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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Prince Charles and his letters


The role of "Prince of Wales" is not particularly easy to define.  Aside from managing the Duchy of Cornwall, which is presumably almost completely delegated to professionals, the holder of the position seems to spend most of his time doing similar things to the monarch but (one suspects) with the same sort of feeling as the opening act for the Rolling Stones. 

No Prince of Wales in history has had to wait as long to be King as Prince Charles. Perhaps with a resultant sense of frustration, Prince Charles has for some years now been writing letters on all manner of subjects to all manner of MPs and others in officialdom.  In doing so he has been acting as a sort of unpaid lobbyist or semi-professional gadfly. 

Immediately one sees a problem.  When he becomes the monarch he will be required to be politically neutral, something his mother has almost always conscientiously observed.  In turn that means Charles III will have to be seen to be politically neutral.  But by writing so many letters on matters of political controversy, Prince Charles has been seen as anything but neutral or devoid of political opinions.  One presumes those opinions will not disappear overnight when he becomes Charles III. Therefore, he will be somewhat compromised as monarch from the beginning. 

With this in mind the Guardian newspaper made a freedom of information request to obtain a number of letters written by the Prince in 2004 and 2005. The request pertained to letters involving “advocacy” on the part of Prince Charles, defined as (i) identifying charitable need and setting up and driving forward charities to meet it, and/or (ii) the promotion of Prince Charles’ views on various issues.

In 2010 the Freedom of Information Act was amended to give the heir to the throne exemption from all future requests.  This is somewhat remarkable on its face and deserves further comment at another time.  Staying with the Guardian's request for now, however, the Upper Tribunal ruled in the Guardian's favour in September of this year (Evans v IC and Others (Seven Government Departments) [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC)).  Now, however, the Attorney-General has reversed that decision, in a rather surprising ruling.  The Telegraph reports

[The Attorney General] said it was in the national interest to ban publication of the letters “because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.


Mr Grieve overturned [the Upper Tribunal's] decision, saying there was an “exceptional case” for him to use his veto to prevent the Prince’s “most deeply held and personal beliefs” becoming public

In a 10-page summary of his reasons for overturning the judges’ decision, Mr Grieve said the Prince’s letters had been “urging a particular view on ministers” but this amounted to him “educating” himself about the work of government in preparation for becoming king, making the letters exempt from freedom of information requests.

The Attorney-General's ruling may be found here. I have to say I am not convinced by his reasoning, with the greatest of respect.  It is a stretch to argue that lobbying for a change in the law is "educating" the lobbyist in how government works; and if that was the objective behind his letters there were rather better ways in which the Prince could have gone about it - seeking advice from constitutional lawyers and political scientists for example.

Secondly, if disclosure of the content of the letters would indeed forfeit the Prince's political neutrality, then they should not have been written in the first place.  The answer is not for them to be written and then hushed up.

Thirdly, the Attorney General maintains that there is "nothing improper" in the letters, but that seems more like a reason for, not against, publication.

The Queen gives a weekly audience to the Prime Minister, and otherwise has ad hoc contact with politicians.  No doubt at these meetings she gives her opinion on various matters and, of course, the content of all such occasions remains confidential.  Here is the strongest ground in Prince Charles' favour: he may simply be informally copying what the Queen does already.  It is unrealistic to think that the Queen has never offered her personal views to the Prime Minister during the weekly audience.

Nevertheless, I do not think the situations are identical.  For a start, I am not aware that the Queen ever sent lobbying letters to anyone before she became Queen.  Secondly, the Queen has never indicated that she wishes to influence contentious political matters in a concerted fashion, as opposed simply to offering the Prime Minister the benefit of her experience of more than six decades in public life. By contrast, Prince Charles has not made secret his strong views on the environment and various other issues and therefore presents himself as much more of a political animal. In other words, it comes back to being seen to be impartial, much as justice has to be seen to be done. 

The present case is not the same situation as occurred with Prince Charles' private diaries, which were the subject of legal action a few years ago, and which I have written about for my forthcoming book (and previously for the New Law Journal).  The diaries were never intended to be anything other than an entertaining read for the Prince's close friends: they were certainly not an attempt to influence senior politicians. Prince Charles was therefore entitled to an expectation of privacy with regard to their contents and even to the fact of their existence. 

Nor is Prince Charles in the same position as, for example, a barrister hoping to become a judge one day. Although some barristers do become known for always acting for a particular type of litigant, and they may publish strong opinions on various areas of law, all are bound in their role as barristers by strict rules of conduct and the cab-rank principle. There is no equivalent for Prince Charles. Secondly, judges give virtually all their decisions in public, so one seen as favouring his former clients would be found out quickly. Again, that does not apply to the monarch, who does much in private including the aforementioned meetings with the Prime Minister.

The reality is that if the letters were published then pressure would mount for Prince Charles to step aside and allow William to become King when the Queen dies. It might be hard for Prince Charles to accept, but the truth is that the institution of the Monarchy would probably be more popular as a result, not least because it would not have to fend off inevitable rumours and accusations concerning the letters.

UPDATE: Jack Straw has written in defence of the letters here. It seems to me that the problem stems from the fact that Prince Charles has never made secret his wish to influence areas of very contentious politics - such as human rights - and areas of science, when he is qualified in neither and which one would not expect the monarch (or monarch to be) to attempt to influence.  He might offer an opinion in private but seems to be going beyond this with sustained letter-writing campaigns.  Were he to confine himself to helping with charities and building bridges between business and regulators - the sort of thing that no-one much disagrees with - there would be a lot less controversy and any correspondence would rightly be treated as confidential. 


  1. Well said.
    Jeremy Hunt's support for homeopathy on the NHS...quickly followed by his appointment to Min. of Health despite the Murdoch gaffes...and the fact he claims to be descended from the Bowes-Lyons family (Wiki)...to some, it seems that attempts to influence Govt. policies are already being made by Clarence House, and quite handsomely rewarded - we're just the plebs paying for it all....

  2. " When he becomes the monarch he will be required to be politically neutral, something his mother has almost always conscientiously observed"
    Seems to be a fair bit of effort to get members of the royal family into the Conservative Party though....Jeremy Hunt (Bowes-Lyons), Boris Johnson and Cameron (both illegitimate royal descendants)...isn't that political influence by the side door? Cameron admitted that an anonymous call from the Palace sealed his appointment by the Conservative Research Dept. (A feature on Cameron in The Mail on Sunday on 18 March 2007 reported that on the day he was due to attend a job interview at Conservative Central Office, a phone call was received from Buckingham Palace. The male caller stated, "I understand you are to see David Cameron. I've tried everything I can to dissuade him from wasting his time on politics but I have failed. I am ringing to tell you that you are about to meet a truly remarkable young man" - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=442913&in_page_id=1770 .

    I agree entirely with your view....there should be total transparency.

  3. "Thirdly, the Attorney General maintains that there is "nothing improper" in the letters, but that seems more like a reason for, not against, publication. "

    This, to me, seems to be a rather disturbing argumentation in line with "If people have nothing to hide, there should be no problem with total surveillance".

    In all honesty, the campaign to publish the letters to me seems more like a campaign against the monarchy through the back door, hiding behind a veneer of transparancy while really abrogating privacy and free speech.

    The distinction between "letter-writing campaigns" and talking to people repeatedly at various events seems artificial. Other countries specifically grant privacy of correspondence for a reason. If people are worried about influencing the government, they should be chiefly worried about how easily influenced the government members are. And if they are worried about influencing the government through letters, how about letters the leaders of BAE, British Airways, BP or other large companies write?

  4. Many thanks both for the interesting comments. I have no doubt that the Guardian was making the request as part of its general campaign against the Monarchy.

    I think the problem is that the Prince of Wales has made no secret of his intention to lobby government on highly contentious political and scientific matters. It is questionable to say the least whether this is a proper role for the Prince of Wales. Indeed, David Pannick QC argued that even his private journals should be exposed because of his campaigning, which I think would be going too far.

    The difference with heads of companies etc is that they have no requirement to be neutral or independent. We would expect the head of BP to lobby and otherwise try and promote BP's interests - that's his job - but the same can not be said for Prince Charles with regard to organic farming or alternative medicine or the human rights act or other such issues in which he has no evident expertise.

    1. I don't see that as a valid difference. The suggestion would be that qua being the Prince of Wales, the Prince does not hold a right to free speech. This interpretation runs counter to the concept that such basic human rights can neither be stripped nor waived nor sold.

      Tying the right to free speech to expertise is a rather slippery slope as well - especially since what constitutes expertise can be highly controversial in itself.

      So how about going the other way round - instead of expecting a breach of the privacy of correspondence instead aligning one's expectations of a monarch with the 21st century concepts of human rights?

      It is somewhat short-sighted to reduce the difference to heads of companies to the fact that we already expect them to promote their companies' interests. Of course we do, but the public has every reason to keep a close eye on HOW they do it. Unlike the prince, they can offer very significant future benefits to the members of government as well - highly paid consultancies or even seats on the board for whenever the official leaves government, or even payments rightaway. Of course that would be illegal. All the more there should be interest in having a closer look at their dealings. To joust on the transparency issue where little more than the neutrality of the PoW is at issue seems a diversion tactic.

      There is a difference between being neutral towards party politics and having no opinion, respectively no right to voice it. Maybe Charles could be expected to be a bit more dignified about it, but as a citizen of a democratic nation, I don't see why he should not be allowed to voice it in writing at all.

      Think of it: Evidently, he is pretty ardent about these issues. So what would happen if those letters are published? He'd try to talk with people in person. Will then the next step be to have someone follow him around to record every word he says and send it live on Twitter?

  5. "as a citizen of a democratic nation, I don't see why he should not be allowed to voice it in writing at all."

    Except of course he is not an ordinary citizen but someone who, by accident of birth, will inherit a very important constitutional position. That position requires him to be neutral on issues in a way that ordinary citizens do not. The role of the Monarch is not dissimilar to a judge in that respet. There are some issues on which it is acceptable for judges to lobby or speak out - but otherwise they have to be careful about their political activities, or they will have to (at the least) recuse themselves from particular cases.

    If Prince Charles announced he was renouncing his claim to the Throne (in favour of William or whoever) then he would be free to do as he pleased, like anyone else. Whilst he is hoping for a role as head of state, he has to watch what he says in the same way the Queen always has.

    1. We do not know what the Queen actually says when she speaks with the PM in private. And that is part of the point. As long as people do not demand transcripts of those conversations, it's a skewed ledger to demand access to other conversations just because the conversation was conducted in writing. You dodged this pick-and-choose of standards before, and doing so repeatedly doesn't lend more credibility to the case.

      Incidentally, the German President also holds a very important constitutional position. He is also expected to remain neutral when it comes to party politics. But he has, in fact, in the past even refused to sign bills into law when he had grave constitutional concerns (and is actually somewhat controversial as to whether it is part of his authority). The German President is expected to be neutral in terms of party politics, and above the trenches of day-to-day politicking. He is NOT expected not to hold an opinion on moral, legel or political issues. Quite the contrary. In fact, controversial issues have been adressed by the President at numerous occasions, be it integration of immigrants, globalisation and education. The key point here is that the president doesn't simply follow a party line but paints a larger picture. And this involved speeches held in public - not simply letters to the government.

      That's not to say that a hereditary prince is directly comparable to a democratic president. But it illustrates that neutrality doesn't mean being precluded from holding and voicing an opinion.

  6. I don't know enough about German constitutional law to comment on the German president, though it sounds an interesting question.

    As for picking and choosing, I will try and write a longer response to this in the next day or so, but I am not sure we can avoid having to do so. It would be easy to say that Prince Charles can write anything he wants with a total expectation of privacy and leave it at that; but then someone could probably think of examples where there would be an overriding public interest in disclosure.