Just as even the most politically committed among us were beginning to weary of the dreary cross-fire spluttering on between the egotistic fabulist and the bigoted narcissist who seek to lead us out of the EU (at the expressed will of 38% of the electorate), the monarch’s second son blunders into our consciousness in one of his infrequent significant appearances to revive the ever-lurking debate over the purpose and functionality of the Royal family.
Last month I wrote about the perceived decline of traditional deference shown by the British people to their rulers, conscious that for most thinking people there is an ever-present tension between acknowledging the practical value of a governing hierarchy and supporting the right of free expression. After her umpteen years as ceremonial head of state, the Queen has understood this and acted on it as well as anyone could have done. She knows that her principal role is to keep schtum and not let her crown fall off. She has never publicly expressed a view about any political issue.
Her eldest son, by contrast, thinks that his position gives him the right to publicise his own views. Naturally, there are those Brits, probably happy to be described as ‘Subject of Her Majesty’, who agree with the Prince of Wales that, for example, an extension to the National Gallery twenty-five years ago would resemble, ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend’ and many other personal views widely aired since then. Then there are others, content to be described in their current passport as ‘British Citizen’, who feel that the Prince is not qualified and has no mandate to comment on such things, indeed anything at all, when, for reasons of traditional deference, his view will be heeded and can prevent projects going ahead. Admittedly, I don’t always disagree with him, but that isn’t the point. I certainly don’t disagree with his expressed concerns about the future of the planet, but his views in this vitally important area would be far more persuasive if he were to back them up in his own behaviour in a way that clearly demonstrated a visceral commitment. It doesn’t help his case that he has commandeered the old Royal Train for his personal use, regularly flies in helicopters and private jets, and drives himself around in cars with big thirsty engines. While he has no constitutional platform to talk about these things, as long as he does and a lot of people listen, he has a paramount duty to lead by example. If he were consistently to use electric cars, for example, or to champion wind and solar energy on all his own premises, or host vegetarian banquets in recognition of the scientific findings that the consumption of meat contributes to global warming, many of the not very bright, privileged British toffs, as well as the unreconstructed Alf Garnetts who love him would be more likely to follow his practices.
His younger brother apparently enjoys the company of rich, flashy types, and has fatuously compared his ‘entrepreneurial’ qualities to those of his highly talented forebear, Prince Albert. Against this unpromising background, and with even less constitutional justification than Prince Charles, he isn’t shy about airing his opinions, even on the most toxic subjects. For example, he was seen on ITV in June this year expressing the view that Brexit was inevitable. Fortunately, he has never been taken seriously and his latest, alarmingly crass performance on national TV has utterly invalidated his views on anything at all.
Despite the potential difficulties these shortcomings may cause the Royal Family, there are more positive developments for those of us who, as British Citizens, still appreciate the emotional and cultural value of a non-elected, non-appointed and apolitical head of state. Prince William, as future king, does appear to have a clear understanding of his primary duties: to be as polite and as interested as possible towards all those whom he encounters in the course of his public life; not to voice political or divisive cultural views; and to do whatever it takes to avoid his personal life descending into chaos. In the meantime, he has chosen to use the influence that his position inevitably provides by supporting entirely valid and uncontroversial organizations like The Tusk Trust, which has been very successful in its mission to protect African wildlife. That he has been able to achieve such equanimity despite the circumstances of his youth and the actions of his antecedents says a lot for his own strength of character, and he could yet be the preserver of the British monarchy for a long time to come.