth Baron has recently felt obliged to open Helmingham’s gardens to the public.

There was none of that foolishness when Edward was waiting to become king.

Then of course there is showbiz, an essential means of communicating with the aspirations of modern youth etc, and one which previous princes have properly scorned. Not so our boy. His phrase for his better-favoured younger brother Andrew is “the one with the Robert Redford looks”. He likes The Goodies and Monty Python, and still affects to find The Goons funny. In touch, in touch, always in touch. It must be hell, but it must be done.

To the Left, the monarchy has often seemed an irrelevant issue—either a tedious anomaly to be mocked or an occasional target for criticism concerning luxurious expense. This philistinism is a big mistake. First, the Palace still retains considerable political reserve influence, through the Royal Prerogative and through other influences more informal. We learn from Holden of a lunch where “the Prince of Wales reckoned he got the better of the PM in one or two exchanges on the small print of Cabinet memoranda”. Oh he did, did he? The Prime Minister was James Callaghan, so it probably wasn’t difficult to win the argument. But the point is the access of the Royal Family to the secrets which the voters never know, and the resulting manoeuvrability which this confers on them.

Then there is the ideological element. If nothing else, Jubilee year demonstrated to many radicals that the monarchy still has a vast claim on the popular imagination. It is, of course, only to be expected that the very apex of our system should be an absurdity. But it is a great mistake to underestimate its subliminal effect on the country, and on the formation of opinion.

It is in this dimension—the ideological one—that the reshaping of the present Prince of Wales is taking place. His advisers know that the pomp and circumstance cannot be jettisoned. But they also know that it will not do on its own; that the next monarch will have to make his way in the world and that his subjects will have to be conditioned for it. Through every page in Holden’s book shines the fact that the Prince is short on intelligence, imagination or charm. Very well then, Prince of mediocrity.

The boy has been through every hoop that can be devised for him. He has piloted a plane and made a parachute jump. He has commanded a Royal Navy vessel though he has never (unlike his Uncle Dickie) heard a shot fired in anger.

Perhaps this is what we have come to—a king in the making who knows a few social democrats by their Christian names; a king who has more or less acceptable packages of opinion on everything from racial harmony to ecumenicism. A king fit to be on the board in his own right. A king in the image of Peter Jay; with relatives slightly better connected.

Read this and over a hundred other articles from the New Statesman archive in “The New Statesman Century”, our anthology of the best and boldest writing from the last hundred years.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.