The fracas over opinionated letters sent by Prince Charles to various British politicians and senior officials has broken out of the courts and into politics. The letters, which are understood to be frank in their advice on various subjects dear to the Prince’s heart, have been so frequent over the years that they have a nickname within UK government circles: the “black spider” letters, a reference to their rather scratchy penmanship.
After repeated applications by newspapers to have them released under Britain’s access to information laws, a panel of three judges recently ordered their release. This past week, the UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, overruled the judges and ordered that the letters remain secret. His reasoning was that the letters “contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality.”
“If our rather strange system of a hereditary monarchy guaranteeing the independence of a democratic government (think about that for a minute) is to function, the Monarch must be above politics.”
In other words, if we knew what was in the letters, it might be difficult for Charles to be King one day. Monarchs are supposed to be above politics and to keep their opinions to themselves, while retaining the right to consult and be consulted by the Prime Minister. This is a role that Charles’ mother has perfected. Does anyone know what she really thinks about anything—except horse-racing?
So releasing the letters would tell us what Charles thinks about various issues and that would be bad. But wait! We already do know what Charles thinks about any number of issues, from modern architecture to the environment, youth policy and more. Is this because those terrible journalists have invaded the poor Prince’s privacy and ferreted out his innermost thoughts? Nope. It is because the Prince has told us repeatedly over many years what he thinks. He has written (or has allowed to be written for him) innumerable books, pamphlets and speeches. He has made films showcasing his ideas. He has publicly supported a variety of causes which are hardly neutral on various questions.
For many years, the Prince’s activities have been far different from those of his mother, who also gives many speeches and makes an annual short film every year at Christmas and so on. The Queen manages to do all of this without really saying anything; Charles goes out of his way to be substantive in his remarks and views.
So what, then is the problem with releasing the letters? Would we find that Charles is, despite his environmentalist persona, secretly all for clear-cutting the rainforests? Not likely. The real problem is not that we would learn anything new about Charles’ views—we already know them. The problem is that we would find out the details whereby he has been using his extraordinary position of privilege for the purposes of blatant influence-peddling. We may even find out that he has been trying to get some special considerations for his own interests.
Several hundred years of British constitutional history address all this. The legacy of many constitutional showdowns between the Crown and Parliament, of a civil war and of several beheadings is supposed to be that the monarchy fulfils a variety of ceremonial duties, ensures that there is a functioning and democratically elected government, and then keeps its mouth shut. Above all, the Crown should not try to use its extraordinary position in order to influence the will of the people, as expressed by their elected officials. This is why the UK Attorney General believes that release of the letters would threaten Charles’ ability to be King one day—because Charles has not done this.
On one level this story is an amusing sideline on the day’s news. Fuzzy old Charles has got himself into trouble again. But on another level, it is a serious matter. If our rather strange system of a hereditary monarchy guaranteeing the independence of a democratic government (think about that for a minute) is to function, the Monarch must be above politics. This is fundamental. Of course, it would be naive to imagine that there is not some degree of influence on some level; what do the Queen and her Prime Minister talk about during those weekly audiences? But a volume of opinionated letters over many years to Ministers of the day, presumably giving specific advice on all manner of policy questions, is quite another matter.
One feels for Charles. He is 62 and is still waiting for a real job. He has sought to make himself relevant, and that has meant supporting significant causes over the years. But general support for a good cause is one thing; blunt intervention in affairs of state is another. In short, One is entitled to One’s opinion—but One who would be King needs also to keep One’s mouth shut.
If the Attorney General of the UK feels that revealing the letters might compromise Charles’s ability to be King one day, then maybe the fact that Charles felt at liberty to send them at all says something even more unsettling about his ability to be King.