Our next monarch, and a question of trust
November 4, 2013
Within a very few days Prince Charles will be celebrating his 65th birthday. He’ll be itching to start the job he was born to at about the age most of us are planning our retirement. But I wonder if Charles shouldn’t retire before he’s even begun? Here’s why.
There’s an understanding between the British people and their monarch. It’s not written down like a legal contract, but it’s still a commitment of great historical potency. It is understood that the monarch rules us in a symbolic sense but never in a political sense. France has had a revolution, and then became a republic. We have had neither experience. We managed to create an understanding between crown, people and government which has displayed remarkable stability for 250 years. The understanding was this: governments would come and go, at the behest of the electorate, but the sovereign would be endlessly respected by the people as our symbolic leader. That essential condition remains today: the sovereign’s leadership is purely as a figurehead – the government governs, and the crown is above politics.
There is a logic to this. The great thing about democratic governments is that they can be voted out.(After all, the only difference between a democracy and a tyranny is that you can’t vote out Stalin or Idi Amin). So a democratic government has power but is innately short-lived. And that’s what keeps power under control. But the strength of a constitutional monarchy is the opposite: it has no power, save as a symbol, but it is endlessly enduring. So the monarch represents continuity while real accountability lies with the government.
Britain has made this system work well in a way that other nations envy, and we are much the better for it. For all our shortcomings (and few do self-doubt as well as us Brits) we are, relatively, a stable, honest and tolerant nation. I apologise for repeating the point, but it is so important: this success hinges on the monarch’s unspoken commitment to to the people not to interfere in politics.
One of the main reasons behind the worldwide admiration for our present monarch is her complete understanding and acceptance of this ideal. She represents calm and continuity with astonishing dignity. But her strength lies not just in what she represents, but in what she does. And one of the things she does best is standing back, doing her job, letting the government do theirs, and interfering never.
But she’s not immortal. And the next monarch will barring accidents, be that compulsive interferer and opinion-holder, Prince Charles. Of course, he can have whatever opinion he wishes: but in his next role his unspoken contract with the British people will be to keep those opinions to himself. On his success at that depends the continuing health of our extraordinary monarchy.
Will he? The omens aren’t good. A recent ‘Independent’ carried a big story from Richard Rogers accusing Charles of interfering with the planning process for buildings in London. The routine denial from Clarence House was firm, but unconvincing. For sure, Charles has form on this topic. A plan for the National Gallery was vilified by Charles publicly: the next thing we know is that the plan is shelved and gets replaced by the unswerving blandness of the Sainsbury wing. A Richard Rogers plan for for a big development in Chelsea got cancelled when Charles intervened via his chums in the Qatari royal family, who were bankrolling the scheme. ‘Private Eye’ has been hinting at a groundswell of concern that Charles has regularly been delving into political areas a future sovereign shouldn’t. (And don’t dismiss ‘Private Eye’ as mere gossip: much of what they hint at mischievously appears as truth in the national press a few months later).
Last – and very definitely not least – we know that a Freedom of Information tribunal ruling in favour of releasing letters from Charles to government ministers was overturned a year ago by Dominic Grieve, our Attorney General. Why? If there was nothing to hide, surely the letters would have been released? It says little for Grieve: he should be ashamed of himself. But we can vote him out at the next election: Charles is here to stay.
I know that the Prince’s Trust does wonderful things. I’m sure that Charles is nothing if not sincere in his views. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our tradition is for the monarch to give politics a wide berth. Charles owes it to himself, and to us, to to ask himself whether he can respect that unwritten but crucial contract. If he can’t, he can have opinions (we all have that right) and he can express them publicly too – as long as he is willing to stand down and let Prince William take over when Queen Elizabeth dies.
That may seem drastic: but with something as precious as our constitution at stake, it would be better to be bold. And there is a precedent. Not that many years ago, our king abdicated for the love of a woman. Would it not be dignified for the next king to abdicate for love of his country?