Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Prince of Wales, working “prince to prince”, has persuaded the Qatar royal family to reject Richard Rogers’s design for the new housing project on the site of the Chelsea Barracks. As Rogers says, architecture “evolves and moves forward”. The Prince of Wales does not. For all his pretensions, he personifies a mindless admiration for antiquity. He thinks of Britain as a theme park where gawping tourists and sycophantic “subjects” can briefly relive the past. The monarchy is, of course, the central exhibit – described by its more sophisticated adherents as decorative, convenient and harmless. It ceases to be any of those things when it imposes its prejudices on the public.
Prince Charles is clearly a philistine – a quality which would not be a handicap in his line of work were it not for the presumption that prompts him to believe he is an expert on subjects about which he is ignorant. He knows nothing about architecture, as Poundbury proves. It is not surprising that Clarence House primly announces: “We don’t want to get into a debate with Richard Rogers.” That pathetic admission is a perfect example of the prince wanting to have his organic cake and eat it. He is prepared to step outside the bounds of royal propriety to interfere in the life of the country, but when asked to defend his intrusion he becomes again the heir to the throne who must avoid controversy.
Richard Rogers, in an admirably moderate response to the Chelsea outrage, takes pity on the prince – “an unemployed individual looking for a job”. It is fair to say in the royal defence that the long wait debilitated all his predecessors. But that does not excuse behaviour that should alarm convinced monarchists and add thousands of recruits to the republican cause. His interference in the Chelsea Barracks decision exemplifies all that is most unacceptable about a hereditary monarchy. As a result of blood and birth, a middle-aged man of no particular merit enjoys a special status in society. More sensible members of the royal family are discreet about their “divine right”. Charles recklessly chooses to use his position to advocate his favourite causes – alternative medicine, badger culling, architectural pastiche.
The result, in our still deferential society, is the propagation of weird ideas. I recall a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects rhetorically asking me to estimate how many new council offices would, thanks to the Prince of Wales, have polystyrene Corinthian pillars in their public rooms. But in modern Britain, the next head of state should be more than a bad and highly expensive joke. The one good thing to come out of the whole Chelsea Barracks scandal is the attention that it focuses on the anachronism which is the hereditary monarchy and the consequences of a royal family. No one can imagine an elected head of state interfering capriciously and arbitrarily in a quasi-judicial planning decision. The idea that his or her offspring might claim a special right to influence the character of a major building development is absurd. Therein lies the truth about the monarchy. A “royal family” – superior because of its genes – is an absurdity.
Perhaps, as long as the royal family plays within the rules, that only matters to egalitarians who hate the idea of a hierarchical society in which the Windsors are the publicly acknowledged pinnacle. In this tight little right little island it is difficult to stimulate much opposition to a hereditary monarchy as long as it accepts that its function is to be polite to foreign heads of state, present the FA Cup to the winner and make platitudinous speeches to mark solemn occasions. But once the sovereign and her family begin to believe that they have an intrinsic importance and a duty to propagate a particular point of view, the argument that they are a benign curiosity is more difficult to sustain. Where is it likely to end? If the Prince of Wales can exercise covert influence over what sort of building goes up in Chelsea, how can we be sure that he will not at least try to use his royal prestige and connections to impose his will on other decisions which are none of his business?
As a privy councillor I am entitled to give advice to the Queen. If she wants the monarchy to continue on its untroubled way, she should tell her son to respect the restraints of his position. Better still, she should let it be known through the Palace PR machine that she disapproves of his demarche to the Qatari royal family and does not believe that, because they are one feudal monarchy, the Prince of Wales should behave as if he is the heir to another. She might also point out that his reverence for all things ancient does not seem to include respect for the constitution and that republicans like me rejoice at the damage he does to the idea of monarchy.