Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III, preparing to open in London’s West End, envisages a time after the next coronation when an anguished King Charles is forced to abdicate in favour of his glamorous son, William, because he has vetoed a government bill. Such a veto would be in breach of the principle in Britain’s unwritten constitution that monarchs must not interfere in politics.
The drama is based on the premise that after years of intervening behind the scenes, the Prince of Wales won’t be able to keep out of politics when he becomes king. It’s highly unlikely he would go as far as vetoing a bill, but he will come to the throne with known views on a number of controversial issues, such as GM crops and grammar schools. In contrast to his mother, who has kept a Trappist silence about her political views, he has spoken out about climate change, inner-city deprivation and alternative medicine, and lobbied ministers on issues including hunting and help for farmers.
On 1 July, Prince Charles will mark the 45th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales. At the time, nobody had much idea of what the job entailed, other than to wait. But over the years, the prince has carved out a unique role for himself, as an activist, social entrepreneur, self-confessed busybody, prolific letter-writer and controversialist, sometimes being publicly at odds with elected ministers. Friends of the prince such as Jonathon Porritt say the causes he has espoused have given his life meaning – and that as king he won’t simply abandon them. Some MPs – such as Labour’s Paul Flynn in the Republican minority at Westminster – say his interfering in politi cal issues disqualifies him from ever becoming king.
Others, like former prime minister John Major, say that his contacts with ministers have been an essential part of preparing to be king, and that it’s far better to have a Prince of Wales committed to helping the next generation than one gallivanting round nightclubs like his immediate predecessor. Britain doesn’t have a written constitution, but the powers of the monarch were defined by the 19th-century journalist and political analyst Walter Bagehot as being to warn, advise and be consulted at weekly meetings with the Prime Minister.
These meetings are kept absolutely secret. But in my programme, John Major reveals that the Queen did influence him by bringing to bear her experience, while keeping the right side of the constitutional dividing line. He insists that, despite all their conversations, he still has no idea what her political views are.
Republicans fear that Prince Charles as king would use these weekly audiences to push his own views and so undermine the democratic process. They claim that in arguing in court against the publication of Prince Charles’s private correspondence with ministers, the Attorney General gave the game away: publication, he insisted, would undermine the Prince’s need to be seen as politically neutral as king.
Labour politicians who dealt with him when they were government ministers reveal how he got involved in policy – on one occasion co-operating to manoeuvre the Prime Minister. But they defend his right to do so, while he is still Prince of Wales.
And that’s the issue facing the prince as he takes on more of the Queen’s more physically demanding duties. As he gets nearer to the throne, his words and actions will be even more closely scrutinised. He has been apprenticed long enough not to want to endanger his position, and there are already signs that he is restraining himself. He hasn’t said anything in public, for example, about the Government’s pro-GM position.
The era in which the prince ascends the throne will be very different from the deferential age when his mother was crowned. He may hope to develop his own style of monarchy, where he is freer – not to get involved in party politics, but to raise issues and bring people together to try to solve them. It will be a difficult balancing act. He only has to visit London’s West End this September to see the play King Charles III and he will be reminded of the pitfalls of getting it wrong.
Elinor Goodman presents The Royal Activist at 1.30pm on Sunday Radio 4. She is a former political editor of C4