Hereditas Historiae

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The Guardian (editorial) - 4 June 2015


The Guardian view on the black spider memos: Prince Charles has sacrificed political neutrality

By meddling in government the heir to the throne has tainted the brand 

King Charles will never be the fictional blank on which the country can project its idea of the state.’ Photograph: Reuters  

‘All that will ever be told about Prince Charles’s correspondence with ministers is now known. This afternoon the second and final batch of letters between the heir to the throne and senior politicians was released. Presumably that correspondence continues, but the Freedom of Information Act has now been amended expressly to exclude royal communication. It is no longer possible to find out what cause he is so politely advancing or what pressure he is so courteously exerting on the upper reaches of government.

It is appealing to suppose that, because no shocking revelations have emerged, it does not matter that the future king cares deeply about, say, affordable rural housing or the integration of complementary with conventional medicine in the NHS. Ministers do not complain about the way the prince invades their space and takes up their time to promote his own occasionally eccentric beliefs, or presses the case for influence in official business for his charities, although there have been occasional leaks. But he would be dangerously mistaken to suppose that because the publication of his letters has in general provoked nothing more than an indulgently raised eyebrow, he can be an activist king without imperilling the monarchy itself.

Like the first batch released three weeks ago, this second tranche of 17 letters and replies between Clarence House or Highgrove and four departments – health, culture, communities and international development – between 2007 and 2009, displays a deeply conservative interest in matters such as historic buildings, drawing and organic food. They are not overtly self-interested, although they are sometimes a little peevish. He may not be the only motorist to be irritated to see a toxic weed flourishing beside the M25, but he will surely be the only one to have had an exchange of letters about it with a cabinet minister. The Guardian’s long fight for the letters culminated in a ruling from the supreme court in March backing the original decision in favour of publication. By its ruling that the attorney general, as the executive, did not have the power to review the findings of the courts, freedom of information and the principle of separation of powers is strengthened. That alone would justify the fight.

But that was not why the government spent £400,000 trying to keep the letters secret. It wanted to protect the monarchy from publication of material that – as the then attorney general, Dominic Grieve, argued – would be seriously damaging to Prince Charles’s future role. Clarence House tried too, carefully identifying the people who had first raised the concerns the prince advanced. Recognising the fragility of the political neutrality that is the cornerstone of the modern monarchy, they wanted to argue that he was not simply acting on personal whim. It may never be greatly significant that the future king holds traditionalist views of the kind that the amiable Wodehousian character Lord Emsworth might have shared. It certainly is no surprise. But Prince Charles has denied himself the status necessary to any constitutional monarch – that of a truly blank slate on which the country can project its idea of itself.’