Remove the Muzzle, Charles, and Speak Your Mind
The country needs to hear the Prince of Wales
The Sunday Telegraph
April 16, 2006
By Clive Aslet
The other day I was in a village hall in Cumbria, waiting for the Prince of Wales. One long side of the room was lined with trestle tables, piled high with scotch eggs and colourful sandwiches by the Women's Institute. The very rafters shivered with expectation. He has arrived in the village. He's in the village shop. He's in the pub, bravely drinking a half of Cocker Hoop beer at 11am. There was a little flutter when someone whom it was thought might be him entered the village hall, but it was only the lord lieutenant.
Eventually, the prince really did make his entrance, creaking in immaculately polished brogues. Speech on low-cost rural housing. Handshakes over the sausage rolls. The room lets out a collective sigh when he leaves, rather as though it has just removed a corset. For the last couple of hours, it has been so much on its best behaviour it has hardly breathed.
As his mother celebrates her 80th birthday, without much thought of what business people call "succession management'', Prince Charles may wonder whether Pooley Bridge village hall is all that life now has to offer him. Not that it wasn't wonderful of its kind; the ladies of the WI - I always seemed to be in their way - are to be complimented for the Herdwick lamb kebabs. But endlessly meeting your loyal fan base, endlessly being on show, endlessly being so important to them, is not the same as being head of state.
Prince Charles may well be having a moment of reflection. And this is a good moment in his personal development to have it. Marriage to Camilla - Operation P-B, as it was called - has been accomplished. For years, it was the number one priority of Prince Charles's advisers. Part of the strategy was to rehabilitate the prince himself in the public's good books. That meant promoting causes that are more touchy-feely than classical architecture. When Prince Harry admitted taking drugs, the response was not to despatch the boy to be governor general of South Georgia, but to send him to a rehabilitation clinic.
The same strategy has also meant gagging the prince whenever he has shown signs of opening a new front in his intellectual war against the 21st century. "Potty Prince'' stories were kept to a minimum. His advisers could not stop the prince from hunting - he felt too strongly about it - but they did succeed in muffling comments that he might have made in favour of other causes, farming, for example, deemed to be unpopular with the public.
I had a modest experience of this as editor of Country Life. We were thrilled when the prince accepted our invitation for him to guest edit an issue. Despite his enthusiasm, repeated when I met him, the courtiers somehow never put it on his agenda. Foot and mouth, organic agriculture, talking to trees, these were dangerously unpopular, dangerously "potty'' waters. The minders knew that, given a platform such as Country Life, the prince would want to say something and might slip out of their control. The idea was quietly strangled. The royal wedding took place.
Now the stage is set for another act in the play. The prince and the Duchess of Cornwall have settled down, in public consciousness, as a middle-aged Fred and Gladys in sun hats - the sort of well-heeled, literate, courteous fossils that you would expect to see disembarking at Knossos from a Swan Hellenic cruise. The duchess is turning out to be regarded as the good sort that people who knew her predicted she would.
There is a general feeling that the prince deserves a shot at domestic happiness as much as the rest of us. It is true that his expenditure comes into question occasionally. My impression, though, is that it happens less often than it did. In this respect, the world has caught up with him.
Not so long ago, the Royal Family seemed to be marooned on a desert island of inherited super-wealth, with only the Duke of Westminster for company. Now, while the Queen takes a taxi to the theatre, the desert island is getting more crowded. There are quite a number of extremely rich people in Britain - three billionaires, I'm told, in what used to be the impoverished town of Cambridge alone. Politicians who are not themselves billionaires ape their lifestyle. Tony Blair cannot criticise Prince Charles for extravagance when he lives like a king himself - at someone else's expense - whenever he goes on holiday. Even Margaret Beckett, once happy in a caravan, has been seduced by private jets. And she, the Secretary of State for Global Warming. They would all have valets to squeeze their toothpaste if they could. Suddenly, the Prince of Wales's position looks less peculiar.
He just has to find something to do for what might be the next 10 or 20 years. Or rather, to prevent himself boiling over, he must make his contribution as effective as it can be. For the frustration of Prince Charles's position is that he is already enormously active. He has personally founded 16 charities and is president of 14 of them. The Prince's Trust, the Prince's Drawing School, the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health, the Prince of Wales Arts and Kids Foundation... it is exhausting merely to list them. Together they raise pounds 100 million annually, without a peerage in sight.
It is an extraordinary achievement, far beyond what anyone could have expected when he became Prince of Wales 37 years ago, and represents a largely self-invented role. But not, one suspects, quite enough for the prince. His position gives him a unique opportunity to stir up debate on any subject he chooses. By nature he is too conscious of the sensitivities of his constitutional position to do so very often. The muzzle is partly self-imposed.
As he approaches 60, I hope he decides to remove it. As he observed the other day, even his more spiritual apercus are not as barmy as the newspapers like to make out. At Easter, people do follow traditional teaching - and the Prince of Wales - in conceiving a distinction between body, mind and spirit. The prince has had a good instinct. It is backed up with a constant round of travel and appointments, so that he has generally been to more places, spoken to more top people, taken more spontaneous soundings of public opinion than the best informed journalist or politician.
He has been right more often than he has been wrong. Organic farming and alternative medicine, once ridiculed, have become mainstream. How right he was about carbuncular modern architecture. We do need to preserve local culture. His model urban development of Poundbury, outside Dorchester, was widely lampooned 20 years ago; now its principles have become absorbed into the planning system. Even the Duchy Originals brand has been a success.
I do not only want to hear from the prince when he is incontrovertibly right. There are some causes - the Book of Common Prayer, reading Shakespeare - whose virtue cannot be proved, but are still worth upholding because they reflect the deeply held view of a minority. Naturally, he cannot sound off about the Budget or the war in Iraq, but he might reflect how Labour has neutered - and intends to further curtail - the House of Lords as a forum of debate. This makes it all the more important that we hear from the prince. Politicians seem not have a clue about the countryside, or how to provide the millions of new homes we are said to need, or even, more controversially, morale in the Armed Forces. These are all subjects on which the prince is supremely well qualified to speak.
Every day, we seem to tread a step closer to the environmental catastrophe of global warming. The Government is all mouth and no trousers. No national politician has the prestige to exert much influence overseas. There is a leadership vacuum. Prince Charles is not merely the perfect man to fill it, perhaps he is the only man who could do so.