Yours affectionately, Charles
‘Queen Victoria stuck to the throne like shit to a blanket,’ my grandmother would occasionally remark during one of her Benson & Hedges-fuelled historical disquisitions. Annette Crosbie had then lately been on telly in Edward the Seventh, as the Prince of Wales’s dismayingly adhesive materfamilias. Bertie, as he was known to his intimates, spent a lot of his long wait for the throne on grouse moors and in Parisian knocking-shops. It could be argued that he was spending his time more fruitfully than the present Prince of Wales, whose ten-year-old letters to government ministers have just been published after a long campaign by the Guardian.
Unlike the Duke of York, whose political views seem to lie somewhere between Nigel Farage and the EDL, Charles comes across in the memos as a well-meaning dunderhead, dabbling in affairs of state with the slightly bemused air of a prep-school geography teacher. Charles gamely lobbies away with Labour ministers, with a large and varied squadron of hobby horses, including British beef for the MoD, less red tape for farmers, the badness of the Lynx helicopter, the importance of teaching English and History, and Scott and Shackleton’s ‘iconic’ huts in the Antarctic.
Quite a few of the letters concern animals. Badgers – foes to the farmer’s friend, the cow – have got it coming to them. Through ‘overpopulation’ the stripy little brutes threaten ‘expensive’ cattle with bovine TB, which may metastasise, Charles thinks, into a new BSE or foot-and-mouth crisis. On the other hand, albatrosses merit special concern; this aristocrat among sea birds often gets snagged in fishing lines intended for Patagonian Toothfish in the southern oceans. How Elliot Morley, the recipient of this missive as environment minister, is meant to redress this situation, is not explained.
He’s long on old-world courtesies, conceding to ministers that he is ‘old fashioned’ and ‘a complete bore’. But the prince is not above a bit of self-puffery, as he professes to Blair that he’d ‘like to think that my Foundation for the Built Environment is one of the leading sources of expertize’ on where to site hospitals, his worry apparently being that the countryside is set to be swamped by the government’s hospital-building programme. Poundbury, Charles’s Lego village in Dorset, gets a couple of name-checks. The now defunct Office of Fair Trading, charged with consumer protection and competitiveness, comes in for vitriol for its failure to aid dairy co-operatives, ‘which is, of course, ridiculous’.
Ministers respond politely to these importunities while giving little away. No doubt Charles has become used to impassive interlocutors through his chats with marrows. As education secretary, Ruth Kelly signs herself ‘Your Obedient Servant’; Charles Clarke gives the prince the full Debrett's ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant’; Blair signs off with a chummy ‘Yours ever, Tony’. The prince himself tops and tails the typed letters with ‘black spider’ salutations. He ends letters to Tessa Jowell, then culture minister, with ‘Yours affectionately’.
David Cameron has pledged to look at tighting the Freedom of Information act so that ministers can veto the disclosure of this sort of thing. The old Labour eminence Jack Straw, whose Commons career ended with his suspension this year after being caught on camera hawking his tips to a bogus consultancy firm, has been on air to denounce the publication. ‘If you are entitled to know what he is saying,’ Straw said, ‘then it would stop him saying anything at all.’ But then, as they say, one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, and silence may be the counsel of wisdom. Apart from the odd nudge and purr – her response to last year's Scottish referendum result, after she'd urged Scots to 'think very carefully' about whether they really wanted independence – the queen has managed to keep mum for 63 regnal years. If sticking to the throne is your aim, it’s been a winning strategy.