Sunday, 1 February 2015

The dangers of a more political monarch


Signals have recently been emerging from Prince Charles' inner circle that he wishes to be a more opinionated, interventionist, thoughtful monarch. He wants to go on 'speaking out', 'speaking his mind', and generally making clear where he stands on the issues close to his heart. If that's right, and that really is the heir's intention when he does take up the throne, it's a worrying sign indeed.

Now this is not at all about his ideas. Organic food? Sustainable farming? The fight against global warming? The need to feel connected to the earth, to a place, to the land? Well, take it or leave it, the Prince of Wales (above) was ruminating about many of these themes before many of his future subjects had really engaged with 'green' issues at all. We like those Duchy Original biscuits, by the way. And talking to plants? There are worse things you can do with your spare time.

Now Charles Windsor has something of his great-uncle in his soul. He wants to make a difference. He wants to be useful. He cares. He wants to move 'forward'. Like Edward VIII's promise to the South Wales miners - that 'something will be done' about unemployment and poverty (though little was) - he thinks that he can make a big and a hearty contribution. And you know what? In certain spheres and at certain times, he probably can. You'd be hard pressed to find a more admirable charity than the Prince's Trust, working with youngsters from across the United Kingdom to help them find a better life for themselves.

But that wish to lead, and to be loved, is a perilous one in a King rather than a Prince - as Edward VIII found to his cost. The very point of the modern monarchy - without which it would be useless indeed to modern Britain - is its uselessness. It's an ornament, not an orb.

The idea of a more political monarchy is a deeply dangerous one for rather more prosaic reasons as well. Popularity, loyalty, influence - they flow from being rather than saying, and showing rather than telling. From this angle, it's important to stress that Prince Charles seems to feel rather slighted by life. He is doomed to succeed a vastly skilful and popular monarch who feels that she learned the art of dutiful service at the shoulder of her father, and has gone on applying those rules - keeping on keeping on - for so many decades that most Britons can remember nothing else. Perhaps he wants to strike out in a new way, and to make a mark for himself. No-one could blame him.

But consider the Queen's recent sally into the question of Scottish independence, and what it tells us about the successful use of power. We know what she really thinks. She looked askance at the title 'Queen of Scots' that was talked of by some Nationalists, thinking her own Scottishness (via her mother, not her throne) beyond question without any change of title. She made sure that she urged Scots to 'think very carefully' about the vote - a sophisticated, deniable way of communicating her true views that showed she had learned from an ill-advised attempt to address the question directly at the time of her Silver Jubilee. The signal was unmistakable - but could easily have been forgotten, adapted, revised. It was the mark of a monarch who is political in a truer sense than merely the controversial or opinionated - who judges which part of which game can be played to win. Wouldn't you rather be Charles II, nuanced, subtle, hard to pin down, than his less successful but perhaps more principled brother, James II?

So as the Prince pens his torrent of 'black spider' memoranda to Ministers, as his household tries to block their publication, as he prepares one day to be King, everyone should have a thought: if he really does want to go on 'speaking out', he is taking us into rough waters. In an era when we are very likely to have more Hung Parliaments, when the Union is likely to come into question again and again, when the tradeoffs between humans and nature become more acute, Queen Elizabeth II's skills are going to look very useful indeed.

We are told in Charles' most recent biography that his household is riven with tension and faction. Perhaps that's a bit overblown. But unless he is very careful indeed, he may end up dividing the country without meaning to.

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