Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair have clashed in a controversial area of government policy, sparking concerns among constitutional experts that the heir to the throne is exceeding his royal role.
Britain's "king in waiting" chose the contentious issue of genetically modified (GM) foods to challenge Mr. Blair's insistence that such foods are safe to eat and that the technology that produces them should be developed. In doing so, according to constitutional historian Lord Blake, Charles ventured onto "dangerous ground" by breaking the long-established convention that members of the royal family do not get involved in political arguments.
In an article in the mass-circulation Daily Mail, the Prince of Wales posed what he called "10 unanswered questions" about the safety, ethics, and efficacy of GM technology. Charles, a deeply committed organic farmer, criticized the lack of independent scientific research. His June 1 article came a week after Blair had called attacks on GM foods "hysterical."
It is not the first time the prince has become embroiled in controversy. His traditionalist views on building styles brought him into conflict with leading architects. And his calls to bring Shakespeare and other classics back into Britain's school curriculum have earned the wrath of some liberal educators.
But Lord Blake says Charles's impassioned attack on GM foods is in a different category because it brings him into open conflict with Blair and other government ministers. "He certainly could not get involved in a political dispute like this when he becomes king," Blake says.
Blair is on record as saying he is happy to see his family eat GM foods. The British public, however, takes a different view. Following opinion polls indicating that as many as 4 in 5 adults are concerned about GM foods, leading British supermarket chains have removed them from their shelves.
Not all constitutional experts believe Charles went too far in using a newspaper to air opinions running counter to government policy. Oxford University historian Kenneth Morgan says the prince has "a right to play a part in debate." Professor Morgan adds, however, that it is "doubtful" whether he has "the expertise or knowledge" to "press his opinions so forcefully."
Past British princes who took up controversial issues have tended to find themselves in hot water or worse. King Edward VIII, Charles's great uncle, when Prince of Wales, told Britain's then-government in 1936 that "something must be done" to relieve unemployment. Months later he abdicated.
The stated reason for abandoning the throne was his wish to marry an American divorce, but some royal historians say his views on joblessness had alienated the British government.
A November, 1998 Gallup poll found most respondents felt Charles would make a good, or fairly good, king, with 86 percent agreeing with his views on the environment. Few, however, thought he could marry the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles and still be an acceptable monarch.