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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage