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Britain's Prince Charles, center, watches a men's badminton match during the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 28, in London. (Saurabh Das/AP)
Britain's Prince Charles, center, watches a men's badminton match during the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 28, in London. (Saurabh Das/AP)

THE WEEK

Royal double standard: exceptional when it suits them, normal when it doesn’t Add to ...

What exactly has Prince Charles been writing to members of Parliament about? The difficulty of driving his barouche down Kensington High Street? A global shortage of organic salamanders’ tongues?

We shall never know, because 27 letters that the Prince of Wales wrote to seven British government departments have been suppressed. For decades, Charles has been sending “black spider” letters – so-called for their tetchy penmanship – to politicians on subjects ranging from architecture and education to health and safety regulations and human-rights law.

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The latest batch was the subject of a freedom-of-information request from the Guardian newspaper. Three judges agreed that the letters should be released, on the grounds of public interest. But, this week, Attorney-General Dominic Grieve quashed the publication of the letters, saying they represented a threat to Charles’s future kingship. As monarch (if he is monarch one day), Charles is meant to be politically non-partisan. The letters, one gathers, went some way toward scotching that idea. Mr. Grieve noted that they were “particularly frank” and that, if Charles “forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king.”

Poor Royal Family, so good at staging gargantuan weddings and granny’s birthdays, so hapless at most everything else. They seem to have some difficulty in making the leap from their bucolic natural habitat to the tricky new world of telephoto lenses and lack of comradely discretion among the players of strip Slippery Nipple snooker. Most crucially, royal advisers have failed to understand that the modern world abhors an information vacuum. The modern world is all about transparency. See-through is the new black.

But then, Charles has always viewed the modern world with the apprehension of a virgin in Genghis Khan’s camp. You only have to read his call to arms, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World. In it, he calls for a “revolution” in thinking about technological progress, a brave choice of words considering that, the last time there was a revolution in England, the head of state found himself without a head.

There’s much to admire in the Prince’s devotion to sustainability and preservation of the environment, but there’s also a distinct sense of someone lost in the thickets of the 21st century. How else could he possibly defend the water-sprinkling shamanism of homeopathy? (No offence intended to actual shamans.)

Charles doesn’t like “call-centre culture” or consumerism, and that’s from a man who has never had to buy his own ChapStick or scream over the phone at the gas company. The modern world and its ugliness irk him. You sense that he really doesn’t understand this silly contemporary prohibition against his meddling. “I don’t think people understand how much it requires to put your head above the parapet,” he told Vanity Fair. But why, if he was so happy to write a book about it, would he be afraid to share his attempts to shape government policy?

The Royal Family has been allowed to operate in great secrecy; changes to Britain’s Freedom of Information Act in 2009 made it much harder for journalists to successfully reveal correspondence between the royals and the government.

But cracks appear when the Prince just can’t keep quiet any longer. Take the case of London’s Chelsea Barracks, a residential development designed by renowned architect Lord Rogers. Charles found the plans “insane” and brutally ugly, and interceded with the Qatari royal family, the owners of the site. There was a quiet summit between the Prince and the Emir of Qatar over a pot of tea, The Telegraph reported. (The next time I have tea with Gulf state royalty, I’m going to ask for a unicorn and an oil well and see what happens.)

The Chelsea Barracks project fell apart in 2010 and a lawsuit grew in its place. The judge cited Charles for his “unexpected and unwelcome” intervention, but the Prince probably went home to his compost and considered it a day well spent.

This way of doing business seems positively Victorian: a handwritten letter on the correct oak desk, a word in the Emir’s ear during MonarchyFest ’10, between the sceptre toss and a late-night viewing of The King’s Speech. The Royal Family, it seems, wants to have it both ways: presented as exceptional when it suits them, and as normal folk when it doesn’t. The monarchy is branding itself as young and fun and modern; a step backward to the autocratic and furtive is hardly going to do any good.

Does this fondness for the privileges of yesteryear suggest that the royals should be ditched for something more democratic? Of course not. That would be too sensible and too cost-effective. The end of the monarchy would see the world’s gilt scrapyards bursting with obsolete carriages, a terrible glut in the epaulette and knee-breech markets. The shock would kill Hello Magazine. So, for now, we’ll just pretend we didn’t hear about that little secret.

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