Royal misstep? Prince Charles meddled in British government affairs

Britons are digesting new revelations that the king-in-waiting lobbied government ministers over policies on education, the environment, and healthcare.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Duchess of Cornwall Camilla arrive for the second day of the Royal Ascot horse racing festival at Ascot, southern England on June 18, 2014.

He has long been known to have strong opinions and a desire to publicly air them. Now a BBC Radio 4 documentary has revealed how Prince Charles has used his position to try and influence government policy, sometimes on topics he had not publicly expressed a view on.

In the program titled "The Royal Activist," which aired last week, former government ministers described how the king-in-waiting tried to influence former prime minister Tony Blair's government in several areas, from education to climate change policy. The revelations have raised questions about whether members of the royal family – especially future monarchs – should be so partisan.

What did Prince Charles reportedly do?

Several ministers interviewed in the program described how Prince Charles lobbied them for changes in government policy.

David Blunkett, who was education minister between 1997 and 2001, told the BBC that Prince Charles tried to persuade the government to open more grammar schools. These are selective secondary schools, which along with what are known as secondary Moderns -- schools for those who failed to get into grammar schools -- made up the bulk of government-funded secondary schooling until the late 1960s.

"I would explain that our policy was not to expand grammar schools, and he didn't like that,” Mr. Blunkett said. “He was very keen that we should go back to a different era where youngsters had what he would have seen as the opportunity to escape from their background, whereas I wanted to change their background."

Michael Meacher, environment minister between 1997 and 2003, described how he and the prince "would consort together quietly" to affect policy on climate change and genetically modified crops. They worked together, he said, “to try and ensure that we increased our influence within government" and to "persuade Tony Blair to change course."

Another former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, said that Prince Charles' efforts to encourage the government to back alternative forms of medicine, an interest he shared with Mr. Hain, had failed.

“He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea," Hain revealed, "and so he ... found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it."

Why are his actions a concern?

Britain has no single constitutional document and the powers of the monarch – known as the royal prerogative – are nowhere formally delineated. Although the monarch must sign any bill to make it a law, royal powers are limited, and the royal family must defer to the advice of the prime minister or other ministers.

As writer Walter Bagehot put it, “the Queen reigns, but she does not rule.”

Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University, says that when it comes to matters like influencing government, “it is more of an understanding, a convention, that they [royalty] don't.”

The thinking is, because members of the royal family are not elected they should not manipulate the way laws are made by democratically elected politicians.

For some, concerns over meddling by the prince are really in the future concerns -- when, and if, he becomes king.

If the government decides to do something they know the king will disapprove of, there will be inevitable speculation – chiefly in the media – about whether the palace and the government are at war. Such speculation is unthinkable under the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II because she is scrupulously private.

But if a future King Charles refused to sign into law a bill it could prompt a constitutional crisis, although observers think this is unlikely to happen.

For Graham Smith, chief executive officer of Republic, a lobby that campaigns for the end of the monarchy, even without such a crisis, Prince Charles' meddling is dangerous. 

“He has direct secret access to ministers but there is an understanding he should stay out of politics,” Mr. Smith says. “He is not democratically accountable. If he was lobbying in a way the British public did not like there was nothing we could do about it.”

As it happens, none of the ministers interviewed in the program felt Prince Charles was stepping too far over any line.

Asked if there might be a constitutional problem in the prince taking a political opinion, Mr. Meacher replied: "Well, over GM [genetically modified] I suppose you could well say that. Maybe he was pushing it a bit. I was delighted, of course."

Blunkett, for his part, expressed sympathy. "I can see constitutionally that there's an argument that the heir to the throne should not get involved in controversy; the honest truth is I didn't mind," he said.  “If you are waiting to be the king of the United Kingdom, and you've waited a very long time, you genuinely have to engage with something or you'd go spare."

Why is Prince Charles' meddling of interest now?

Prince Charles' attempts to influence government have been the focus of a nine-year freedom of information battle in which The Guardian newspaper has sought access to letters Prince Charles wrote to ministers. These are known as “black spider memos” because of his characteristic scrawling handwriting.

Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, had blocked access to the letters saying their publication would cause constitutional problems by raising doubts over Prince Charles' political neutrality. But in March, three judges ruled that Mr. Grieve had acted unlawfully. The legal battle will now move to the British Supreme Court. 

Are his reported interventions really without precedent in the modern monarchy? Or were Elizabeth and her father just better at hiding their hands? The interventions of Prince Charles stand in marked contrast to the style of Queen Elizabeth, whose private opinions on most topics remain a mystery to the British public.

But, “we don't actually know how unusual [Prince Charles' habit of intervening] is,” says Prof. Fisher. “If it has happened in the past people have been more discreet.”

Former prime minister John Major, speaking in the Radio 4 documentary shed some light on this. He said that it would have been “very foolish” not to have been influenced by the Queen. “I can recall occasions where the Queen in discussion put a gloss upon something that made one think and reflect upon whether it was being done in the right fashion.”

The rights and wrongs of royal lobbying probably, then, come down to a question of degree. Prince Charles seems to have inherited a little of his father's inability to know when to stay quiet. Most of his outbursts have concerned architecture: he has said Birmingham Central Library looks “like a place where books are incinerated” and that a stainless steel lecture hall at Essex University looked “like a dustbin.”

Many observers thought a princely foray into political commentary in May was inadvisable: he compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.

But at a time when Britain is feeling squeezed, observers say it would be wise for Prince Charles to keep his council. The cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer rose nearly six percent last year, it was revealed last week, more than double the rate of inflation. This was largely due to restoration work on royal buildings.

“I don't think this impacts on the British public much,” says Fisher. “But it is grist to the mill of those who are opposed to the monarchy.”

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