Friday, 15 May 2015

A very political prince

I have a suggestion for Prince Charles: why not register yourself as a professional political lobbyist? You could set up your own company: HRH Political Consultants.

You clearly enjoy writing to ministers, trying to influence policy, and backing the causes you favour. On the evidence of the handful of your letters that were finally published this week after a 10-year legal battle by The Guardian, it's not immediately obvious how successful you are -- but there's no doubting your diligence.

I can well understand how frustrating it is, having to wait until you're an old man before being allowed to do the job you were born to do. And given how strongly you feel about so many things -- the plight of hill farmers, bovine TB, military helicopters, historic huts in the Antarctic, alternative medicines and the fate of the albatross -- well, yes, it must be tempting to pick up a pen and scribble a few lines to the relevant government minister.

There's just one problem: it's not your job. You live a life of comfort and immense privilege, in part paid for by tax-payers, to do just one thing.


OK, you can open some new hospitals, admire brave new ventures, run a charity or two, make a few anodyne speeches, attend foreign potentates' funerals. That's the job description, and I agree, it sounds like hell.

Say nothing controversial, do nothing controversial. If you're in training to be a figurehead, take note of what figureheads do. ("Figurehead: a carved wooden decoration …")

Think how much more interesting it would be to be a full-time lobbyist. True, you'd have to give up being a prince -- or a king, come to that -- but hey, we all have to make choices in life.

What is most troubling is not your views, nor that you decided to express them in long -- and frankly sometimes quite tedious -- letters. What's troubling is that you don't see that there's a problem.

As The Times wrote in an editorial: "It is constitutionally improper for the heir to the throne to exert pressure on the democratically elected government. By the simple fact of his position, a letter from the prince is not just a letter, but a form of pressure."

And let's be honest, you know that perfectly well. Why else would you have written the letters? Why would you have written to Tessa Jowell ("Dear Tessa … Yours affectionately …") that you'd promised the prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, that you would raise the issue of those Antarctic huts, even though you knew full well that it was already under discussion between the two governments?

Why else would you have leant on Tony Blair ("I apologise for the length of this letter!") on the subject of the EU directive on herbal medicines? You're neither a trained scientist nor a trained doctor (you did history and French at A level and got a 2:2 in history at Cambridge), yet for some inexplicable reason you clearly thought the prime minister of the day should take seriously your views on the appropriate regulation of alternative medicines.

You also have strong views on how children should be educated -- in February 2005, you wrote to the newly appointed education secretary Ruth Kelly: "I remain convinced that the current approaches to teaching and learning need to be challenged."  Well, fine, but why should your thoughts on education be of any conceivable interest to ministers?

Five years ago, when David Cameron was still a mere leader of the opposition, he warned that political lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen". Earlier this year, in a report called Lifting the Lid on Lobbying, the campaign group Transparency International said: "UK citizens currently have little opportunity to understand who is lobbying whom, how, for what purpose and with what funds."

We will almost certainly never have another chance to see what else Prince Charles has been writing to ministers about, nor indeed what he chooses to lobby them about once he becomes king. Shamefully, the government is determined to change the law to ensure that his secret lobbying is never again exposed to public scrutiny.

Even the Daily Mail, which would not normally agree with The Guardian about anything, thinks we have a right to know whose arm he is twisting and about what: "The Prince sought to use his position to influence public policy. So surely the public had the right to know what he was up to. May the Mail humbly suggest that if he doesn’t want the public to know about his meddling, he shouldn’t do it?"

All lobbying, whether by princes or paupers (not that paupers usually get much opportunity to lobby), should be subject to public scrutiny. It's the only way we can be sure that nothing improper is going on.  

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