We should like Prince Charles all the more for his brave opinions
The Prince of Wales' private correspondence to government bodies - including the Northern Ireland Office - are soon to be made public. But rather than condemning royal interference, we should be thankful he remains a positive influence, says Mary Kenny
My husband, who is English, was, during his active working life a political radical, admiring biographer of Tito, and correspondent for the Left-wing New Statesman. But in his sunset years, and perhaps even before that, his attachment to the British monarchy has become something deeply meaningful to him: it represents the thread of history, the repository of continuing values, and even the deposit of wisdom which has built up over the centuries often through trial and error.
His esteem for the Queen is immense, and he much admires and trusts Charles, Prince of Wales (during the "war of the Waleses", back in the 1990s, when I expressed my sympathies for Diana, Richard was wholly partisan to Charles).
So, when Charles's 27 private letters to seven Government ministers, written in 2004 and 2005, are made public this week, after a long legal wrangle, I know that whatever they are shown to contain, people like my husband will continue to repose their continuing trust in the Prince. Over many subjects, from architecture and education to the environment and faith issues, there will be those who believe that Charles's judgment is a lot better than many a politician's.
Politicians have the legitimacy of being elected, but their decisions can often be short-term - the better to get re-elected - and based on appeasing a particular constituency. The Prince of Wales can afford to be eccentric because he is not seeking election, but he can also think with the perspective of history. He should be free to express himself in private to those who govern the country, without his every thought being broadcast.
Not everyone - not even every Englishman - will agree with this defence of the future Charles III, and many will regard it as a victory for freedom of expression that the Supreme Court ruled that these letters be made public, despite a previous attempt by the attorney general, the Tory Dominic Grieve, to keep them under wraps. The Guardian newspaper has campaigned energetically to have them opened up, on the grounds that if the heir to the throne is seeking to influence or even undermine the elected Government, that is a matter of significant public interest. But it is also a remarkable personal triumph for the ace QC, Dinah Rose, who led the legal campaign with single-minded determination.
The Supreme Court ruled in favour of making the letters public by a majority of five to two. Clarence House said it was "disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld."
The 27 letters were private, and even a prince may be entitled to write a private letter which does not have to be disclosed to all and sundry. Yet he wrote from a privileged position: and his missives did "go to the top of the pile" when they landed on the minister's desk. The campaign to have the letters made public has been widely supported by anti-monarchists who believe that the United Kingdom should have an elected Head of State: Charles's "meddling", it is argued, will advance the British republican cause.
As it happens, I have seen some letters that Prince Charles wrote to a friend of mine who was setting up a mental health charity, and what's striking about Charles's epistolary approach - apart from the famous "spidery" handwriting - is the compelling way he expresses himself. In the era of the email and the text, he is a natural, compulsive, old-fashioned letter-writer - the sort of person who spontaneously puts pen to paper and pours out his fervently-held thoughts.
There is an attractive lack of calculation in the way he expresses himself - he isn't tiptoeing around every sentence, as a more careful and prudent person might do. He has his views, and they are palpably sincerely held. Like his ancestor Queen Victoria, he loves to underline particular words and phrases.
Constitutionally, a British monarch is expected to be "above politics", and throughout her reign, the Queen has maintained that neutrality with impeccable decorum. Heaven knows she must have had to sign into law Bills that personally dismayed her, (and how she would have hated putting her name to Scottish secession). Yet she has met that constitutional requirement at all times, and the British monarchy has, if anything, grown in global esteem over the 63 years of her reign.
Her heir, by contrast, is under no such requirement of neutrality. Constitutionally, he can entertain any opinion he pleases, and express it to any person - including any Government minister - of his choice. However, if it looks as though he, by virtue of his position, is seeking to unduly influence or "lean on" a Government minister, it doesn't bode well for his succession. It means that when he comes to reign, critics will argue that the new monarch is flaky, interfering and holds dotty opinions (Charles did tell Tony Blair that farmers would want to continue fox-hunting despite the ban, and that these rural foxhunters were being treated "worse than blacks or gays", which might be considered something of an overstatement.)
The founding principle of the British constitution is that Parliament is supreme: in 1649, Charles I paid the price of decapitation to establish that principle, and monarchs have had to be aware of that fact. George V's approach to the Irish Home Rule crisis in 1912-13 was an illumination of his awareness: he abhorred the idea of a break between Britain and Ireland, but, as he confided to his diary repeatedly, he had to do Parliament's bidding.
As heir, the present Charles has not breached any constitutional principle, and indeed most people may well think it endearing that the Prince of Wales is a prodigious, perhaps sometimes eccentric, letter-writer ("Angry of Highgrove", one wit has suggested as a nom-de-plume). And many of his opinions are popular with the public: when he castigated architects for erecting concrete "carbuncles" in public spaces, while personally choosing to live in Georgian mansions, he was widely supported.
His most recent campaigning cause, defending the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, is brave and praiseworthy. (The Catholic Herald this week says that his closeness to the Orthodox and Coptic churches has made Charles the main Western champion of these afflicted peoples.) No one knows the future, and Elizabeth II, who will shortly be 89, may live in good health for another 20 years: there is no immediate sign that the reign of Charles III is imminent. So he could remain free, for some time, to express his passionate convictions, and there will be many, like my husband, who will like him all the more for it.