CHARLES III—IN WAITING
THE PRINCE IS TAKING RISKS
In the early hours of June 12, 1987, after Margaret Thatcher won her third successive term as prime minister in the British general election, her first thought was of winning a fourth. She was stung by her party’s electoral losses in the most deprived urban areas of Britain and, for all the euphoria of a victory unprecedented in this century, her first public act that night was to make the plight of Britain’s inner cities the most urgent priority of her new government.
When she gave this emotional pledge to party workers from the staircase of the Conservative party’s central office in London, even as the votes were still being counted, the prime minister’s words could be taken to represent a remarkable political victory for, among others, the Prince of Wales.
For 10 years, Prince Charles had made it his business to travel to areas of the greatest deprivation in the United Kingdom, to talk to those whose lives could not be a starker contrast to his own, and to offer comfort and assistance. He was not only anxious to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed and the homeless, of racial and religious minorities, of young people otherwise bereft of hope for the future. He was also keen to devise ways of providing the emotional and financial support they so often seemed to be denied by Britain’s local or central governments.
The subject of thousands of articles and dozens of books, Prince Charles is one of the world’s most closely watched celebrities—but perhaps one of the least understood. Among those who have chronicled the fortunes of the Prince of Wales, British author Anthony Holden is considered the most perceptive and—with his contacts at Buckingham Palace—the most authoritative. His latest book, Charles, will be published on Nov. 14 to coincide with the prince’s 40th birthday. An excerpt:
Through the Prince’s Trust—a fund launched with his own money—Charles had long been administering grants to youth projects throughout the land, followed up by personal, often private visits to see for himself that the money was being put to good use. Ten years later, he was steadily advancing into much more ambitious terrain.
The prince’s first full decade in public life had seen conditions in Britain’s inner cities grow steadily worse. As the Thatcher government’s hard-line monetarist policies raised unemployment to record levels, biting deeper into the lives of those on or below the poverty line, he was prevented by the nature of Britain’s constitutional monarchy from voicing any overtly political protest. But he was acutely
aware, as much from the example of some recent predecessors as from his own close study of British history, that he was in a unique position to appeal to the consciences of politicians. The heir to the throne may have no political power, but he has considerable influence.
He can speak, in short, for the people, though he must do so in the most circumspect style, avoiding the slightest hint of involvement in party politics. But Charles is uniquely well informed and has a uniquely conspicuous platform. As heir apparent, this Prince of Wales sees confidential cabinet papers and he is well informed about dayto-day political issues. As a privy councillor—an adviser to Queen Elizabeth—he can air his views confidentially to senior politicians of the day.
But he can never make any public statement even remotely susceptible to charges of political bias. For a man who cares passionately about the nation over which he will one day almost certainly reign—and who, through his constant travels around Britain, is in much closer touch with its problems than most government ministers—the inhibitions placed upon him can prove very frustrating.
At times, perhaps too often, Charles is capable of letting his frustration show. A recent leak from a private luncheon, at which he complained to a group of newspaper editors of his lifelong struggle against royal protocol, recalled an even more poignant leak 10 years ago from a dinner held in his honor by cabinet ministers in the Labour Party government of then-Prime Minister James Callaghan. Not long before, Charles told them, a hostess on an Australian Qantas airlines jet had the nerve to come over and say to him, “What a rotten, boring job you’ve got!” The government ministers laughed sympathetically. “But you don’t understand,” said the prince urgently. “She was right!”
Unlike his companions that night, Charles has not sought public office, even public prominence, let alone won election to a position of power and influence. It has been thrust upon him by the accident of his birth and made much less palatable by the failure of the British Constitution to define a public role for the Prince of Wales. The constitution’s unwritten rules are eloquent on what he must not do— but silent as to what he should.
For many of Charles’s predecessors, this proved a licence for princely dalliance and
dilettantism. As a result, the history of the 20 English Princes of Wales before Charles is not particularly distinguished. But the latter half of the 20th century finds itself confronted by a prince determined to change all that.
By the late 1980s, Charles was placing himself squarely at the centre of the contemporary political battleground. As his own personal philosophy has matured, so has his public work; as the scale of his vision has grown, so has that of his determination to improve living and working conditions in postindustrial Britain. As he turns 40 on Nov. 14, the many disparate
things up,” Charles has said, “to throw a proverbial royal brick through the inviting plate glass of pompous professional pride and jump feetfirst into the kind of spaghetti of red tape which clogs this country from one end to the other.”
Charles is a man of high seriousness. Since his days as a Cambridge University undergraduate, he has felt a powerful ambition to make his mark. It is tempting at times, when his sense of his position makes nonsense of his human relationships, to say even that he has developed ideas above his station. Heir to the
strands of his private and public lives seem to be converging in this one central mission. After years of intellectual dabbling, he has developed a cohesive world view which he is anxious to put to practical use. In the decline of the quality of life for many Britons he has finally found a public purpose to his own. With some relish the prince has mounted his political tightrope and set forth into the unknown.
If he courts controversy, ruffles complacent feathers, angers vested interests or arouses professional hostility, so be it. “I like to stir
throne since the age of 3, when his mother ascended the throne, he was brought up by his parents to feel a deep sense of duty. To Charles, his birthright is now a sacred trust of which to make what he will. The vivid example of a Prince of Wales who betrayed that trust— his great-uncle David, briefly King Edward VIII before surrendering his throne for Wallis Simpson, the woman he loved, in 1936—has concentrated his mind enormously. He will go down in history, he is determined, as a Prince of Wales who used his office to enhance the common good.
Everything else in his life is now subordinate to that goal. At times, when he is misunderstood or his actions are misinterpreted, he can grow angry and dejected, even show his mere mortality with thoughts of “packing it all in.” But those moods quickly pass. His private life, his wife and children, his offstage enthusiasms from music to sports all take second place to his public ambitions. Only in the last few years has Charles finally defined this focus both for his personal philosophy and for his public role. Now that he has, he is putting his confused past behind him and pursuing his future with an almost missionary zeal.
In the summer of 1982, as he left the hospital with his first son, Prince William, in his arms and his radiant wife, Princess Diana, at his side, Charles seemed at last to have found the happiness and fulfilment he sought so long. The reason, gushed the royal commentators in the British press, was that his was the first “unarranged” marriage of a Prince of Wales in British history. But was it? In the succeeding six years, as the marriage has all too publicly developed its problems, there has been growing dissent from this view. “In many ways,” said Harold Brooks-Baker, editor of Burke’s Peerage, the authoritative reference book on the British nobility, “it was an arranged marriage. He needed a lovely wife, and she fitted the bill. Diana was an infatuated 19-year-old only too eager to marry him.”
Within months of their marriage, it became clear that Diana was rapidly changing her husband in a number of ways. After persuading him to give up sports that she disapproved of, including shooting and steeplechasing—but not, to her chagrin, polo—she smartened up his suits, put some color into his socks and ties, got his hair under the blow dryer, brought him some boxer shorts and helped him grow more in touch with the values of his own generation. “You’re only as young as you think you are,” said a grateful Charles, prematurely middleaged for many years already. “Diana will keep me young.” Even more significantly, she liberated him sufficiently from his royal straitjacket to investigate with more vigor and freedom the alternative “back to nature” values and pursuits close to his heart.
Charles had soon turned vegetarian (“Oh, do grow up,” said the Queen when he told her). He also explored and championed holistic medicine. Miriam Rothschild, an eminent British scientist and author, helped him design a wildflower garden at Highgrove, Charles’s country home, 140 km west of London, about which he
became obsessive. At the heart of the Highgrove garden, he designed and built himself a bower in which to meditate and relax. He began to practise organic farming on his Duchy of Cornwall estates in southern England and took to regular stints living the life of a Cornwall dairy farmer or a Hebrides crofter. “A-loon again,” sniggered publisher Rupert Murdoch’s mass-circulation newspaper The Sun.
The press mockery was grossly unfair but persistent enough to inspire public concern, much of it satirical. Was the future king becoming a bit of a crank? Among those who thought so was his ruthlessly down-to-earth father,
Prince Philip, who had never had much time for matters of the spirit, and who now worried that married life with Diana was turning his eldest son “soft.” The word “wimp” was even heard on Prince Philip’s lips. Visitors to his office in Buckingham Palace noticed two photographs of his daughter—
Princess Anne—on display, but none at all of his other children. When Charles cut down on his public engagements, retreating even further into himself, Philip went so far as to make his displeasure public by refusing for six weeks to visit his newborn grandchild, Prince Harry—the second child of Charles and Diana, who was born in 1984. By that time, Diana had also made an enemy of Princess Anne, who might have expected to be one of Harry’s godmothers. Rather than attend her nephew’s christening, Anne chose to spend the day at home shooting rabbits.
The Queen smoothed things over between father and son. But Philip remains deeply suspicious of Diana’s influence on an heir he thought he had programmed to emulate his own no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip style. Even today, as a 40year-old father of two,
Charles can still be reduced to tears by his father’s criticism.
In his youth, the prince had been adventurous enough to earn himself the nickname of “Royal Action Man.” For all his protests at the time, he rather enjoyed his reputation as the Playboy Prince, always out parachuting, playing polo, windsurfing and skiing. But
the price of emulating his outdoors-loving father was that he became more conservative in his attitudes, both public and private. Now, at last, with his newfound liberation from Philip’s shadow, Charles was becoming able to take intellectual risks as well as physical ones. Marriage to Diana had finally freed him—rather
Charles had explored his interest in spiritualism with the medium Winifred Rush worth, the short answer is no. The Ouija board was shamelessly invented in a Fleet Street wine bar by a British journalist on orders from an American scandal sheet to come up with a front-page lead overnight. When the British
later than most young men—from life at home under the powerful sway of his parents, and the values of their generation. The thoughtful, even somewhat eccentric prince whom his future subjects now saw for the first time was the real one, his natural self—locked, perhaps, in a perpetual version of the adolescence he had never had, but able and anxious to pursue the natural inclinations of his inquiring mind.
Britons warmed to his outspoken attacks on modem architecture, his fact-finding tours of industry and his overt concern for the urban deprived, which saw him out in the middle of the night chatting with the homeless street-dwellers of London. But they worried about the spiritualism. Had Charles really been trying to talk to his muchmissed uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten—assassinated by an Irish Republican Army bomb in 1979—via mediums and even Ouija boards? Though it was true that
some relish the prince has mounted his political tightrope and set forth into the unknown
popular press gleefully picked up the story, and the cartoonists had their fun with it, its widespread acceptance did the prince untold harm. But the simple truth is that Charles, when he heard about it, did not even know what a Ouija board was.
The prince had, however, retreated far enough from his own familiar public profile for the nation to grow concerned. When the American millionaire Armand Hammer went to lunch at Highgrove, he emerged with the news that it had consisted entirely of organically produced vegetables. Charles boasted that he had grown them himself and apparently talked of little else. The prince’s public appearances grew intermittent and were little publicized. At first delighted to be relieved by Diana of the unremitting spotlight he had endured all his life, he had grown weary of—and somewhat irritated by—the open disappointment of crowds if he arrived without her. The Queen, the prince and their staffs, and indeed the princess herself, all believed that the public’s insatiable interest in Diana would ebb after, at most, a couple of years. They were all taken by surprise when it continued to grow to uncontrollable proportions and to manifest itself, inevitably enough, in less pleasant ways.
It did not take long for the rumors of trouble to surface. First it was reported that Diana had become anorexic. Then newspaper reports said that she was spending all of Charles’s money in wild shopping sprees, often with her mother. Then she was reported to be grum-
bling about the royal way of life, dragging Charles back from the Royal Family’s annual holiday at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, shutting herself away from the claustrophobia of royal life behind the headphones of her gold-plated Sony Walkman. Though exaggerated at the
time, the rumors were omi-__
nous. Diana does worry constantly about her weight, and had in the immediate aftermath of pregnancy grown painfully thin, as she warmed to her new role as international fashion model. She does enjoy shopping, especially for expensive clothes, to the compulsive point where it has become what Fleet Street calls “retail therapy.” She does prefer the sunshine of the Mediterranean island of Majorca, where King Juan Carlos of Spain keeps stylish open house, to the grey summer weather of the Scottish highlands and a schedule of hearty outdoor pursuits by day and charades by night, with the world’s most formidable, least escapable in-laws. The first time she left Balmoral, leaving Charles behind her, it was with just two words: “Boring. Raining.”
As the 12-year age gap between them began to tell, it also became clear that Diana did not get on with her husband’s friends, and vice versa. For all the increasing dignity of most of her public appearances, the private princess remained very young even for her age, as unsophisticated as she was glamorous, as light-headed and fun-loving as Charles was sober and austere. Diana found Charles’s contemporaries boring—she would sit in morose silence throughout dinner parties, out of her depth with the worldly conversation—while he found her friends, notably her former flatmates, naive. There followed a series of tragic scenes illustrating the differences in their interests and enthusiasms—most vividly the sight of a bored Charles in a suit and tie at rock singer Bob Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid concert in London, while Diana’s feet tapped to the same beat as the rest of the world’s youth. After only an hour,
Charles dragged Diana away to watch a polo game, telling his chums that she had hijacked him to “some rock music jamboree.”
In her first few years as a princess, Diana had been
swept away by her own publicity. Perhaps never before in the history of personality cults had someone become so famous and adored simply by existing. Diana was one of the world’s best-known and best-loved women before she had uttered even 100 words in public.
very 19th-century figure, Charles increasingly wanted out of the modern world
A voracious reader of her own newspaper clippings, the princess had soon fallen into the old trap of beginning to believe them. As they turned sour, however, so did she, spurning the journalists she had previously cultivated. Charles attempted to be protective, but there are always limits to what even he can do. The
couple held a series of private lunches at their home in London’s Kensington Palace for newspaper editors, in an attempt to safeguard the privacy of their children. But one tabloid newspaper editor so honored still published a photograph of one of the royal baby carriages on his
_ front page the very next day.
As it took her a long time to understand the workings of the press, so Diana had difficulty with various apparently stuffy royal traditions. She boldly rebelled by taking Prince William on a royal tour of Australia and travelling by air to Scotland with both the children aboard—in defiance of the established custom of leaving royal children at home. But even she soon began to see the practical sense as much as the protocol behind royal custom and practice. Gradually, Diana grew into a more conventional royal, while, at the same time, cleverly preserving her own individuality. It was the natural Diana, for instance, who excitedly rushed across a room to greet the pop singer Boy George, despite the awkward fact that he was facing drug charges at the time, as opposed to the ever more regal princess who greeted older and wiser figures with a photogenic smile and a confident handshake. Soon she was adding to the embryonic list of charities and public organizations to benefit from her support. A visit to Britain’s first AIDS ward, in which she conspicuously refused to wear gloves when shaking hands with victims of the disease, did much to dispel public fear and misunderstanding of the disease.
Already her devotees had forgotten that she had come from a home bigger than all the royal residences outside London. She aroused little of the jealousy among the public that might have been expected, because of her unspoilt, girl-next-door innocence, strictly in the you-too-can-bea-princess tradition. But Diana did not remain that kind of princess for long. Even before the emergence of a potential rival in the shape of redheaded Sarah Ferguson, who wed Charles’s brother Andrew in 1986 to become the Duchess of York, she had i carefully transformed hierzu self—by her expensive taste g in clothes, if nothing else— into a pedestal princess, the fantasy kind who live in Walt
Disney castles and are too fragile to be touched by human hand. It was a neat twist to the public relations juggling act. Diana, then 27, had swiftly metamorphosed from an uncertain young girl into a potential queen.
Diana was taking charge.
Her staying power as a world superstar was giving her the self-confidence she had previously lacked. As she mastered the art of the royal public appearances, she began to take an almost sadistic pleasure in upstaging her husband at every occasion, private and public. For every new speech he made, she would wear a different hairstyle or hat. Photographers, she knew, were much more interested in her than him— as, still, were the crowds, who continued to groan if Charles rather than Diana headed in their direction.
Charles’s increasing distress, however, sprang from more than merely an understandably bruised royal ego. The public’s appetite for details of the Princess of Wales’s hair, her clothes, her hats, her tiniest asides, drowned out anything he might do or say. For a man desperate to be taken seriously, the tidal wave of trivia became deeply irritating.
As his preoccupations grew ever more earnest, so hers grew more frivolous.
While Charles denounced the architecture of the modern London skyline, Diana frequented fashion shows and discotheques. Whenever Charles toured Britain’s blighted inner cities, on a social campaign fast becoming his central mission in life, his princess was rarely at his side. Hers, she had long since realized, was a passive power, both over her public and her husband. It was best preserved by opening her mouth as little as possible, and best explained by telling delighted bystanders, as she did on one occasion, “I’m as thick as a plank.” This celebrated remark proved just how savvy and streetwise Diana really was, while reinforcing the empty-headedness of which her meditative husband increasingly despaired. Inspecting the sumptuous garden of a friend’s country home, he complimented his foreign hostess on her excellent English. “My father believed in educating girls,” she explained. “I
wish,” muttered Charles, “that had been the philosophy in my wife’s family.”
Diana has said in the past that her childhood unhappiness following the breakup of her parents’ marriage made her all the more deter-
iana began to take an almost sadistic pleasure in upstaging her husband
mined to create a stable and lasting marriage for herself. Her choice of partner, as it turned out, made permanence essential. Whatever its ups and downs, the match she had fought to win was one from which she could never, like her
mother, simply “disappear.” But Charles was no longer the man Diana had married. When first she had fallen in love with him, her prince had been a stylish James Bondstyle contemporary hero, the world’s most eligible bachelor, with the looks and lifestyle to match. Diana’s effect on him, by the cruellest of ironies, had been to expose that identity as a self-deluding sham. She had liberated Charles to be himself—a tortured, self-doubting, almost monkish introvert, a man of ever more furrowed brow, bowed down by the accident of his birth, bom in a century which he increasingly mistrusted. A very 19th-century figure, he increasingly wanted out of the modern world. All Diana’s James Bond wanted now was to be an organic farmer.
In Australia in January, 1988, when the couple’s tour reached Melbourne, a ^ visit to a music college was ^ one of the highlights of an ^ otherwise unexciting day. I Confronted by the teacher Q who had given him cello les1 sons when he attended Aus| tralia’s Geelong private £ school as a boy, Charles I knew, with a sinking heart, g that he would have to play for o the class of music students and photographers assembled at the school. It was, he could quickly see, a setup. But he obliged with good grace—giving the cameras, both still and moving, the apparent highlight of their day. Diana stood back watching, eyes on the move, unused to surrendering centre stage to her husband.
Then, even as he was still in mid-photo opportunity, the princess pounced. Striding between the prince and the cameras, Diana made for a grand piano in the far comer of the room, taking the eyes of the lensmen with her. She removed the piano cover, lifted the lid and broke haltingly into the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, still lodged in her mind from her school days. The cameras, of course, went berserk. Never before had the Princess of Wales played the piano in public. (An aide later confirmed this, adding that she occasionally played in the evenings to “entertain the Queen.”) Once the elderly professor had pronounced her “very musical” and plant-
ed an unwelcome kiss on her left cheek, Diana’s triumph was complete. Charles’s return to the cello was already photographic history, consigned to the cutting-room floor. He had watched the entire episode with this knowledge in his heart and a deep sadness in his eyes.
On the same trip, the prince one day donned an Australian slouch hat— just the thing to cheer the photographers, whose hearts sink when he wears the same grey suit wherever he goes.
In that suit alone, he might as well be in Scotland as in Sydney, but in a slouch hat he can only be in Australia, and to the enterprising freelance every royal picture is worth thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds. One knowing photographer, however, kept his deep-focus lens trained on the princess. He had photographed Diana for eight years, ever since the revealing “see through’’ dress shot of Diana in a London nursery school after her engagement to Charles was announced in 1981. He knew that even now, after being the world’s number 1 cover girl throughout the 1980s, the princess’s self-love knew no bounds.
Sure enough, the photographer saw Diana give him a sidelong glance to make sure that he was watching. Then, imperceptibly, she slid the hem of her skirt further and further up her knee—revealing, to this expert eye, “precisely an inch more thigh than we’d ever seen before.” After another sidelong glance, to make sure that he had got the point, and the picture, the regal hemline descended again. Thus was confirmed the extraordinary truth that even Diana, Princess of Wales, over whom photographers have fought for nearly a decade, will still do anything to get her picture in the papers.
Diana’s limited understanding of her constitutional role—she is still, after all, only in her 20s—has left her in love with the superstar rewards of being royal and bored with the tedious round of duties which are its price.
She has a husband who no longer understands her—nor even, it seems, much likes her. In turn, to be fair, she is saddled with a marriage of opposites, to a man who cannot share her youthful high-spiritedness, and who places an emphasis on his public life which is beyond her. Most of the time, it is all too clear, she is bored with him. More importantly, she in turn is deeply
saddened by his compulsion to be alone, abstracted, meditative, self-pitying—even to the point of spending weeks on end without his children. The single most striking index of the distance between them is that it is so out of character for Charles, one of the most doting of fathers, to revert to royal type and abandon his
ent dispositions, their very different interests and enthusiasms, their very different choice of friends. Perhaps it is possible for a Prince and Princess of Wales to conduct their lives at a sophisticated distance. But it is not the marriage that most of their contemporaries and future subjects would choose for themselves,
sons for days at a time to their fleet of nannies. Diana—who, unlike him, has had a chance to live in the real world—is too devoted a mother ever to do that.
And that, for the present, is where the matter rests. In the absence of any explanation
from Buckingham Palace, or from the principals themselves, Charles’s future subjects have now come to the reluctant conclusion that his marriage has reached a state of cool mutual indifference. The 12-year age gap, as always, is taken as the prime index of the gulf between the couple, followed hard by their very differ-
or indeed for the royalty most of them idolize.
In the meantime, Charles’s publicly stated views on social issues have brought him increasingly into opposition with Britain’s formidable prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. One morning last spring, the prime minister paid a call upon the Prince of Wales—at her request. Though few noticed either the announcement of the meeting or its significance, the audience was (most unusually) listed in that day’s official Court Circular, because it was more than just a chat about mutual anxieties. The discussion carried major constitutional implications, some of which would inevitably become public sooner or later.
There had for some time been rumors of bad blood between prince and prime minister. Until Thatcher launched her own inner-city crusade, on the day of her 1987 election victory, Prince Charles’s frequent remarks about social decay and unemployment levels had seemed to carry an implicit criticism of her government’s policies. There had been
had been rumors of bad blood between prince and prime minister
no great public controversy, because the prince had chosen his public words carefully (so carefully, in fact, that Britain’s tabloid press had made constitutional fools of themselves by suggesting that Charles might be given a seat in the cabinet, to take responsibility for the country’s inner cities). Only once had the prime minister seen fit to intervene directly—over Charles’s reported vision of one day reigning over a “divided”
Britain. Had these been Charles’s own directly expressed views, rather than those of his friend Roderick Hackney—who is president of the Royal Institute of British Architects—the prince would have been way out of bounds.
Thatcher, nevertheless, had come under pressure from her more right-wing party colleagues to curb the impudent young puppy’s increasingly wayward conduct.
In the House of Commons itself, Prince Charles was described by Tony Marlow,
Conservative member of Parliament for Northampton North, as “unfit to be king.”
Charles, besides, had grown up in the era of Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, an old-fashioned “One Nation” Tory whose period in office during the late 1950s and early 1960s was marked by a belief in the welfare state and the basic principle that the state had a duty to aid and comfort the less fortunate. Margaret Thatcher had spent almost a decade downgrading that philosophy and turning Britain into an every-man-forhimself society. Having fundamentally realigned many another major British institution, perhaps it was time the Thatcher revolution reappraised the monarchy as well.
But Thatcher, the proud daughter of a grocery-store operator, is herself a devout monarchist. One of the reasons she is less liked personally by the present royal family than some of her recent predecessors is her excessive obsequiousness in their presence. The Queen, and to some extent Prince Charles, despite their private political views, warmed more to the respectful homeliness of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the last two Labour Party prime ministers, than the stiff, icecold Conservative leaders Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. It would take more than a few passing frictions for even her to wish to go down in history as the prime minister who emasculated the monarchy, thus precipitating its eventual abolition.
Thatcher recalled Charles’s frustrated earlier ambition to become governor general of Australia. With her new understanding of Charles’s problems, she sympathized that Australian nationalism and other political factors had eventually ruled that out. But there were no such obstacles to his becoming governor of
the British Crown colony of Hong Kong for the last year of its life under British rule—just as his beloved Uncle Dickie, Lord Mountbatten, had been the last Viceroy of India before its independence in 1948.
Hong Kong, under a long-standing agreement, will be returned to Chinese sovereignty
in 1997. The long and tortuous process of economic and physical disengagement is already well under way. Perhaps a year before the formal handover, all the political niceties will have been resolved by a succession of professional diplomats holding the title of governor. The colony’s last 12 months under
British sway will be purely ceremonial—a chance for Charles to hold conspicuous, quasimonarchical sway, while showing himself to be a man of his times by dealing formally with a contemporary power of the scale and importance of the People’s Republic of China.
The prime minister was dangling a political carrot which the Prince of Wales found sorely tempting. The Hong Kong skyline was scarcely to his architectural taste, nor its lifestyle especially close to his wife’s funloving heart, but the symbolism—and the cunning link with Mountbatten—struck home. It was precisely the clear-cut, overt public office which he had coveted for so long. There were other, lesser possibilities in the meantime, like presiding over more investitures, garden parties—the ritual flummery g of royalty which largely goes 5 unpublicized. Hong Kong was
1 a highly attractive prospect, o but it seemed a long time g away.
o Thatcher held out the tan-
2 talizing prospect of other substantial advances in the meantime: representing the
Queen, for instance, at the annual Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference. To Charles, the remnants of what was once Britain’s empire, and will one day be his own global kingdom, are of paramount importance. He shares his mother’s deep-seated belief that it is among the contemporary monarch’s primary duties to preserve the Commonwealth and promote its interests. The only public disagreement between Elizabeth II and Thatcher, so far, was over the issue of economic sanctions against South Africa. The Queen had felt obliged, by judicious leaks, to take the bold constitutional step of making her opposition to government policy known. Given Britain’s diminishing role in contemporary geopolitics, the Commonwealth often takes last place behind the United States, NATO, the European Community and the Communist Warsaw Pact in the British government’s calculation of self-interest. The monarch’s stubborn resistance to this process was another reason urged upon the prime minister by her backbenchers to deprive the monarchy of its last, lingering fingerhold on political sway.
There was another, very specific recent example of such disharmony, as Thatcher was now at pains to point out to Prince Charles. In November, 1987, at a conference of environment ministers from North Sea oil-producing countries, the environmentalist prince had denounced the North Sea as “a rubbish dump.”
Following the meeting between Mrs. Thatcher and the prince, the prime minister’s office announced that this would be the first of many “consultative” meetings between her and the Prince of Wales. It was also made clear
that the governorship of Hong Kong would come only at a price. The government hoped, reporters were told at a subsequent briefing, “that greater involvement in the nation’s affairs will curb the prince’s recent spate of outspoken attacks which have caused deep resentment in some government departments.”
It was clear what the prime minister had implied to Charles—and the mildness of his speeches immediately after the meeting seemed to suggest that he had taken her point. Far from even implicitly attacking government policy, the prince on one occasion even managed to praise trade and industry minister Kenneth Clarke by name. He was “very grateful,” he said, “for the personal energy and enthusiasm which Mr. Kenneth Clarke is putting into his whole operation from the government’s side.”
This was’ indeed a remarkable transformation. Ten days after the prince’s meeting with the prime minister at Kensington Palace, however, Thatcher’s finger was even more publicly wagged at the prince by one of her most senior lieutenants, former cabinet minister and Conservative party chairman Norman Tebbit. The prince’s concern over the inner cities, said Tebbit on Panorama, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s flagship current affairs program, could prove “dangerous” for the monarchy if he were to take it “too far.” Tebbit even suggested that Charles’s anxieties about the unemployed might derive from his own precarious hold on anything worth doing. Said Tebbit: “I suppose the Prince of Wales feels extra sympathy toward those who’ve got no job because in a way he’s got no job, and he’s prohibited from having a job until he inherits the throne. He’s 40, yet he’s not been able to take responsibility for anything, and I think that’s really his problem.”
The characteristically sinister tone in Tebbit’s voice carried menacing echoes of the
prince’s recent conversation with Thatcher. “We’re in for a period of eight, 10, perhaps 20 years of Conservative government,” Tebbit went on, “and therefore any criticism of the world as it is sounds like a criticism of the government.” If the prince, added Tebbit, “advocated a socialist solution, a Labour Party solution, that would begin to get dangerous.” Given another recent interview in which he had expressed a willingness to succeed Thatcher as prime minister, were she to retire with-
out having anointed a like-minded successor, Tebbit’s remarks began to sound uncomfortably like moral blackmail. If the prince wanted the prizes dangled in front of him by the prime minister, said her most likely successor, he must heed the gospel according to Thatcher.
JL he nation 's universal mother— and the prince's own— was not going to see her sacred trust abused in this way by mere politicians
But the nation’s other universal mother— and the prince’s own—was not going to see her sacred trust abused in this way by mere politicians. The following evening, at a Windsor Castle banquet in honor of King Olav of Norway, Queen Elizabeth attracted unusual attention to herself by calling for greater efforts to keep the North Sea free of pollution. “It is in the interests of both our nations,” said the Queen, “to see that the health and cleanliness of the North Sea are maintained, and that its renewable resources are only exploited on a sustainable basis.” The monarch’s remarks, though apparently innocent, were unusually outspoken. The full significance of her reference to the North Sea, however, was lost on all but two of her glittering array of guests.
Among the Queen’s audience that evening, by no coincidence, were both prince and prime minister. The Queen, with her own politician’s skill for the telling gesture, was warning Thatcher in her turn that she too could go too far. Only three people in that great chamber at Windsor knew the connection between the Kensington Palace meeting, the Tebbit television interview and the Queen’s welcome to one of her closest friends among fellow monarchs. It was typical, however, that the Queen chose to couch her coded reply to the prime minister in the form of a covert tribute to an heir who was not fulfilling all her hopes and aspirations.
In a week when Charles had been under fire from a possible future prime minister, in a year when he had suffered a series of bruising ordeals both private and public, in an age when a Prince of Wales can sometimes be forgiven for thinking that he cannot put a foot right, this was the sovereign’s proud and affectionate way not only of keeping her prime minister in her place, but of making it publicly clear that this is a son in whom she is well pleased.
Reprinted from Charles © copyright 1988 by Anthony Holden, with permission from McClelland and Stewart, Toronto.