• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

If Charles becomes King, the dangers of an activist British monarchy could rise

Prince Charles with his son William and grandson George. Photo/Getty Images

As Princess Beatrice briefly reminded us last month when she came within cooee of accidentally beheading musician Ed Sheeran, the monarchy was once ­seriously and even ­homicidally powerful.

The palace swordplay hijinks are, by several centuries, the closest any royal has come to capital punishment. Monarchs now ornament, rather than enforce, the constitution, and conversely, ­modernisation has progressively diluted the state’s strictures on their private affairs. Female royals are now equal to males in inheritance laws. And, of course, the idea of politicians, let alone entire ­governments, having any say in the suitability of their marriage or household affairs is held to be ludicrous today, to the point where there will probably one day be a Queen Camilla, divorced Catholic though she may be.

Politicians’ assiduous interference even prevented Prince Philip, on his marriage to the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947, from giving his name, Mountbatten, to her or any subsequent children. Winston Churchill, among others, considered this too much of a “Hun” name. This helps account for Philip’s lifelong irascibility. Biographer Sally Bedell Smith quotes him as fuming to friends, “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”

The Queen herself fought to change a later Cabinet’s minds about this, but even she was overruled, allowed only the compromise of Mountbatten-Windsor for minor royals – those not entitled to the title Royal Highness – and their issue. In a small but telling gift to her dad, Princess Anne nevertheless insisted on marrying as Mountbatten-Windsor.

“Defender of the faiths”

With succession in mind, constitutional experts anticipate a modernisation of the honours system to reflect that Britain is no longer an empire, and a recasting of the monarch as “Defender of the Faiths” rather than just of the Church of England.

However, a further phase in this ­modernisation is likely to entail an abrupt change of course in monarchical style – and, some legal eagles fear, this may ­trigger a constitutional crisis. If Prince Charles becomes king, as he is determined to, we will have a monarch who wants to have a say in how his subjects run their lives, at least the British ones. Arguably, he already does have a say.

A Guardian investigation in 2011 found the British Government had ­repeatedly over the years secretly sought the Prince of Wales’ ­consent to draft law on ­everything from road safety to gambling and the London Olympics, on the grounds that aspects of these ­particular bills had a potential impact on his personal estates. This is rather ­different from the ­mechanical ­routine of royal assent, whereby the Queen – or here, the Governor-General – signs legislation as a matter of ­constitutional law.

It appears some politicians and officials were concerned that, since HRH could not or would not make submissions to select committees in the way any other ­potentially affected party is free to do, he should get a special heads-up on changes that might affect, in particular, the Duchy of Cornwall, the multimillion-pound estate that generates the bulk of his ­considerable income.

There was, however, ­consternation at the revelation he was given the ­opportunity to actually veto aspects of the bills, and it remains unclear whether he did so. It is clear, however, that Charles is a vigorous lobbyist, and regards this as his duty.

Chances are the first thing Charles III would do is change the longtime ­presumption of political neutrality for the throne. This could be invigorating for officialdom, to say the least. Although he’s not party political, he is undeniably an activist. He favours electoral reform to proportional representation, and he once snubbed a Chinese function in protest at China’s treatment of Tibet. ­Vigorous pursuit of such issues as King would cause governments no end of grief. But ­everyone’s on notice.

Charles has long been notorious for firing off letters to the Government, in the style of a Mister Angry of Highgrove ­writing to the editor about potholes. These go well beyond motherhood-and-apple-pie issues such as conservation, his biggest hobby horse. A battle over the public release of a slew of letters he wrote over eight months, in a particularly purple patch in the mid-2000s quarrelling with various government policies, sparked a 10-year court secrecy tussle amid fears their airing might endanger the throne.

Influential think tank

Charles is reported to be unmoved by the accusation of unconstitutional ­meddling in his frequent written and verbal lobbying, and he is generally expected, if he accedes to the throne, to do rather more of it than less.

No future government need be moved by a word he says. He lacks the power to take Britain back to any version of the Henry VIII era. But the risk, should the issues he raises strike a populist chord, could be in effect a quasi-return to an actively ruling monarchy. Governments can defy opinion polls, but opinion polls and the king? At the very least, he could become an influential think tank of one.

Some of Charles’ interventions have been less political, such as trying to badger businesses out of building and development plans he disapproves of. He has succeeded on occasion. But some of his other written intercessions are on such a scale that, as then-Attorney General Dominic Grieve said in vetoing their release in 2009, they could damage his future as monarch. “Disagreeing with Government policy … would be seriously damaging … if he forfeits his position of political neutrality,” Grieve said.

The Supreme Court later overturned that suppression, and what came to be known as “the black spider” ­letters – a reference to Charles’ anarchic ­handwriting – were released. Reaction ranged from gentle mocking – the letters were about as shocking as back issues of the Beano comic, said the Daily Mail – to ­congratulatory of the “have-a-go” prince. Even the Guardian, whose application finally compelled the release, did not push the “constitutional outrage” button, but termed Charles as on a par with a ­professional lobbyist.

Professional Charles-watchers posit that though he is continually advised to maintain neutrality on political issues, he is firmly convinced the public back him taking stances, and that it will understand he is taking them on the public’s behalf. To judge from the lack of constitutional tut-tutting over black spiders, he may well be right. One of his issues was about the Government failing to protect the rights and futures of rural workers, whom he equated with other vulnerable minorities.

Neither fear nor favour

An important distinction is that Charles has never been seen to favour any political party. His views about the environment and heritage preservation are well known, and either admired or tolerated. Were he to venture forth on, say, ­immigration, monetary policy or Brexit, it’s less clear what the public and institutional ­threshold would be.

Charles’ restless activism is thought to stem from his rather chilly upbringing – distant parents and tough, ­disciplinarian schools – and his unmet need for approval, both parental and national. He rues his lack of popular appeal and frets about it constantly. As a child, he saw his mother and grandmother attract warm crowds wherever they went, a phenomenon that continued into both women’s late years, and has only abated for his mother now she has curtailed her workload.

Charles’ window of serious media ­attention, as an eligible, sporty bachelor, was ­comparatively short. Engagement to Lady Diana Spencer brought his magazine cover days to a standstill. Diana ­supplanted the entire royal family as the global drawcard, and their sons have massively outpaced Charles’ appeal all their lives. He may take some comfort in the fact that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is overshadowing even the glamorous Prince William. It’s nothing personal, but beauty and ­compulsory ­mystique, combined, are very hard to trump, even for an heir to the throne.

Change of pace

Our Charlesian era, however ­hectically opinionated, might be but a brief change of pace. On current ­trajectory, King William would dial back the role to ­something more akin to the ­comparatively modest Scandinavian and Dutch royal houses. Although we may never see his generation of British royals tootling about on bicycles in the ­European style, they don’t display Charles’ ­propensity for activism – at least not beyond the ­traditional uncontroversial charitable causes.

The Cambridges’ less-formal living style presages a royal family keen to weigh more lightly on the landscape. Prince ­Harry’s unprecedented public appeal to the media and social media to lay off his new girlfriend, Meghan Markle, is a further presentiment of a more ­private, perhaps less publicly active royal generation.

With the Queen showing no sign of giving anyone else an early turn in the big, posh chair, we’ll just have to wait and see.