Prince Charles has caused controversy by allegedly comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler during his recent tour of Canada. The remarks, which were made during a visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax, have caused a mini-tempest, including a stern denunciation from a Russian newspaper, which warned that the remarks could complicate UK-Russia relations. This kerfuffle is interesting because it illustrates the blurred lines between the Crowns of Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the ambiguities surrounding Prince Charles’ position within the UK itself.
First, a brief history lesson. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which effectively placed the self-governing Dominions (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on the same constitutional footing as the United Kingdom. From that point on, the British Parliament could only legislate for those countries if invited to do so by the Dominions themselves. It also meant that the Crowns in each of the Dominions became legally distinct entities. This means that Queen Elizabeth II reigns over Canada as ‘Queen of Canada,’ and not as ‘Queen of the United Kingdom.’ This is more than just a semantic issue. It means that the ministers of each Commonwealth Realm (the term ‘Dominion’ has largely fallen out of use) have the exclusive right to advise their Queen. In other words, David Cameron can’t advise the Queen on Canadian affairs, and Stephen Harper can’t advise her on British affairs.When Prince Charles visits Canada, he does so as a deputy to the Canadian Head of State; he’s not visiting on behalf of the United Kingdom. With that in mind, one could argue that Russia should be directing its saber rattling at Canada rather than the United Kingdom. But to the average person, I suspect the lines between the Crowns are much blurrier than they are to a constitutional scholar. You can see it in the way the local media cover royal tours of the Commonwealth Realms. It’s not uncommon to see the royal family referred to as ‘British’ even when they’re acting in their non-British capacities. I suspect that the average Joe or Jane on the streets of Toronto, Sydney, or Auckland might agree with Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who said that “I find it a bit of a Nancy story that the Queen of England can really be the Queen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.” One can hardly blame them for coming to that conclusion. The Queen might have 16 different sets of titles, but since she spends most of her time in the United Kingdom, it’s only natural that people tend to forget that she’s also Queen of Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, &c.
Prince Charles’ remarks have also caused controversy within the United Kingdom. Although the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was quick to defend him, there’s been some sniping from the Labour backbenches. Mike Gapes, an MP and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, tweeted that “[i]n constitutional monarchy policy and diplomacy should be conducted by parliament and government. Monarchy should be seen and not heard.”
Gapes’ basic thesis is correct. It is the Sovereign’s ministers who determine the government’s policy, not the Sovereign. In the end, she must accept her ministers’ advice, no matter how unpalatable or wrongheaded it may be. The Sovereign is free to criticize government policy in her private discussions with ministers, but public criticism is out of the question since the Crown must appear politically neutral.
But Prince Charles isn’t the Sovereign, and he occupies a much different place in the constitution. The need for royal discretion is largely a byproduct of the unique relationship between the Queen and her ministers. They are, to borrow a phrase from Sir William Anson, “the authorized exponents of the King’s pleasure,” and that constitutional fiction would come tumbling down if there were a public breach between the monarch and her government. Since Prince Charles’ views are, constitutionally speaking, irrelevant, one could argue that he’s as free to share them as anyone else. I think Nick Clegg put it nicely when he was asked about Prince Charles’ remarks during an appearance on BBC Breakfast: “I have never been of this view that if you are a member of the royal family somehow you have to enter into some Trappist vow of silence.”
That being said, there are practical reasons why Prince Charles might want to err on the side of discretion. Before the advent of modern mass media and the 24-hour news cycle, the heir to the throne didn’t have to worry about every little comment being endlessly parsed and dissected. But in this digital age, everything has an afterlife, and the things Prince Charles says now could come back to haunt him when he’s king. The controversy over his remarks in Canada may be little more than a tempest in a tea cup, but it’s still a good idea for him to tread cautiously.