Observer 3 January 2015
I sound a feeble republican when I say it, but if you have to have a hereditary head of state, Elizabeth II is as good a monarch as you can get. Journalists have tried for decades to catch her interfering in politics and found nothing. We know she is pro-union, pro-Commonwealth and, one supposes, a Tory traditionalist. But no one has been able to show that she has lobbied or manipulated.
It may be ancient history to her 21st-century subjects, but she remembers that the Baldwin government forced her uncle, Edward VIII, to abdicate in 1936, in part because of his admiration of Hitler and Mussolini, and his interference in politics, which the party leaders of the 1930s regarded as unconstitutional.
The Queen could not be more different: dull, cautious and safe. She has been on the throne for so long you have to be in your 70s to remember another monarch. We are used to her and assume she will go on forever. We forget that sooner or later everyone steps aside or dies in post and with an 88-year-old your money should be on the sooner.
The palace and the politicians expect a smooth succession to the reign of Charles III, even though he is a man who has spent his life demonstrating how woefully unqualified he is to be a constitutional king. A small measure of his failure lies in the BBC’s decision to postpone and possibly ban Reinventing the Royals, which it was due to be shown tonight. I can just about understand why Prince Charles wanted to stop a documentary about the PR tactics he employed to recover his reputation after the death of Princess Diana. It would have made him look like a politician running for office rather than an heir apparent, who expects to become sovereign of the United Kingdom and 15 other Commonwealth states by the modern equivalent of divine right.
The BBC had wanted to reveal how Prince William felt he had been “used to further his father’s interests”. He had had a private “let’s get to know each other” meeting with Camilla Parker Bowles. Prince Charles’s courtiers leaked the details as they softened up public opinion into accepting that their master could marry his mistress, as Edward VIII had done. Prince William believes the press killed his mother and obsessively protects his privacy. It cannot have been pleasant to learn that his father’s hired help had invaded it. But, come on, this is the BBC, whose deference before crown and altar is an embarrassment. Reinventing the Royals is a straight documentary. Any intelligent PR would have told Charles to ignore the programme. Unfortunately, you never see intelligence and our future sovereign in the same room. True to form, the prince’s “people” have gone ape and turned a routine documentary into a cause celebre.
The affair shows what anyone who raises their eyes from the floor in the presence of royalty already knows. The future Charles III expects to be heeded, not scrutinised, and above all he expects to intervene in politics with a regularity and partisanship his mother never dared imitate or, as far as we know, ever wanted to imitate either.
There’s no secret. His aides have announced that King Charles will “reshape the monarch’s role” and make “heartfelt interventions”. I can’t see him moderating his stance when his mother dies. He’s 66 and has waited for the throne all his life. Unlike Prince Andrew, he can move out of the gossip columns and into the history books. Old men in a hurry don’t change when a prize like that is in sight. More to the point, no one is making him change. A by no means exhaustive list of his political interventions includes: health – he forced ministers to listen to his gormless support for homeopathic treatments and every other variety of charlatanism and quackery; defence – he protested against cuts in the armed forces; justice – he complained about ordinary people’s access to law, or as he put it: “I dread the very real and growing prospect of an American-style personal injury culture”; political correctness – he opposes equality as I suppose a true royal must; GM foods – he thinks they’re dangerous, regardless of evidence; modern architecture – he’s against; and eco-towns – he’s for, as long as he has a say in their design.
The question should not be whether you agree with him (although I would doubt your sanity if you agreed with his whole obscurantist world view) but: by what right does he interfere? To date, no politician has asked it.
After four generations of telling the British that the monarchy is a unifying force “above politics”, politicians do not even trouble to pretend that Charles III is anything other than a “player” with his own manifesto and prejudices. When the former attorney general Dominic Grieve tried to stop the Guardian finding out how the prince lobbies, he did not say that a neutral royal should be left alone. On the contrary, he said that the prince’s letters to ministers expressed his “most deeply held personal views and beliefs” and were in “many cases particularly frank”. They must be kept secret because publication would destroy the illusion of a royal neutrality no one in power thinks exists any more.
How is such a man to deliver a King’s speech or be trusted to act impartiality in a hung parliament? How can he meet and greet foreign leaders he has publicly opposed, or choose a prime minister he has publicly disagreed with, or be a unifying force when every position he takes will inevitably create opposition?
Monarchists of all people should worry that he is destroying their comforting myths. Instead, British monarchist politicians indulge Prince Charles. They hope that the show can be kept on the road and that Britain can muddle on until a better monarch succeeds him. They won’t raise the subject of whether the crown should skip a generation to Prince William. They won’t even define in law where a monarch’s “advice” ends and political meddling begins.
Prince Charles has every reason to carry on behaving with his usual neurotic vanity. But then Edward VIII seemed as secure when he became king in January 1936 and he was gone within the year. History suggests that Britain may be a slavishly monarchical country, but if the monarch goes too far then the monarch goes. Don’t be too surprised if the indulgence and protection vanishes as swiftly for Charles III as it did for his great uncle.