The Prince of Wales has kept out of party politics and is quite right to. Yet he has spoken out powerfully – and sometimes controversially – on political issues in a way that is constitutionally quite proper as it has completely avoided any hint of party allegiance.
In any event, HRH retains the capacity to surprise. Often he comes across as a traditionalist – as with his tastes in architecture and his defence of the Book of Common Prayer. Yet this morning the Daily Mail reports that he favours reform of the Honours System in a way that sounds suspiciously modern:
“Prince Charles will demand a total overhaul of the honours system when he becomes king.
“The heir to the throne believes gongs are handed out ‘to the wrong people for the wrong reasons’.
“He is said to want to scrap honours such as the CBE, which stands for Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
“Modern and egalitarian awards would be brought in instead, possibly in smaller numbers. ‘Why should people still be invested with an order of a defunct British empire?’ one member of the prince’s inner circle told the Mail.
“Charles, who stood in for the Queen at an investiture yesterday, also thinks the honours ceremonies should be a celebration.
“A figure close to him said a party would be more suitable, adding: ‘It’s a shame that after receiving an honour at the palace, recipients have to leave. How much more appropriate it would be for the occasion to be marked by a party.”
The story is based on a new biography of The Prince of Wales by Catherine Mayer.
While the book is understood to be favourable to The Prince it is expected to provide ammunition for his critics about his “meddling” in politics. This is the complaint about his habit of writing to Ministers raising concerns or ideas about some matter of public policy.
Critics have demanded these letters should be published. That strikes me as quite unreasonable – if you or I are entitled to write a candid private letter to the Prime Minister why shouldn’t the Prince of Wales enjoy equality in that regard? It would seem an uneven way to apply the Freedom of Information Act.
We also occasionally see complaints that the letters are a waste of Ministers time. That sounds disingenuous. I suspect most politicians are chuffed to get a letter from him and dine out boasting about it. They might disagree with it and they don’t have to agree to meet him – or even bother to read the letter. But they would be foolish to adopt that approach. The Prince of Wales has great knowledge and experience through his visits around the country and his charities. He has no selfish motive for putting his views forward.
The real motive in trying to silence him is not concern about constitutional impropriety. It is that it offers a route – both openly and privately – for establishment orthodoxies to be challenged. One can imagine that civil servants would prefer greater deference.
The most important challenge from the Prince has been regarding our built environment. In 1984 he gave a speech lamenting that the proposed extension to the National Gallery was “a monstrous carbuncle”. The architects running the Royal Institute of British Architects were furious. They felt that as “experts” it was for them to decide what good design is. For the Prince to speak out, reflecting the views of ordinary people, infuriated the high ups.
Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I do not. But I would like the Prince of Wales to carry on “meddling”.