Prince Charles has his sights set on a new job. Not content with being the Prince of Wales, he now wants to be a Prince of Protest, too.
Charles is taking legal action against a tabloid newspaper for publishing extracts from his private diary, in which he criticized China for being corrupt and described Chinese officials as "appalling old waxworks." The diary also reveals that he boycotted a banquet at the Chinese Embassy in 1999 out of respect for Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama - and that he encouraged the leaking of this fact so that the public would know he took a principled stand. Now, Charles's former private secretary says such protests were typical of the prince, who considers himself to be a "dissident ... working against the prevailing political consensus."
These revelations have caused a stink. The royals are not supposed to express their political views in public - ever. Look back at the queen's public utterances during her 54 years in the top job and you will not find a single political beef or criticism of the government. Royals are meant to turn up for the launching of ships or opening of hospitals merely to smash a bottle of champers on the ship's hull or to cut the ceremonial ribbon. It is over 150 years since Baron Stockmar, councilor to Queen Victoria, described the monarch as "a mandarin figure which has to nod its head in assent, or shake it in denial, as her minister pleases."
Yet now we have the heir to the British throne reportedly carving a role as political dissident. Princess Diana once said she wanted to be "Queen of our Hearts"; it seems Charles wants to be King of our Consciences. No thanks - that would be a big step back for democracy.
Various liberal commentators - including some who would normally knock any of the royals who got ideas above (or below?) his or her station - have praised the prince for daring to be political. I almost dropped my TV dinner when, during a BBC political chat show, a guest welcomed Charles's "moral courage" in standing up to politicians. The liberal Guardian newspaper wondered whether Charles "should be seen in a great tradition of dissidents who then become leader, such as Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Lech Walesa." A contributor to the Guardian's online discussion board thanked the prince for using his "considerable influence" to try to change things.
The reason some of a leftish persuasion welcome his dissidence is because they agree with his arguments. It is revealed that the prince "bombarded" elected ministers with letters of protest on the Iraq war, genetic modification of foods and nanotechnology (he considers them dangerous pursuits), and the threat posed by "ugly" buildings to our green and pleasant lands. But it doesn't matter whether you agree with Charles. There is a very good reason that royals are prevented from trying to "influence opinion" (as Charles's private secretary said the prince tried to do) - because we recognize that it's profoundly undemocratic for a royal to hold sway over any elected parliamentarian.
Much of modern British history has been a struggle to shift power from the monarch to Parliament - from being concentrated in the hands of one individual who presumed the God-given right to rule into the hands of those commoners in the House of Commons who stand or fall at the ballot box. The Magna Carta of 1215 limited the absolute power of monarchs; the English Civil War between parliamentarians and royalists from 1642 to 1651 further undermined the monarchy; the Bill of Rights of 1689 established the freedom of Parliament to make law and elect its members without royal interference. Slowly but surely, we replaced monarchy with democracy, and the whimsy of kings with decisions reached through public debate. Those who encourage Charles to use his "considerable influence" today to challenge the government threaten to undo these historic gains. In effect, they are pushing the prince to do their dirty work - and in the process they grant a future king the kind of political and moral authority over government ministers that we stripped from them, for very good reason, many, many years ago.
It isn't respect for the monarchy that has led some to cheer Charles; the House of Windsor is held in low esteem these days. Rather it is exasperation and cynicism with mainstream politics that have pushed some into the prince's arms. Feeling that contemporary politics is aloof, and that politicians don't listen to us, some seem to believe that even a haughty prince brought up by the hand of privilege is preferable to our elected ministers. But lining up behind the future king - dissident or not - is no way to solve the problem of politics today. We should find our own ways to reinvigorate the body politic, through free and rigorous debate, rather than fantasize that a monarch will do it for us.
• Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked-online.com.