Why the Prince Charles letters ruling is so significant

The Guardian, Tuesday 18 September 2012

We ought to know what demands this meddling, unaccountable heir to the throne makes of our elected politicians

The Prince of Wales lobbies government ministers. He writes letters on all sorts of subjects, from architecture to fisheries policy, but we’ve never been allowed to know the details. That’s why today’s ruling that the government has to disclose the prince’s confidential letters to government ministers is so significant. It means we’re finally getting a little closer to finding out what kind of demands the wholly unaccountable heir to the throne makes on elected politicians.

But don’t hold your breath: the government has a month to decide whether to appeal against the ruling by a freedom of information tribunal. Ministers have been fighting the case for seven years, ever since the Guardian lodged a FoI request for letters written over a seven-month period in 2004 and 2005. Unless ministers concede defeat in the next four weeks, their next port of call is likely to be the high court.

Even if this batch of letters is published, ministers last year imposed a blanket ban on the prince’s correspondence being disclosed in the future, even if publication is in the public interest. You’d almost think they’ve got something to hide – something, for instance, like the prince trying to influence government policy. In fact, thanks to the information commissioner, we already know that he’s routinely consulted on legislation which might affect the Duchy of Cornwall.

Documents released earlier this year show that the then fisheries minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, wrote to the prince’s private secretary in 2008 enclosing two copies of a draft marine and coastal access bill. He highlighted clauses which would require the prince’s consent and got a response a couple of months later, informing him that “the Prince of Wales is content with the bill”. This archaic formula is troubling in a democracy – many of us might not be “content” with proposed legislation but we don’t have a veto over it – but it isn’t even as if the prince confines his correspondence with ministers to Duchy matters. In 2009, it was revealed that he had written to ministers in eight government departments over a three-year period.

The tribunal which ruled in favour of disclosure heard that the prince has lobbied on “holistic” medicine, genetically modified crops, cuts in the armed forces, architecture and agricultural policy. It doesn’t take much ingenuity to guess his views on any of these subjects, which are doubtless typical of a socially conservative landowner with a prejudice against science. In their 126-page ruling, the three judges conceded that Charles’s activities “are not neutral and in a number of respects have been controversial”.

But the point isn’t the prince’s political views, reactionary though they may be. It’s that he habitually abuses his position by lobbying ministers at all; I’ve heard from former ministers who were astonished by the speed with which their first missive from Charles arrived, opening with the phrase: “It really is appalling”. And Charles doesn’t write in the guise of an ordinary citizen, politely drawing attention to a matter of concern. He knows that his letters go “to the top of the pile” and are “treated with great reverence” in the words of Paul Richards, a Labour special adviser.

This is a delicate moment for the monarchy. The jubilee celebrations were intended to showcase the Prince of Wales, whose succession to the throne is likely to create all sorts of problems for the institution. Charles has waited decades to become King, he doesn’t have the prospect of a long reign and he is a meddler by nature. Buckingham Palace is trying to prepare the country for the reign of Charles III and the last thing it wants is the publication of a cache of embarrassing correspondence with ministers. In the modern world, political interference is more damning than any number of indiscreet love letters.

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