If you’d been thinking, before all this media fuss about ambition and status and education, that maybe Prince Charles might make quite a modern monarch – someone a little less trapped by his origins and his status – then I guess you’ve probably had another think by now. Prince Charles is cut from the same cloth as his parents and theirs before him (and so on back to Canute or The Kaiser or whoever). Perhaps it’s unfair to expect otherwise. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.
I’m no monarchist but I’m tolerant of the British monarchy within the context of what you have to acknowledge has been a very robust and successful constitutional democracy across the centuries. Maybe I’m just getting old but I fear the absolutist logic of republicanism: “look, it’s anachronistic! Abolish it!”. I think we’ve learnt that our freedom and our prosperity and our relative stability as well as the other less easily-defined benefits of being British (and the disadvantages, inequities and general weirdness) are all suspended in a pretty fragile web of institutions and habits of mind, some of which we need to preserve even if they look frankly ‘out-of-time’. That’s not a defense of the status quo – I’m in favour of real reform all over the funny old British polity – just a defense of complexity, contradiction (and the ad hoc) in its formation.
Having said all that, there’s really no way of interpreting the Prince’s memo as anything other than an off-guard defense of old-fashioned deference, unearned privilege and patronage. The Prince of Wales is a Royal after all and he ought to understand that his position at the top of the genetic pyramid is fragile too – contingent on the continued tolerance of the British people for his mediaeval rank and Victorian manner. The memo reveals a complacency about his God-given status and his automatic ascendancy that makes this loyal subject squirm. The ‘head of state’ remark is a total give-away – it might as well read: “I’m the only future Head of State in this office and don’t you forget it!”. Charles can hardly be oblivious to the world around him but it looks like he’s forgotten that, in 21st Century Britain, his power and privilege are guaranteed not by custom or ancient law or even loyalty but by public approval.