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14 September 2022

King Charles III and his causes

Charles III is notorious for his political interventions. Will he be an activist monarch or follow his mother’s example?

By Martin Fletcher

You can count on one hand the number of times that Queen Elizabeth II commented on political matters during her 70-year reign – and even some of those are disputed.

During a visit to the Times offices in 1985 she allegedly blamed one man, Arthur Scargill, for the miners’ strike. She was allegedly dismayed by Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to sanction South Africa’s apartheid regime – or, at least, her press secretary briefed the Sunday Times to that effect.

Fearing Scotland would vote for independence in the 2014 referendum, David Cameron asked whether she could intervene with “just a raising of an eyebrow, even, you know, a quarter of an inch”. She obliged by telling a well-wisher outside Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral, that she hoped voters would “think very carefully about the future”.

In 2016 the Sun ran a front-page story headlined “Queen Backs Brexit”, based on Michael Gove’s leaked account of a lunch at Windsor Castle. The Independent Press Standards Organisation later branded the headline “significantly misleading”.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

The Queen’s lifelong suppression of her own views, her determination to remain above the political fray no matter what, was a major reason why her reign was so successful and Britain’s constitutional monarchy has survived. It was a measure of her achievement that her subjects knew practically nothing about her personal opinions, and that republicanism gained so little traction. “I have no idea what her actual politics [are], and I was prime minister for ten years,” said Tony Blair.

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King Charles III displayed far less self-restraint during the many decades he spent as heir apparent. In interviews, articles and books he expressed robust views on any number of issues, many of them political. He lobbied prime ministers and ministers on causes close to his heart. By his own admission, he “tended to make a habit of sticking my head above the parapet and generally getting it shot off”.

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[See also: How the Queen changed Britain]

All of which raises the question: will he follow his mother’s example and avoid pronouncing on any contentious issue from this point on, or will he prove an activist King who defies the constitutional requirement that he remains politically impartial?

The risk of the former course is that the monarchy comes to be seen as an irrelevance, as a costly anachronism. The high esteem it presently enjoys reflects the nation’s love for the late Queen, not for the institution she represented. But Charles is liked more than loved. He lacks his mother’s absolute integrity and deep reservoir of goodwill. He faces a far less deferential media and, at 73, brings little in the way of youthful vigour or fresh appeal to the role. A recent YouGov poll found only 24 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds thought the monarchy was good for Britain, compared to 74 per cent of over-65s. Charles cannot be passive. He has to earn the country’s support.

Conversely, the risk of the King continuing to speak his mind at a time when the country is so polarised, and when so many issues (even climate change) have become deeply politicised, is that he will not be seen as a head of state behind whom the UK can unite. That could just as easily undermine the monarchy.

In the 21st century a hereditary monarchy is hard to defend on rational grounds. For its continued survival, it depends on its subjects lending it their emotional support. However sound his views – and they range from distinctly progressive to profoundly conservative – our new King must tread a delicate line if he is not to become Charles the Third and Last.

No monarch in a thousand years has waited so long to ascend the British throne, and for Charles it has not been a particularly enjoyable experience. His mother was emotionally aloof and often absent. His father was stern and overbearing. He was bullied at Gordonstoun school in Scotland, which he called “Colditz with kilts”. Thereafter he obediently followed the rigid course prescribed for him – Cambridge University, then five years’ service in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

Even in marriage he was unable to follow his heart. He dutifully selected Diana Spencer, an eligible blue blood 12 years his junior. “Whatever love means,” he replied when asked if they were in love on the day their engagement was publicly announced. The “fairy tale” marriage collapsed in a welter of sensational headlines, and ended in bitter divorce in 1996. The following year Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, died in a high speed car crash in a Paris underpass as they were pursued by the media.

Charles’s misery was not confined to his marriage. He lacked a defined role. “To be just a presence would be fatal,” he wrote in his diary after meeting President Nixon at the White House in 1970. A few years later his wish to serve as governor-general of Australia came to nothing. “What are you supposed to think when you are prepared to do something to help and you are just told you’re not wanted?” he complained. “My great problem in life is that I don’t really know what my role in life is,” he lamented as he turned 30.

His story was “one of constant struggle against the limitations placed upon him by the genetic accident of his birth”, a biographer, Anthony Holden, wrote. Charles was “a confused and tortured soul trying to come to terms with a claustrophobic, if comfortable, life of inherited imprisonment… a caring and thoughtful man in search of good to do”. He was “determined not to be confined to cutting ribbons”.

As the decades passed Charles did eventually attain both a wife that he genuinely loved – Camilla Parker-Bowles – and the role that he craved. Long before it was fashionable, he began warning of the dangers of climate change. He spoke out against the desecration of the planet, industrial-scale agriculture and genetically modified crops. He championed conservation, rainforests, organic farming and alternative medicine. He highlighted inner city blight and social deprivation. He preached religious tolerance and interfaith understanding. He set up a plethora of charities and foundations to promote his pet causes. In the process he regularly breached, or came precariously close to breaching, the requirement that royals remain politically neutral.

Charles infuriated Margaret Thatcher with his dabbling in politics, and enraged her environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley, by decrying the dumping of sewage in the North Sea. He reportedly drove Tony Blair to distraction with his denunciation of genetically modified foods, criticism of New Labour’s education policies, opposition to a fox-hunting ban and support for a badger cull, and angered David Cameron by rushing to visit flooded areas of Somerset and Cumbria and complaining at the lack of proper defences.

Charles regularly wrote “black spider” memos – so-called because of his spidery handwriting – to ministers, lobbying them on issues ranging from better equipment for British soldiers in Iraq, to hospital designs, rural housing, alternative medicine, saving London’s Smithfield Market and protecting the Patagonian toothfish. On occasion he would summon them to Clarence House to bend their ears. A 2007 Channel 4 documentary was entitled Charles: The Meddling Prince.

He did not limit himself to domestic issues. He boycotted state banquets with Chinese presidents out of support for the Dalai Lama. After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, he described China’s leaders as “appalling old waxworks”. In 2014 he compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Following Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 he spoke of “deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s”.

[See also: The Queen held together a restive kingdom]

He has waged war against modern architecture, denouncing a proposed extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle”. He likened the National Theatre to a “nuclear power station” and suggested Hitler’s Luftwaffe had caused less damage to London. He has, on occasion, sought to circumvent the planning authorities to thwart major construction projects.

He shocked the Anglican hierarchy by speaking of becoming “defender of faith” rather than “defender of the faith” when he became King. He has expressed sympathy for Extinction Rebellion’s aims, if not its methods. In 2013 he condemned corporate lobbyists and climate change sceptics for turning the planet into a “dying” one.

As recently as June this year, he was quoted as describing Boris Johnson’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling”. Asked by the BBC whether Johnson’s government was doing enough to combat climate change, he replied: “I couldn’t possibly comment.” A senior minister said: “Prince Charles is an adornment to our public life, but that will cease to be charming if he attempts to behave the same way when he’s King… That will present serious constitutional issues.”

Tom Bower, another of Charles’s biographers, wrote in Rebel Prince (2018): “Since turning 21, Charles had met eight British prime ministers and countless politicians. There was little respect from either side.”

Charles made no apologies for his interventions. He saw his role as that of the people’s tribune and the nation’s conscience. In 2002 his spokeswoman declared: “The Prince of Wales takes an active interest in all aspects of British life and believes that as well as celebrating success, part of his role must be to highlight problems and represent views in danger of not being heard.”

In a 2006 television interview, Charles said: “It would be criminally negligent of me to go round this country and not actually want to try and do something about what I find there.” In 2008 he told his friend and biographer Jonathan Dimbleby that, “I simply can’t see what I see and do nothing about it.” In 2018 he defended his right to raise concerns about issues such as inner city deprivation, saying: “If that’s meddling I’m very proud of it.”

Marc Bolland, Charles’s former press secretary, once said the Prince of Wales regarded himself as a “dissident working against the prevailing political consensus”. Bower went further, writing: “He believes passionately that he can make Britain a better country and that he can help the disadvantaged.” He added: “Determined to be a figure of consequence… he has used his position since the early 1980s to influence how Britain is governed.”

Charles certainly recognises the need to change his outspoken ways now he is King. Asked in 2018 by the BBC whether his public campaigning would continue as monarch, he replied: “No… I’m not that stupid. I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign.”

In his first speech as King on 9 September he pointedly declared: “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.” In his several addresses since his mother’s death he has pledged to “maintain the precious principles of constitutional government which lie at the heart of our nation”.

A former aide said he had already detected a different tone in Charles’s public utterances, and was sure the black spider memos and summoning of ministers would cease. So too, presumably, will his receipt of suitcases full of cash from Middle Eastern potentates eager to secure honours or preferment by donating to his charities. But there are other ways the new monarch can continue to exert considerable influence behind the scenes.

He can exercise what the 19th-century constitutionalist Walter Bagehot described as “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn” of the British sovereign. He can, and doubtless will, use his weekly audience with the prime minister to ask searching questions. On 11 September David Cameron revealed to the BBC that he held training sessions with Charles while he was prime minister. “From what I saw he will be brilliant at that job. Brilliant at listening, brilliant at asking questions, giving wise advice and sage counsel.”

Charles can continue to make speeches, but using more measured language. He can send subtle signals by choosing who and where he visits. He can exploit his status, knowledge and considerable experience to convene gatherings of experts, as he has so often in the past. “I suspect [that] is a modus operandi that will continue as he takes on this new role,” his former press secretary Julian Payne wrote in an article for the Sunday Times.

He can also use his son, William, to raise awkward or unfashionable issues in the way he himself used to, and suggested as much in his first speech as monarch: “Our new Prince and Princess of Wales will, I know, continue to inspire and lead our national conversations, helping to bring the marginal to the centre ground where vital help can be given.” A source close to Charles told the Sunday Times: “The urgency and importance of the issues have not gone away for him. He will just address the issues differently going forwards.”

[See also: It is right to question the existence of the Crown – yet on the environment the King’s voice may be crucial]

But it remains to be seen whether King Charles will, or can, accept the new constitutional constraints on him. He has a short fuse. He can be headstrong and stubborn. He lacks his mother’s iron self-restraint. Having been mocked as “dotty” earlier in his life, he feels justifiably vindicated and emboldened at the way climate change, environmental degradation and other issues he championed nearly half a century ago have now become mainstream. “I’m not sure he will be quite as inscrutable as his mum,” the former aide said.

Charles cares deeply about the causes he has embraced, and it will be interesting to see how he will react if Liz Truss’s right-wing government seeks royal assent for bills with which he disagrees. What if it seeks to dilute Britain’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2050? Or endangers the Good Friday Agreement by reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol? Would he, or could he, cause a constitutional crisis by withholding his approval?

Mike Bartlett wrote Charles III (2014), a play that showed the new monarch refusing to give royal assent to a bill. Bartlett told the Times that it will be great theatre watching the real King’s conscience vie with his duty, given that “whenever some issue is raised, we know what he thinks anyway”.

There is one other feature of Charles’s character that sets him apart from his mother, and that is a pronounced messianic streak. According to the journalist Catherine Mayer, who wrote a biography of Charles in 2015, he is “a man with a mission, a knight on a quest”. She added that his courtiers “feel he puts his more cerebral passions – his activism – before his royal job. They are a long way from being persuaded of Charles’s evolving view: that campaigning and kingship can be synthesised.” Charles’s other biographers appear to agree. Jonathan Dimbleby has predicted that “he will go well beyond what any previous constitutional monarch has ever essayed.” Tom Bower concluded: “I am convinced that he is determined to make his mark on British history, and will not choose an impartial silence during his inevitably short reign. He remains a historian, writer and political activist, and will want to cement Charles III in people’s memories for centuries to come.”

Those concerned about the future of our fragile planet must hope that the biographers are right, and that Charles can find ways to continue his environmental campaigning, if nothing else, without jeopardising the monarchy. That would perhaps be the greatest service Britain’s new monarch could render to his country and the world.

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession