Belfast Telegraph

I salute Charles: A man of principle who decided to make his feelings felt

By Chris Blackhurst

Poor old Prince Charles. He talks to plants, he campaigns on behalf of the Patagonian toothfish, he's a bit of a wally, really. That was the signal coming loud and clear from the reaction to sight of letters he wrote to the Government from September 2004 to April 2005.

You could almost hear the sneer in the radio presenters' voices - and many of the newspapers could not disguise their glee at the heir to the throne pleading with an environment minister to put the fate of the Patagonian toothfish higher on his list of priorities.

In fact, what he was really concerned about was the albatross, one of our more majestic creatures. The toothfish is caught on a line dragged across the surface of the water; the albatross dives on the fish, becomes caught on the hook and drowns.

No matter. It's all proof of the Prince's nuttiness. While Britain struggles with poverty and inequality, the fool is agonising over a South American fish.

Likewise, as thousands of citizens live without homes, he's firing off a missive to the then culture secretary Tessa Jowell saying it's imperative the Government funds the preservation of the huts used by the explorers Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic.

In fact, I want to salute him - and I mean that without a hint of irony. I really do. Because here is a public-spirited individual who is sticking to his principles and, what is more, he is prepared to do something about it.

Of course, he is in a different position from the rest of us, in that he actually can write to ministers in the knowledge his letters will be read and may be acted upon - the rest of us have to make do with a standard reply normally dashed off by a minion.

It's possible, too, that something more sinister is afoot; that the Prince is using his position to exert influence over our democratically elected leaders. But he is not ordering and, thanks to the execution of Charles the First, he's not in a position to do so and never will be.

Indeed, perhaps his angriest letter is reserved for TB in cattle. Charles the countryman makes plain his desire for a cull of badgers that spread the disease - as opposed to the slaughter of thousands of cattle, costing the UK £100m a year. He accuses the pro-badger lobby of being "intellectually dishonest".

Did the Blair administration succumb to the Prince's withering attack? No. The then regime concluded a badger cull could make no "meaningful contribution" to reducing TB in cattle. It was only years later that the coalition ordered a cull.

When the Guardian newspaper pressed for disclosure of the letters it must have thought it was about to secure a treasure trove of high-level corruption. That excitement must have been fuelled by the fierce response of the authorities who fought tooth-and-nail to prevent publication.

Instead, what has emerged is a series of desperately polite letters on different subjects, only one of which - the lack of resources for the armed forces in Iraq - could have remotely caused the media-savvy Blair to miss a beat. Rather, Charles wants to help, to nudge. He knows he's on the sidelines, but in his royal duties and socially, and in correspondence, he hears things and is told things. He'd like to share them with the Government. He's not stupid enough to raise issues that would provoke enormous controversy. He writes as an observer who cannot help being concerned.

The response of the officials to the Guardian's pressure was based apparently on the fear that allowing the public to see them would belittle his position. Far from demean, however, the letters are confirmatory. They tell us that here is the Prince with a wide range of passions, who agonises over the failure of his fellow man to share his views. It's heartening that he remembers the heroes Scott and Shackleton. Too easily, their huts could be demolished, like so much else that is dear.

The courtiers were worrying unduly. But then they could argue that to cave in would mark the beginning of the end, and all contact between members of the royal family and ministers would have to be detailed.

This, don't forget, is the stuff that Charles committed to paper - knowing that it would be preserved and suspecting it might, one day, see the light of day. There's a hint of this when he says in one letter to Blair that the PM suggested he put his thoughts in writing - "despite the Freedom of Information Act".

As for that piece of legislation, relied upon by the Guardian, it's since been tightened to exempt material concerning the royal family. So, barring a change in the law, we will never know what King Charles III will say to his prime minister at their weekly meeting, or what he might put in a note.

And, bearing in mind that these letters are from him as Prince, and not monarch, that would be a great pity.

Belfast Telegraph


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