Disgusted of Clarence House

BY STEWART SLATER

“Appalling” the newspapers screamed, reporting the Prince of Wales’ opinion on the government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda, a story deemed important enough to make the front pages and lead the news bulletins. With Clarence House failing to deny the leak, what followed was one of those inversions which the Culture War occasionally throws up – the less than notably monarchist left praised Charles’ courageous intervention, while the right, never reluctant to tug its metaphorical forelock, decided that he should get back in his box.

It is, of course, not the first time that the heir to the throne’s views have reached public consciousness. His description of the proposed extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle” in the 1980’s introduced his thoughts on modern architecture to a wider audience and probably represented the broad mass of public opinion. His casting of the Chinese Politburo as “appalling [there’s that word again!] old waxworks” was the sort of comment most right thinking human beings could get behind. His decision to become patron of the Faculty of Homoeopathy, on the other hand, made many question his familiarity with the scientific method.

Still in his long apprenticeship for the top job, Charles is not subject to the same strictures as his mother. Whereas her views are, as Head of State, meant to be unknown, he has more freedom to speak his mind. A privilege he has used many times. As the reaction to his previous outbursts has shown, he is free to hold his opinions, and others are free to disagree with him. He is, constitutionally, a private citizen apart from such occasions where he acts as a Counsellor of State.

However, the fact that one has a right does not mean that one is always wise to exercise it. Discretion can, after all, be the better part of valour.

For while Charles may not be king now, he will be one day and he will not come to that role with his public image unformed. Every utterance forms a paper trail which shapes the public’s view of him. We might guess at the Queen’s opinions based on her age and class, but none of us can say for sure what she believes. Like journalists trawling Donald Trump’s extensive Twitter back catalogue, with Prince Charles, we can generally find a quote which gives us a reasonable insight into his opinions.

It is in this context that his latest utterance appears unwise. For, unlike previous controversies which were over matters of public interest, this concerns a case of government policy. The heir to the throne is attacking a measure taken by his mother’s government, a government which will, one day, be his. What will he do then? Will he allow a policy which he considers “appalling” to continue, or will he find the shackles of constitutional restraint too tight. Might he end up in a battle between the Palace and Downing Street as foreseen in the play King Charles III?

Even outside such outlandish scenarios, the Prince’s latest intervention carries risk. For while the Rwanda policy is not necessarily popular, it is not unpopular either. When YouGov polled the issue in April, 35% supported it, and 42% opposed. 59% of Conservative voters are in favour as are 50% of the over 65’s. What are they to make of his opinion? If the plan is “appalling”, what does that make its supporters? Does he think they are too stupid to realise the truth? Or are they just morally defective? Can he claim, and would he want, to represent the whole nation when he believes a third of his subjects support something “appalling”? Knowing that he does, can those people believe him? More specifically, given the demographics of support for the monarchy, the Prince seems to be making the same mistake the Conservatives are accused of when they pursue their green agenda: annoying his natural base to curry favour with those who will never support him.

To gauge the success of this tactic, we can turn to the Church of England. Like the Prince, Justin Welby is opposed to the Rwanda plan – it “cannot stand up to the judgement of God.” With the Church’s membership showing a similar demographic skew to support for the monarchy, we might wonder how widely this view is shared in the pews. Whereas, however, the Prince is a relative newcomer to intervening on contentious matters of public policy, the Church has long ago decided to jump in with both feet. Numerous bishops have recorded their opposition to Brexit and it is thought only one voted Leave in the Referendum. By contrast, it is believed that Remain attracted only minority support from the parishioners. In the decade to 2019, weekly attendance at the Church’s services fell by about 20%, and there is good reason to believe it will have fallen further over the pandemic. Just 12% of the population now identify as Anglicans.

Rather than the lurid fantasies of right wing commentators who spent the weekend saying, “Well, if he behaves like that when he’s king, he won’t be king for very long”, this is the real danger in the Prince’s remarks. His interventions will slowly but steadily undermine support for the monarchy.

For getting rid of a king is no easy matter (history suggests deploying an army is often necessary which tends to get a bit messy) and, as the Conservative Party is currently demonstrating, there is no real point in a little light regicide unless you a) know who the replacement is and b) are confident they will be better than the incumbent. While the hereditary system makes the former easy, Prince William’s seeming unanimity of views with his father, and his similar fondness for expressing them makes the latter less obvious.

Like the Church of England, the danger of Charles’ remarks is that espousing different views to his base leads to a steady decline in support for the monarchy as those most in favour get alienated, and outreach efforts to “get down with the kids” fall on stony ground. Declining interest means papers with a royal photo on the cover no longer get a sales bump so press coverage declines. The whole thing becomes a bit “meh”. It still carries on, but no-one pays much attention anymore. Paddington turns down his invitation to the next Jubilee. Christopher Biggins doesn’t.

A monarchy in that position tends to attract unwelcome questions. If the public stops paying attention, why should it fund the show? Arguments over the licence fee show that people are increasingly reluctant to fund entertainment they do not consume. Do we really need to pay for the next round of palace repairs? Declining membership of the Church of England prompts questions about bishops sitting in the House of Lords, might declining monarchical popularity raise questions about the whole constitutional order? While getting rid of the monarchy would be a problem massively more complex than Brexit, if the monarchy is providing no obvious benefit then the costs of moving to a republic would be lower. Rather than going out with a bang like the Stuarts, the Windsors, as did the last Shogun of Japan, might eventually shuffle off the stage with a whimper.

It does not have to be this way. As George Orwell argued in Shooting an Elephant, leaders must work within the expectations of the led. For better or worse, the Queen’s reign has given her subjects to believe that they can project their own views on to the monarch without fear of being contradicted. Having the country’s biggest platform, he is expected to have the least to say. The next time he is tempted to let his views be known, he should remember Dad’s Army’s Sgt. Wilson, “Do you think that’s wise, sir?”

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.