When was the last time you wrote a letter to a Government minister? And when was the last time you wrote a letter to a Government minister and received anything close to a substantive response suggesting that your missive had actually resulted in a change of official policy?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and wager that very few people could answer the first question affirmatively (we lead busy lives, after all) and still fewer could claim to have had a genuine impact on policy making.
But then most of us aren’t Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales and the country’s future King. Because when he writes a letter to a Government minister, they have to sit up and take notice and, at the very least, feign some semblance of interest.
In a landmark judgement Thursday the Supreme Court ruled that the Government must publish the contents of 27 handwritten letters penned by Prince Charles and despatched to unsuspecting ministers.
This decision comes after a decade-long battle by the Guardian newspaper to force the disclosure of these so-called “black spider memos” (a reference to the Prince’s spikey handwriting) written to ministers in seven Government departments during 2004 and 2005.
A spokesman for Prince Charles said after the court ruling that Clarence House was “disappointed the principle of privacy had not been upheld” while Prime Minister David Cameron called the ruling “disappointing”, before adding: “This is about the principle that senior members of the Royal Family are able to express their views to Government confidentially. I think most people would agree this is fair enough.”
Huh? What principle is at the heart of our democracy and constitutional monarchy that says anything about the rights of the Royal Family to “express their views to government” either confidentially or out in the open?
Quite the opposite, in fact.
There are absolutely no grounds whatsoever for Prince Charles to make his views or opinions known on any matter of Government business to ministers in any circumstance. He is supposed to be above all of that.
Unusually, this is an issue which should unite both die-hard republicans and staunch monarchists. After all, both sides agree that the royals should be above the political fray, separated from party politics.
As the official website of the British monarchy makes clear, the political neutrality of the monarch (and, by extension, the heir as well) is central to the British constitution.
Neither the Queen nor other members of the Royal Family vote in elections because, although there is no law to bar them from doing so, “to vote or hold elected positions would not be in accordance with the need for neutrality.”
So if the heir to the throne must not cast his vote in a secret ballot to elect an MP or even a local councillor, because he must be politically neutral, on what basis can he be entitled to offer an opinion or seek to attempt to influence policy through handwritten letters to ministers?
Prince Charles can’t have it both ways. Either he is politically neutral or he isn’t. If the publication of these 27 letters could seriously damage his future as the British monarch then, by definition, how can he be a neutral figure?
During the lengthy court proceedings, we heard – from Government lawyers, not the Guardian’s – that the content of these letters would “seriously damage” Prince Charles’s status as a politically neutral figure.
Indeed, the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has described the letters as “particularly frank”, containing the Prince’s “most deeply held personal views and beliefs”.
And he said their publication could lead the public to interpret them as disagreeing with Government policy at the time which “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is King”.
The bid by the Government to prevent publication appears to have rested not on the Prince’s right to privacy but on his right to continue to deceive the British people into believing that he is above politics.
But the point of the monarch and heir to the throne being politically neutral isn’t one of mere perception, it has to actually be true. Although I think it highly unlikely that anyone suspects that Prince Charles is a secret devotee of the Socialist Worker Party, the idea that he thinks it is appropriate for him to meddle in matters of state behind the scenes is one that should be deeply troubling to every British citizen, monarchist and republican alike.
And if you don’t like it, why not write to a Government minister and tell them so. Prince Charles won’t mind one bit.