A storm in a teacup: the Guardian misses the point about Charles’ black spider memos


Dear Minister,

Thank you so much for joining me at the inaugural symposium of my Global Bear Preservation Initiative at Clarence House recently.

I know that I will be lampooned by so-called “modernisers” as a inexcusable old stick-in-the mud, but I hope you will indulge me when I observe how vitally important it is to remember that these mammals do not just live and procreate, but also defecate, in the world’s precious woodlands? ….(continues ad nauseam)

 Dear Prime Minister,

I was so delighted to host you and Cherie for the weekend here at Highgrove last month. I am sorry that other engagements compelled you to leave shortly after pre-dinner drinks on Friday evening. It seemed that you left almost as soon as you arrived! However I much enjoyed our lively, if brief discussion about how politicians, faith leaders, and “awkward customers” (!) like me can collaborate to promote international inter-faith dialogue.

There is one insight which I promised to put in writing: has it escaped your attention that as well as being an important spiritual leader in his own right, His Holiness the Pope is also leader of the global Catholic church. This under-reported fact is often overlooked by the secular “experts” whose over-rational view of the world has inflicted such damage on …. (continues ad nauseam )

It’s easy to mock Prince Charles’ turgid, un-self-conscious and pompous tone (as my parodies above attempt to) in the 27 letters and memos published in the Guardian today. Many of them are ponderous statements of the obvious. Touching on subjects as obscure as Captain Scott’s crumbling Antarctic hut, the albatross and even the Patagonian tooth fish, they have prompted a predictable tide of indignation from republican commentators pointing out that the Prince is misguided, out of touch and guilty of inappropriate Royal lobbying.

I don’t share all of the prince’s views. Opposing “farm red tape” is often code for advocating more subsidies and less control on the environmental damage that intensive agriculture can do. His beloved alternative medicines are often positively dangerous quack remedies. Nor do I share many of the Prince’s views on architecture (a subject which, oddly, hardly features in any of these letters): I loathe the post-modernist National Gallery extension he lobbied for, in place of the “monstrous carbuncle” he deplored; and many of the housing developments he favours, in Poundbury and elsewhere, are twee, car-dependent toy towns which do little to promote sustainable living. His opposition to Lord Rogers’ proposals for the site of Chelsea barracks missed the point: the real scandal was not the architectural style but that the Qataris would convert a public asset into yet another gated community of empty trophies owned by buy-to-let tycoons. That such a gated community will now have pediments and dormer windows does nothing to make it more acceptable.

But Prince Charles was right to kick up a fuss about the plan to demolish much of Smithfield market, and whatever the constitutional niceties I applaud him for doing so. I would rather have a thinking, breathing heir to the throne, not a brainless figurehead. It is nonsense to argue that the prince single-handedly changed the government’s mind on a Badger cull, slimmed-down regulation of herbal remedies, or better equipment for British armed forces in Afghanistan. A wide range of charities, business interests and politicians were also lobbying on all these issues. If Charles lent some Royal weight to these causes, so what?

I have many concerns about the monarchy in Britain today – the creepy obsession the tabloid media have with Royal births, marriages and hairdos; the mawkish sentimentality that many British people display to an unelected hereditary family; the way that and worthless hangers-on such as the Duke of Gloucester living in subsidised apartments in  Kensington Palace.

The charge of “undue influence” only makes sense if Prince Charles really exerted any real power. But the days of underlings being sent to the Tower for disobeying Royal orders are long gone. When he becomes King, Charles will have some patronage through Royal Warrants and a handful of honours (such as the Royal Victoria Order) which are in the personal gift of the monarch. But this is much less leverage than any leading politician or business leader has.

In fact, if you read between the lines of the Ministerial replies sent to Charles, a brush-off is clear in many of them. “I will make sure you receive a copy [of the Healthy Living Action Plan, a manual for healthier school meals] and would be grateful for any further reflections you may have,” wrote Charles Clarke in September 2004. “While I can personally see the case for culling badgers, I would not want to prejudge the decision,” wrote Tony Blair in spring 2015. Replying to the prince in November 2004 about over-fishing, Environment minister Elliot Morley was even terser: “I will be happy to keep you informed of progress”.

As anyone who has worked in a Town Hall, Westminster or Whitehall – or indeed watched an episode of Yes Minister – knows, all these comments have a single translation: “Please shut up and leave me alone”. Promising to send on consultation documents “in due course”, vows to keep correspondents “informed”, and reassurances that comments have been “taken on board” are staple weapons in the bureaucratic armoury of politicians and civil servants wanting to politely tell busybodies to get stuffed (when I served as a councillor and worked for an MP, I would draft dozens of such letters each month). It’s reassuring to see that Prince Charles is treated no differently from anyone else.

Even the Guardian (which, preposterously, devotes five pages to this non-story just a week after the most important general election for 20 years), admits the letters are “more boring than bullying”; columnist Simon Jenkins rightly points out that Prince Charles hobby-horses are just a distraction from the real menace: corporate lobbying.

If only the Guardian had put as much effort in getting the government to reveal the correspondence it received from Murdoch, energy companies and tax avoiders like Google and Amazon. The Guardian – a paper that is at best lukewarm towards the Royal Family – cannot have it both ways. The Royal Family can’t be ridiculed for being a bunch of airheads one day, only for Prince Charles to be mocked for intellectual diarrhoea the next.

Personally, I would like Britain to a gradually shift from a constitutional monarchy into a federal republic with an elected head of state, voting reform, an elected Senate in place of the House of Lords, and a proper written constitution. But with Wills and Kate becoming ever more popular, this may not happen in my lifetime. If we want to see the monarchy better reflect modern Britain in the meantime, replacing the Queen’s diplomatic silence with the Prince’s scattergun interventions will help rather than hinder.

Even if you disagree with all the Prince’s heterodox views there’s no evidence that Charles has had any undue influence on government policy. To take just one example, it’s clear that the Prince had much less influence on healthy school meals than another unelected celebrity – Jamie Oliver – but I hear no demand for his private correspondence to be released.


The best way to shift Britain towards a modern, Scandinavian monarchy is not to tell Prince Charles to shut up and smile sweetly for the cameras. The change need to take place among the Royal Family’s subjects – or rather citizens. When the London Borough of Greenwich was given “Royal” status in 2012 there was an orgy of self-congratulation. Just as frontline services were being cut, there was even a proposal (eventually shelved) to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on statues of the blood-splattered Tudor monarchs who had been born in the borough. Many politicians fell over themselves to pontificate about how Royal Status would bring more tourism and inward investment to the borough – and a few even claimed that Royal Status would help to “re-engage” with white working class communities and persuade them to start voting again. In fact, Greenwich’s royal history is a lot less interesting or important than its role as a birthplace of the Labour party, the co-operative movement and Arsenal football club.

If all the expense and effort put into celebrating “Royal Borough status” had been re-directed towards community engagement, frontline services and improving democratic transparency, then Greenwich would have been better off (just as Greenwich spent a fortune on firework displays and royal pageants, it claimed to have no money with which to webcast town hall meetings or subsidise the local credit union).

No member of the royal family had ordered such cringing and forelock-tugging in a “black spider” memo: the hysteria was home-grown. If we want the Royal Family to modernise we need to treat them like grownups. The Guardian’s fixation on Charles’ prolific letter-writing, and the fawning “obedient servant” salutations with which some ministers replied, misses the point. Charles’s letters aren’t the worst things about the Royal family. In fact they are some of its few redeeming features.

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2 Responses to A storm in a teacup: the Guardian misses the point about Charles’ black spider memos

  1. btho5531 says:

    Great article. I think that the Royal family is bound by the constitution to avoid exerting influence in politics and its this question that is at the heart of the matter.

  2. Pingback: Now the mourning rituals are over, it’s time for what the monarchy does best: inventing new traditions | Alex Grant

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