Beyond the call of duty: the Prince Charles problem

Charles seems unable to keep his mouth shut on political issues.

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Charles: the Heart of a King
Catherine Mayer
W H Allen, 448pp, £20

The 66-year-old Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, has been heir-apparent to the British throne since the age of three, longer than any of his predecessors, longer even than Edward VII, who occupied the position for 59 years. Early on in his life, therefore, Charles was confronted with the problem of what to do in a situation where the job for which he was destined was unlikely to become his until he was long past the normal ret­irement age.

The modern precedents for this situation are not encouraging. In the long decades before he came to the throne as Edward VII in 1901, “Bertie” was sent on a number of successful foreign tours and public engagements, but he occupied most of his time with shooting, horse racing, gambling and conducting sexual liaisons with a wide variety of women, including Russian princesses, English actresses and French prostitutes. His mother, Queen Victoria, kept him well away from politics, a subject that in any case did not really interest him. Bertie’s father, Prince Albert, determined to bring up his eldest son as a fit and proper person to occupy the throne, put the reluctant prince through a rigorous education against which the young man rebelled in every way possible. As his mother later said: “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder.”

Edward VIII, heir-apparent from 1910 to 1936, was given a similarly thorough education, with similarly disastrous effects. His private secretary said that his normal mental development had stopped when he reached adolescence. He failed to graduate from either the naval course he was made to take or Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was forced to study. He, too, had many sexual liaisons, though mainly with married women. “After I am dead,” his father, George V, predicted, “the boy will ruin himself in 12 months” – and indeed Edward was forced to abdicate shortly after he came to the throne.

Charles, too, was subjected to a strenuous course of studies to prepare him for the responsibilities of kingship. According to the American journalist Catherine Mayer’s informative new portrait of the prince, he hated Gordonstoun school, whose tough, spartan regime had suited his father, Prince Philip, but was entirely inappropriate for the young Charles, who was bullied mercilessly by the other boys. He preferred older women to the type of virginal girl his mentor Earl Mountbatten wanted him to marry. When he did find a spouse in Lady Diana Spencer, the marriage was a disaster, and the subsequent much-publicised divorce did heavy damage to Charles’s standing with the public, especially because it was revealed that he had been having an affair with the woman who subsequently became his second wife, Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles. Mayer writes that his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, frequently “crackled with contempt, spoken or unvoiced, towards Charles”.

The most successful modern British monarchs, on the whole, have been those
who never expected to come to the throne in their early years and so escaped the weight of expectation and preparation that proved such a burden for Charles and the two Edwards. Queen Victoria did not become heir-apparent until she was 18, George V until his elder brother’s death in 1892, when he was in his mid-twenties; George VI was not expected to come to the throne until the abdication in 1936, when he was 40, and so, in consequence, neither was the present Queen until she was nearly 11 years of age.

Yet unlike other heirs to the throne who have been made to undergo an apprenticeship stretching into decades, Charles has clearly imbibed a strong commitment to public duty and responsibility from the creators of the modern monarchy, and done his best to imbue his life-in-waiting with purpose. This has resulted in his creation and management of a vast array of charities and trusts to put into action the philosophy of life he has developed over the years. Some of these, such as the Prince’s Trust, are devoted to the education and welfare of disadvantaged young people; others, such as the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts or the Anglo Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture, to the revival of traditional arts and crafts; still more to championing alternative forms of healing such as homoeopathy, as in the case of the erstwhile Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health.

Mayer does a good job of explaining the ideas that have driven the prince to set up these enterprises, emphasising the need for harmony in nature, religion and belief, a conviction that has led him, among other things, to express sympathy with Islam on his many visits to Saudi Arabia. The problem with this sense of purpose, admirable enough in itself, is that it inevitably has a political dimension.

Over the years Charles has deluged successive governments with the “black spider memos”, putting his views on a wide range of topics to ministers (a tranche of the letters will appear after the Supreme Court ruled against the government’s attempts to block publication). It is hard to pin these down
politically. On the one hand, he is concerned about global warming, opposes genetically modified crops and practises organic farming, all expressions of what one might call left-wing views in one form or another. On the other hand, Alastair Campbell’s diaries of the Blair years note Charles’s lobbying against a ban on fox hunting, which he considered good for the environment, against a European Defence Force, which he thought would undermine the special relationship with the United States, and against a rapprochement with China, which he regarded as a betrayal of the Dalai Lama. The 2001 epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, which resulted in government orders to slaughter large numbers of cattle, prompted what Campbell called a “six-page letter from Charles full of Daily Telegraph-speak”, com­plaining about the government’s lack of understanding of the countryside.

The point is, surely, that as heir to the throne he should not be doing this at all. Yet he seems unable to keep his mouth shut on political issues; recently, for example, he compared Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, with the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Charles is not going to change his practices or beliefs when he becomes king, not now he is in his mid-sixties. Yet the British constitutional monarchy is founded on a firm tradition of political neutrality in which policy is made by the government of the day and not by an unelected monarch. It is popular precisely because it is above politics and so serves as a symbol of national unity and identity.

The principle behind a hereditary monarchy may be outdated, especially when hereditary peers no longer have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords, yet it is no worse than, say, the principle of government appointment of the head of state, as in Germany, where very few presidents have been men of personal stature. Mayer quotes a number of politicians in defence of Charles’s interventions, but she makes it clear, on the other hand, that these have also met with widespread criticism. If and when he becomes king, that criticism is likely to become far louder, and few could predict the consequences.

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus)

This article appears in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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