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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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network