BBC Radio 4 has aired an interesting program to mark the 45th anniversary of Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales. Entitled “The Royal Activist,” it examines the extent to which he influences public policy, as well as the constitutional propriety of that influence.
It’s well known that Prince Charles is passionate about a range of issues, from architecture to the environment. He is not afraid to discuss them publicly, nor does he shy away from sharing his views with ministers. His outspokenness has generated controversy in the UK, and he’s frequently accused of ‘meddling.’ Basically, Prince Charles is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. If he didn’t take an interest in the world around him, people would attack him for being lazy. But when he does, people attack him for being too involved.
Part of the problem is the popular misconception the Monarch can’t express opinions on political matters. On the contrary, she has the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. The only catch is that her views can only be aired during private discussions with her ministers; the Queen can’t go on TV and explain to the public why the government’s policies are wrongheaded. Because the Queen’s political engagement is done behind the scenes, the public isn’t really aware of it (unless, of course, they’re avid readers of Walter Bagehot). But a glance through Queen Victoria’s correspondence will demonstrate just how forthright a Sovereign can be in her dealings with her ministers. Even George VI, who felt that he had to be extra careful to mind his Ps and Qs in the aftermath of the Abdication Crisis, was not afraid to remonstrate with the government. Of course, Prince Charles is not yet king, and so, strictly speaking, he does not have the same rights as his mother. But I think it’s extremely fussy to argue that he’s somehow barred from engaging with the government in the meantime. Expecting him to spend 45+ years twiddling his thumbs at Highgrove is just absurd.
Granted, some people would argue that it’s wrong for the Queen and Prince Charles to exert any influence since they’re unelected. But it’s important to remember that the government is not responsible to the Crown; it is responsible to Parliament and ultimately the electorate. Just because the Queen or Prince Charles say something doesn’t mean the government will automatically fall in line. David Blunkett was one of the former Cabinet ministers interviewed for “The Royal Activist,” and he discussed Prince Charles’ opposition to the Labour government’s policy on grammar schools, “I would explain that our policy was not to expand grammar schools, and he didn’t like that. He was very keen that we should go back to a different era where youngsters had what he would have seen as the opportunity to escape from their background, whereas I wanted to change their background.” In other words, the government continued its policy despite Prince Charles’ intervention.
On the other hand, Sir John Major made it clear in his contribution to the program that there were times where the Queen influenced his policies. He wasn’t slavishly obeying a royal command–he was simply persuaded by something she’d said: “I can recall occasions where the Queen in discussion put a gloss upon something that made one think and reflect upon whether it was being done in the right fashion at the right time, or perhaps reflect upon what the impact of it would be.”
This isn’t the 16th century. A minister isn’t going to lose her job (or her head) because she fails to conform to the royal will. If royal opinions are given any weight, it’s because ministers believe they actually have merit. They’re under no obligation to accept input that they don’t agree with (for an example of how a major disagreement between the Queen and her ministers can play out, see Twomey 2006, 246-257). On the other hand, the Sovereign must accept ministerial advice, regardless of their personal views. As long as Prince Charles doesn’t breach that cardinal convention, I think his crown will be secure.
Twomey, Anne. The Chameleon Crown: The Queen and Her Australian Governors. Sydney: The Federation Press, 2006.