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Britain Is Getting Irate About Its Meddling Monarchs

It was revealed this week that Prince Charles and his son William receive copies of high-level confidential government documents. And some British people think they should keep their royal noses out.

by Miriam Wells
Dec 17 2015, 7:11pm

Photo by Arthur Edwards/EPA

It's a tough life being a British prince. All you want to do is have access to top-secret government documents and get politicians to listen and respond to all your personal concerns, and your royal subjects get themselves all worked up. Where's their stiff upper lip?

There was outrage in Britain earlier this week when it was revealed, following a three-year freedom of information battle by anti-monarchy campaign group Republic, that heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles had for decades been sent copies of confidential high-level government policy documents.

Charles, whose official title is the Duke of Cornwall, gets to see call cabinet memoranda, a privilege not even afforded to junior government ministers.

On Thursday it was revealed that his eldest son, William, who is next in line to the throne, gets copies of some of them too.

People outside the UK might expect Britain's royal family get to do whatever the hell they like. But in Britain, it's a very different, and very British story.

The monarchy sits in this weird existential gray zone where although it officially rules over the kingdom — Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England — it has no power whatsoever.

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The royals are supposed to be the face of Britain, hobnob with world leaders, host garden parties, and visit lots and lots of factories, schools, and hospitals. Officially opening things and doing lots of work for charity is important too.

What they are not supposed to do, or allowed to according to the constitution, is meddle in British democracy, and so the thought that Charles gets to poke around in papers meant just for elected officials is something many Brits cannot stomach.

People are suspicious that Prince Charles is using his privileged access to government communications to lobby ministers on his array of personal concerns and issues, which he is by now well-known to hold dear — and they think he should keep his nose out.

"The disclosure of cabinet papers to Prince Charles is quite extraordinary," Graham Smith, Republic's chief executive, said in statement. "Not only because they would contain highly classified information, but because it gives him considerable advantage in pressing his own agenda when lobbying ministers. He is essentially a minister not attending cabinet. He gets the paperwork and has private meetings with ministers about policy."

It was quite clear the prince had an influence in government, Smith told VICE News. "But his communication with ministers is completely secret, meaning there is no scrutiny, transparency or accountability — so we don't know if laws are being tweaked or tailored to suit agenda or interests of the royals."

The opposition Labour Party has called for an inquiry. "He is one of the most powerful lobbyists in the country and he has more information than some of the ministers he is lobbying. That is not right or proper," said the Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister Clive Lewis. "There needs to be more transparency about his powers and his access to confidential briefings. Who authorizes them and why has it been kept secret? It undermines public confidence in our democratic processes if you have to drag this information kicking and screaming into the daylight."

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Whereas Queen Elizabeth has always kept a spotless stance of complete political neutrality, over the years there have been numerous admissions by government ministers that Charles leaned on them to make certain decisions.

A 2011 investigation by the Guardian claimed ministers had asked Prince Charles for permission to pass bills at least 12 times in six years, under a constitutional loophole giving him the right to veto legislation that could affect his private interests.

He is a very strong advocate for homeopathy, an alternative "treatment" that has been entirely debunked by medical science, and has pressured for it to be considered for inclusion on the public National Health Service.

Charles has been outspoken on climate change and also has very strong views on architecture. He once described the proposal for an extension to Britain's National Gallery as "a monstrous carbuncle" and urging town planners to follow the "nature's order," and favor "land-efficient" buildings that "relate to human proportions" — the fact that he lives in a palace seemingly escaping him.

In June, a 10-year legal battle by the Guardian resulted in a raft of correspondence sent by Prince Charles to government ministers being finally published. Described by the newspaper as "persistent, detailed, passionate, and sometimes politely menacing," the letters revealed a very varied array of royal concerns, from the dwindling Patagonian tooth fish population to the preservation of historic Irish jails.

In letters to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and other political figures he made a strings of demands including better equipment for troops fighting in Iraq, a badger cull to combat the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and the speeding-up of redevelopment at a hospital site which his own architecture charity was involved in.

Related: 'A Lose-Lose Situation': Prince Charles's Secret Letters Must be Made Public, UK Court Rules

The Duchy of Cornwall, a $1 billion portfolio of land and property interests that funds the public and private activities of Charles and his family, operates as a company but benefits from multiple exemptions and privileges, pointed out Smith. "It doesn't pay corporation tax and doesn't have to abide by planning law, environmental protection law, laws to do with local accountability or protection of ancient monuments," he said. "If Stonehenge was on Duchy land they'd be able to knock it down if they wanted."

"We know by now he has a lot of interests and concerns. What we don't know is to what extent he is having influence in that regard," said Smith. "But we now know the royals have direct access to officials and prime minister and access to all documentation that passes through the cabinet. In a democracy we should always know who's influencing policy and be able to challenge them and hold them to account."

Smith said the involvement of the royal family in British public life was similar to what was happening in other developed monarchies, but it was on a bigger scale. "Our monarchy is much more a core part of the constitution, it's embedded in it, whereas other monarchies have gone through various convulsions in the 20th century and gone through reform which has left them with less power," he said. 

"To put it bluntly that's because we haven't had revolutions and invasions. Other European nations with monarchs have had much more tumultuous histories. Most got rid of the monarchy altogether but a handful hung on, but restricted their powers."

Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc

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