Monday, March 06, 2006

Claire Harvey: Charles may save monarchy from becoming irrelevant

It is so deliciously easy to mock Prince Charles but this time we should let him speak.

It has emerged, apparently to the startlement of many, that the Prince of Wales has a conscience, and admires the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

He writes to British Cabinet ministers to complain about laws which he feels are unwise or unjust, and publicly defends those causes (such as hoodie-clad teenagers and albatrosses) he feels are misunderstood or endangered. He sees himself as a loyal dissident, with a duty to use the security of hereditary rank as a licence to speak freely.

These revelations, which have emerged rather accidentally in the swirl of a court case between the Prince and a British newspaper, have been widely reported as either embarrassing for the Palace, further evidence of the aristocracy's hilariously deluded pretensions, or just another personal failing deserving of mockery, like wanting to be a tampon or talking to flowers.

But if we must have a monarchy, I would rather have an outspoken, interested, vital King than more of the same old Royal pointlessness.

If he has the courage to embrace the opportunities of his destiny, Prince Charles could become the monarch to win over the republicans, and to persuade us that royalty could provide something more valuable than Woman's Day cover stories and the occasional fancy funeral.

The knockers would presumably prefer Charles to follow the example of his family and limit his opinions to a few gruff murmurings into the sherry-glass, or perhaps to provide an ongoing sideshow by indulging in wastrel ostentation like the Tongan royal family, but what a waste that would be.

Here we have a royal who wants to do more than soak up public funding, so why mock him? Why not encourage him to become a spokesman for what he thinks is the silent majority, even if he might be a bit nerdy or pompous.

Hopefully, Charles will lose his foolish legal action against Associated Newspapers Limited, publisher of the Mail on Sunday, and realise this might be the chance for him to assert a new place for the monarchy.

In a doomed attempt to protect his privacy, Charles is trying to stop the paper printing seven travel journals he wrote on official overseas visits, which were apparently leaked by a former personal assistant, Sarah Goodall.

The only journal to be published so far, written by Charles in 1997 on the plane trip home from Hong Kong's handover to China, has only whetted the public appetite for more, with assessments like "appalling old waxworks" (Chinese dignitaries).

If the Prince believes he has a right and a duty to get involved in policy affairs, as his unappealing former private secretary Mark Bolland claims in a witness statement presented to the court by Associated Newspapers' lawyers, he should embrace the publication of his journals.

Indeed, Bolland has already implied there might be a commercial motive in Charles' attempt to protect his copyright. He claims that far from being ashamed of his views, the Prince circulated the journals and his private letters widely and was involved in discussions with his staff about publishing the journals in a book entitled Travels with the Prince.

Bolland claims the Prince also insisted all staff read his regular missives to Government ministers, in which he criticised various bills, including, according to another leaked document, writing "rubbish!" in the margin of one letter from the Lord Chancellor.

Bolland says he continually tried to keep the Prince quiet, and was infuriated at HRH's refusal to be restricted to opening fetes and hosting garden parties, a lifestyle which Bolland felt was far more regally appropriate.

But the former secretary's disapproval reveals more about his own delusions than any silliness of Charles'. When working for the Prince, Bolland would often gossip disparagingly about "Princeypoos", as he called him, with cultivated weariness.

Bolland's statement relates sneeringly how Charles was "delighted" when the media recognised the deliberate snub he delivered Chinese leader Jiang Zemin by refusing to attend a banquet at Beijing's embassy in London. It was Charles' way of expressing solidarity with the people of Tibet, and although avoiding dinner might seem like a slender sacrifice compared with the suffering of Tibetans murdered and exiled by China, it is the sort of gesture which should be encouraged.

The Bollands of this world like the royal family as it is, decorative and useless. If royals like Charles could only overcome the PR flaks' snobbish traditionalism, maybe the monarchy stands a chance of becoming more than an expensive irrelevance.

Rather than making fun of Charles, we should encourage him to act on his conscience more publicly and more often, to transform the palace from boring reliquary to something bigger and more important. He might even win over republicans like me.


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