Thursday, March 15, 2007

The loneliness of the long-serving heir

Channel 4 threw a barrel-load of rotten tomatoes at Prince Charles in the recent documentary The Meddling Prince. Most of them missed. Throwing rotten tomatoes at Prince Charles is a bit of a national pastime. I’ve even indulged in it myself, on occasion.

However, in this defiant Telegraph piece, Alice Thompson makes the startling but undeniable observation that Charles is possibly the most prescient political pundit in Britain.

Edward VII idled away his time shooting and eating. One of Prince Charles's brothers spends the hours playing golf, another enjoyed dressing up to play It's a Knockout. But that wasn't enough for the Prince of Wales. Nor could he accept the cruel advice of Harold Nicolson to condemn himself to a lifetime of hard labour: "If he possesses the required reservoirs and aqueducts of duty, he will bow his head obediently to this cruel fate. In fact, he must surrender his personality to the exigencies of his task."

So he started "meddling". But what impressive meddling. Unlike politicians, the prince seems to know instinctively what the country will worry about in 10 years' time. He has never used a focus group to work out the tastes of Middle England. He may prefer polo to football and opera to the Arctic Monkeys, he may be surrounded by flunkeys and courtiers, but he does seem to reflect many of the anxieties of his people. Labour and Tory MPs who privately deride him are all nicking his views now.

The first time the Prince of Wales mentioned the environment he was 21. He talked about "the horrifying effects of pollution" and was called a crank. When he installed a bottle bank at Buckingham Palace, he became a joke. Nearly 40 years later, the two main political parties are still trying to catch up. His concern about genetically modified food was once ridiculed, but his views are now shared by most of the Cabinet. He was a fan of localism before David Blunkett or David Cameron had heard of the word.

His love of gardening preceded a thousand gardening shows and was developed long before Charlie Dimmock's cleavage. He was proved right over foot and mouth, and his obsession with organic food has been emulated by everyone from Tesco to M & S. Long before 9/11, he was talking about Islam and the importance of understanding the underlying religious tensions in this country, and he warned about the dangers of jettisoning traditional teaching in schools years before politicians started calling for a literacy hour. Some of his theories are half-baked, some still appear nutty, but no one is being forced to agree with his views. When he fires off a letter to a minister suggesting that the elderly may not be having a particularly pleasant time in hospital, they will not be hanged, drawn and quartered for refusing to act.

Then there is the Prince's Trust. He tries to raise about £25 million a year from private donations. Since 1976, the trust has made more than 50,000 awards to young people to help them to set up businesses….

… When he finally does become king and falls silent to contemplate his reservoirs and aqueducts of duty, we may yet miss his meddling.

Recycling, organic food, Islamic relations, the entrepreneur society, traditional literacy teaching... Charles got there first on all of them.

I have generally casually dismissed Charles as a bit of a buffoon, an idle dabbler in the more trivial elements of tree-hugging environmentalism and reactionary fuddy-duddism. But as the years go by, as his lonely heir-apparent’s path stretches further and further with no end in sight and his prospects of pre-senility rule diminish daily, my views towards him have softened.

Charles’s most infamous blunder came in an interview following his engagement with Diana, when he responded to a comment suggesting that he was in love by saying “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” (The moment comes right at the very end of this toe-curling clip).

What sad sub-Monarchical depths were betrayed by this youthful, Princely gaffe!


Peter Burnet said...

I'm sure British democracy is strong enough to withstand a little scatter-gun nagging from the heir and his charity is praiseworthy, but precience? How hard is it really to think of things in isolation that will trouble us in ten years, especially for one who is constantly meeting community leaders, scientists, NGO's, sages, etc. Charles was by no means the first to think of any of these issues (modern architecture sucks? Kids aren't being taught the basics? Processed food isn't as good as natural?). I think the first was my grandmother, who never stopped talking about them. Granny wasn't big on practical solutions, though.

He's a crunchy-con and he has his constituencies, but what difference is there between he and Hollywood stars who discover causes like world peace when they have finished rehab or presidential wives into drugs or orphans? Somehow the fact that half the cabinet now shares his views on genetically modified food in an era when millions are still starving doesn't reassure me he has much sense of priority.

Brit said...

But you can't deny that he has his finger on the mutton.

Ali Choudhury said...

The Prince's Trust alone makes him one of the few useful royals the country's ever had.

He was heavily criticised for it at the time but he was right about the government's mishandling of foot-and-mouth disease.

Peter Burnet said...

Royals aren't supposed to be useful. If anything, they are there to make people proud of who they are and keep others from trying to be useful and mucking things up horribly.

The Princess Royal has a phenomenal sense of quiet duty and takes on far more engagements and meets far more people than any other Royal without telling everybody what to eat. You think Charles is better?

Ali Choudhury said...

Princess Anne's allright unlike national embarrassments like Princess Michael of Kent. Still it seems pretty undeniable the Prince's Trust has done far more concrete good.

David said...

The Prince's grandfather, an underrated man if ever there was one, made a key decision. The royal family would be resolutely bourgeois, a canny move in a nation of shopkeepers. He cracked jokes about living over the shop, his daughter, who has carried on even though it seems to be a burden, seems to think that bourgeois is French for "dowdy." But Charles is bourgeois to his toes, so of course he knows what's going to be bugging the country 10 years down the line.

Peter Burnet said...


Sure, the Trust is great, so give him credit. He does seem to crave it.

I'm trying not to be churlish here, but there is a difference between low-profile charity done out of duty (How many worthy bodies thrive and raise funds because Anne agrees to be their patron and works tirelessly to help them) and the high-profile "I'm going the change the world" kind, especially when it is based on inherited wealth and the moral or intellectual authority claimed is by birth.

Newscounter said...

You might be interested to read the response from the Prince's foundation. Judge it for yourself here:

martpol said...

Slightly off-topic, sorry, but one wonders whether the monarchy might eventually render itself obsolete by the sheer age of each incumbent.

Charles is 59 and the Queen 81. She can reasonably expect to squeeze out at least another decade from her top-notch healthcare, so Charles will be crowned at about 70.

By that time Prince William will be 36. Charles will want to cling on until he's at least 95, given the length of his wait. So William will be 65...etc.

In a couple of centuries the monarch's first move will be to install a bedpan and recruit a seasoned wheelchair pusher to get them into Parliament in time to croak out the King's/Queen's Speech ilke it's the last rites.

Brit said...

Heh. I would be willing to bet, ooh, five English pounds that the Queen outlives Charles.

Ali Choudhury said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ali Choudhury said...

I think the monarchy should be matrilineal. Consider recent history.

Queen Victoria - zenith of British Empire

King Edward VII - glutton, adulterer and waste of space

King George V - WW1

King Edward VIII - abdicated

King George VI - WW2

Queen Elizabeth II - Fifty years of peace

monix said...

Did we have fifty years of peace? I missed that, must have been daydreaming.

Oroborous said...

Well, "peace" when compared to WWs I & II, especially for the UK.