Earlier this week, The Guardian published a batch of letters written by Prince Charles to various British ministers. The letters – sent between September of 2004 and April of 2005, and obtained after a decade-long freedom of information battle with the government – include a number sent to then-prime minister Tony Blair, and cover a wide stretch of ground, including education, health, defence, farming, aircraft and, crucially, Patagonian fish, whose overfishing Charles believes will lead to the final annihilation of the "poor old albatross, for which I shall continue to campaign".
There are no scandalous revelations in these documents, but the picture they paint of Charles is an interesting one. Already known as a mildly eccentric traditionalist with a love of old buildings and talking to plants, the prince emerges in these letters as a melancholy critic of capitalism and a deeply insecure, narcissistic communicator. It's as though he's aware of his reputation as a coddled ignoramus, but just can't stop writing his letters. His position as prince means that he has spent his life in the most luxurious, entitled kind of purgatory. People have to at least pretend to listen to him, but he's smart enough to know that they're pretending – or insecure enough to fear it. He's like a rare breed of bear, alone in a large, well-appointed enclosure, turning tricks for an audience who will return to their smart phones after a couple of minutes gawping.
In missive after missive, Charles hedges his reasonably detailed thoughts with self-deprecation and apology. "I apologise for the length of this letter," he writes to Blair. To John Reid: "I have hesitated to bother you... but I feel now is the time to return to the fray... At the risk of being a complete bore about this... apologies for pestering you about so many things." To Paul Murphy: "As usual, I repeated myself – yet again." To Ruth Kelly: "If you can bear to receive a report on this year's Education Summer School from someone with such old-fashioned views (!)..." (In case you're wondering, the bracketed exclamation mark really is the prince's.) Later, he says, hoping for reassurance: "But perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!"
The prince hopes against hope that the fear he has of his own irrelevance is not true. He feels that he is a nuisance and just wants someone to put their arm around him and say, "No Charles, you are not a nuisance, your views on Patagonian fish, summer schools and homeopathy are deeply valuable."
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He has told Jonathan Dimbleby, his official biographer, that he felt as though his parents' preoccupation with their royal duties and their traditional upper class reserve meant that he had an emotionally starved childhood. The neediness that this may have created is evident on every page of these letters. Charles needs to be listened to, and this is where the narcissism of his rank comes in – he expects to be listened to, even if, as is always the case, those who are listening simply politely nod and bow before essentially ignoring him (a special shout out here to the obsequious Charles Clarke, who signs off his letter in the Debrett's-approved style: "I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness's most humble and obedient servant").
Neediness sometimes manifests itself in his sentimentality. Like many emotionally-troubled or repressed members of the English upper class, he loves animals. And anyone who has seen his mother cooing over her corgis knows that animals can provide an easy, uncomplicated outlet for love where human relations are messy and complicated.
Politically, though, Charles might almost count as an "extremist" in Theresa May's Britain. He often comes across as a sort of feudal George Monbiot, with his letters revealing a deep concern for the environment and for farmers. He writes about a "cycle of despair and hopelessness" in upland farming communities, and calls the dominant position of supermarkets the "single biggest issue affecting British farmers and the food chain". He's a climate change advocate, he's worried about the privatisation of the NHS and he's a champion of food sovereignty, all things that put him in opposition to the market-driven neo-liberalism of the current government.
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So is Charles Che Guevara in Wellington boots and a double-breasted suit? Not quite. After all, this is a farmer and a massive landowner who wants to sell his shortbread at extortionate rates. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels refer to those who criticise capitalism from a feudal point of view as often making points that are spot on. This seems to apply to Charles, whose paternalistic concern for the way in which people are being let down by market forces doesn't, on the evidence of these letters, extend to the abolition of him and the creation of a classless society based on common ownership.
What these letters might show, though, is that our society has moved so far to the right, in terms of free market fundamentalism, that the old fashioned forms of conservatism that Charles relates to – caring for one's environment, a responsibility to the lower orders, one nation Toryism – have begun to look left-wing. And because of that shift in society, Charles' letters are infused with a sort of hopeless melancholia, a weary shrug that says, "Well, I suppose I'll be fine, but it does trouble one rather." And what does he do when that trouble visits him? Write a letter – in part, perhaps, to appease his conscience.
Since The Guardian sought access to these letters, exemptions from freedom of information requests have been extended by Parliament to correspondence from the monarch, the heir to the throne and the second in line. That means we may not be able to read more from Charles. However, it seems unlikely that he has stopped putting pen to paper, that his sense of entitlement has been stripped away to the point where he will no longer dip into his weary, melancholy heart and bother some minister about whatever happens to be troubling him that day.
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