Heir of discontent

by Pamela Stirling / 11 March, 2006

It is always good to see someone as significant as the heir to the throne take a stand on civil rights. Except, of course, that in this case the rights Prince Charles is championing are his own. The Prince is suing the Mail on Sunday for breach of confidentiality in publishing leaked diaries in which he complained about travelling business class and described the Chinese leadership as "appalling old waxworks". Even if the Prince wins, this is an extraordinarily ill-advised action. It is a precedent as dangerous as his appeal last year to human rights legislation when he wished to marry a divorcee and retain his royal privileges.

Coming, as this week's case does, after so much rhetoric on the superiority of western culture's freedoms over those of Muslim nations, all it does is highlight an uncomfortable truth. The position of head of state in Britain and 15 other countries, including our own, is based on the hereditary right to unearned privilege and power. The British monarchy is sexist - princes outrank princesses. And it is grotesquely sectarian - the monarch must, by law, be Protestant. Roman Catholics are specifically excluded from succession to the throne and the sovereign may not marry a Catholic.

If, as the Prince's former chief press officer claimed this week in court, Charles see his role as something of a "dissident" against establishment thinking, he should start by arguing the case for a better monarchy. If the monarchy is to survive - and it seems even less a 21st-century institution than it did a 20th-century one - it needs urgent attention: the Queen is head of state in only 16 of the 53 Commonwealth countries and there is no guarantee that the next leader of the Commonwealth, decided by all 53 countries, will be the British monarch.

Charles must surely see the need for reform. It was only by great good luck that he was able to marry Camilla Parker Bowles - she raised her two children as Roman Catholics but never formally converted. Indeed, the most urgent thing Charles needs to do is to end the decades-long deception of his subjects that has marked his relationship with Camilla. Charles expends a great deal of energy these days insisting that the Duchess of Cornwall will never be Queen but will style herself "Princess Consort". Camilla can call herself Baldrick for all it matters. She will, constitutionally, be Queen and Charles knows that. It is time for a new transparency and trust.

And is time to start reflecting the values and aspirations of all his future subjects. Charles, it was claimed in court, sees his role as "promoting and protecting national traditions, virtues and excellence". No quarrel there. Except that the person who gets to choose just whose values and virtues and excellent ideas he promotes often appears to be Grumpy of Gloucestershire. Charles appeared in a 2003 memo to be firmly of the elitist belief, for example, that staff should know their place: "What is wrong with everyone nowadays?" he replied when a secretary inquired about prospects for promotion. "Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?" His tax-avoidance schemes have been lambasted by parliamentary committees and, despite the excellent work of his charity with deprived teenagers, Charles runs his private estate like a mini-fiefdom. Ironically, he once wrote to the Lord Chancellor reviling the Human Rights Act as a threat to a "sane, civilised and ordered existence"

The most contentious issue, of course, is his "dissident" role. If, as his former press secretary has testified, the Prince deliberately snubbed the Chinese President at a formal banquet in 1999 and ensured the press knew about it, he can hardly complain if he is seen as a constitutional menace. If we are now supposed to attach significance to his every action, the rogue Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was right to claim it as a publicity coup that Charles shook his hand at the Pope's funeral.

The Prince cannot have it all ways. He cannot claim that his views in an opinionated journal circulated to as many as 50 people should remain private when he writes highly political letters to ministers in a deliberate endeavour to use those views to sway government opinion. Nor can he with any dignity claim for himself the high moral ground on civil rights if he does nothing to reform the monarchy he will one day inherit unelected.

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