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12 September 2022

From the NS archive: A man born to be king…

21 December 1979: Christopher Hitchens on Prince Charles and the development of the commercial monarchy.

By Christopher Hitchens

The Queen is “the last of the imperial British monarchs”, Christopher Hitchens writes in 1979. She needs “a successor more suited to the sleazy, corrupt, confined and corporate society we have become”. Enter the then-31-year-old Prince Charles, who last week became King Charles III. Hitchens was reviewing a biography of the young prince by Anthony Holden, who described how Charles worked to update the royal family’s traditional links with industry, meeting with trade unions and the president of Sony. To those on the left, the monarchy has often seemed an “irrelevant” issue, but to ignore the proximity of the royal family to political secrets, or to underestimate their “subliminal effect on the country, and on the formation of opinion”, would be a mistake, Hitchens argues. Charles’s reign would, however, be nothing to look forward to. Reading Holden’s book, Hitchens is sure of one thing: “the Prince is short on intelligence, imagination or charm.”


The British Royal Family is a rather uninspiring and dowdy crew of people; indeed its general dullness is part of the protective colouring which has helped it to avoid being identified with the last quarter-century of national decline. There are four living ex-Prime Ministers to whom nobody really gives the time of day, and a bevy of leaders and institutions publicly discredited and exposed. Yet 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, and provides a link with an age slightly more confident than our own. After all, as the New Statesman put it shortly before the [Silver] Jubilee:

“In 1952, the Tories had just got back to office after the Attlee years; 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 bad 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 twentieth century’, as they would and do put it.

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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:

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“Royal links with industry, for instance, are traditional. The Queen’s Awards for Export are only the most familiar of a number of devices of moral encouragement… 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 boardroom either. His choice of entourage reflects this imperative. Holden tells us that:

“Perhaps the most significant appointment, however, was that in 1978 of a thirty-five-year-old diplomat, Oliver Everett, to be assistant private secretary. Everett’s bird-like 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 – his right to a tithe of 300 puffins from the Isles of Scilly would look foolishly behind the times if exercised.

Towards his Welsh subjects the Prince is hardly less generous and 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, less than a year after his investiture at Caernarvon. 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. South America? No problem:

“By fortunate timing, his presence in Brazil coincided with the finalisation of a huge investment by British banks in a steel-mill complex near Rio, expected to yield a profit of some £11 million. A little delicate blurring at the edges, and the Prince could be said to have ‘clinched’ the deal. As his ten day trip had cost the British taxpayer some £11,000, it showed an equally neat 1,000-1 return on investment.”

And no doubt a vote of thanks from the board of GB Inc, who can’t afford to pass up any coups however small.

Not that Prince Charles is indifferent to the greater issues. We are assured that while in Brazil he expressed a private desire to be informed about the human rights situation. 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. One imagines him ordering his Solzhenitsyn by the yard, though it’s difficult to picture him asking the bookseller to leave the soporific old novels out.)

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, this must not be allowed to degenerate into mere blandness. 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. First there was Squadron Leader David Checketts, written up in true Seventies style as “an urbane, grammar-school educated public relations man with a distinguished RAF record”. When he was felt to be too old and conventional for the growing boy, he “returned to more lucrative full-time public relations work”. His replacement, the Hon. Edward Adeane, is a man much in tune with the times:

“To work for the Prince, he gave up a lucrative [that word again] 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. Hardly perceptible, but definite after a second and third glance, here is the gradual process by which the monarchy is being steered into the post-imperial age. Even the royal choice of friends and companions 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 the committee of one of his trusts, and Hywel Jones, a socialist economist who shared his staircase at Cambridge.” A socialist, of course, among one’s friends would be de rigeur. (Though Holden comments matter-of-factly that the royal parents have “orthodox conservative attitudes” to which Charles “reverted” after being talked out of joining the University Labour Club by none other than Lord Butler.)

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 democratic and 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 sort of 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, whose friend Norton Knatchbull (chip off the Mountbatten block) has occasionally persuaded him to wear promotional T-shirts from films he has worked on – notably A Bridge Too Far. 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.

At times, in the recent past, this has been important. We know how vital it was to Harold Wilson, in his disastrous foot-dragging over Rhodesia in 1965, to keep the confidence of the Palace at every step. We know how the Palace and the prerogative helped to foist Sir Alec Douglas-Home on the country as Prime Minister, and we know how nearly they foisted the Marquess of Salisbury (just imagine it) on us instead. True, many of these backstairs deals involve the Queen’s staff of advisers and retainers, but their power, too, deserves to be reckoned with.

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 – in historic terms, constitutional terms, or even showbiz ones. 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 re-shaping of the present Prince of Wales is taking place. His advisers know that the pomp and circumstance cannot be jettisoned – indeed, events like the Investiture show that they often feel it needs beefing up. 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 weII then, Prince of mediocrity.

The boy has been through every hoop that can be devised for him – and apparently has no doubts or complaints. 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. He has been around the world, and yet according to Holden he was seized with jealousy while having dinner with Sir James Goldsmith.

Perhaps this is what we have come to – a king in the making, programmed to respond to that kind of success, regretting its apparent decline in Britain and determined to do his bit. A king 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 more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: Will the monarchy last?]