What Is He Supposed To Do?

David Cannadine

  • The Prince of Wales by Jonathan Dimbleby
    Little, Brown, 620 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 316 91016 3

The Prince of Wales was in his mid-forties, with his youth long since behind him, and his throne still many distant, tantalising year away. His childhood and schooldays had been lonely and unhappy, and they were made harder to bear by his distant mother, his disappointed father, and his more robust and much-preferred sister. He had married a woman renowned for her beauty rather than her brains, largely because he had been told it was his duty to do so. By her he had promptly fathered two healthy sons, after which he soon sought comfort, consolation and companionship elsewhere. There was criticism in the press of his wayward and unfocused life, but the idea that he should be given serious employment such as a proconsular posting did not secure the necessary approval. At his country house and in London, the Prince set up what was virtually an alternative court in waiting. The trouble was that his mother remained in excellent health, with every prospect of celebrating both her Golden and her Diamond Jubilees. The most the Prince could realistically look forward to was that he would inherit the throne as an old man, and reign for a few tired, belated, sunset years. But there were some who feared, and others who hoped, that the Queen might outlive her eldest son, so that he would never become king at all.

Such might have been the gloomy midcareer appraisal of His Royal Highness Prince Albert Edward, later (and briefly) King Edward VII. And it is not coincidental that many of the same things are now being said about His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. For while, in some ways, the British monarchy is constantly developing and evolving, in other respects it is remarkably consistent and unchanging, and one of its most unvarying features during the last three hundred years has been the miserable lot of successive Princes of Wales. To Edward VII and Prince Charles may be added the names of every long-suffering heir since the Hanoverians took over: George II, George IV and Edward VIII, not forgetting poor Prince Frederick, the son of George II and father of George III, who did not survive to reign at all. Whatever their differences of character and temperament, all of them had to confront the same simple yet daunting structural problem, which some could not even comprehend, and none successfully solved: how to keep busy, avoid trouble, stay happy and remain hopeful, while fretting away the best years of their lives waiting for the monarch to die.

Thus regarded, Prince Charles’s present predicament is no exception to this general royal rule. On the contrary, it is very familiar. For all its privileges of rank and wealth, being heir to the British throne is one of the most wretched and frustrating non-jobs around, as salad days merge inexorably and imperceptibly into locust years. To make matters worse, it is not even clear that those who have waited most patiently and been trained most assiduously make the best incumbents when they finally get there. Cruel and paradoxical though it undoubtedly is, the record shows that the most successful 20th-century monarchs have been those who were not actually born to succeed. King George V was 27 before the death of his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, put him directly in line to the throne. King George VI was 41 when Edward VIII unexpectedly abdicated. And Queen Elizabeth II spent her first decade with no inkling that she might one day be called upon to reign. Taken together, these examples suggest that the best preparation for the job of sovereign is not to be prepared for it at all, or not to be too well prepared for it, or for too long.

There is no evidence in Jonathan Dimbleby’s interim (and interminable) biography that Prince Charles is reflective or self-aware enough to have grasped this sad, simple and vital truth. To be sure, we are repeatedly informed that he is drawn to history, nostalgia, heritage and tradition. But the first of these is not easily reconciled with the rest. Despite having read history at Cambridge, the Prince’s sense of the past is, like that of most royals, romantic, escapist and superficial. He seems to have little understanding of the way in which the British monarchy has changed (and not changed) across the centuries. He shows no inclination to think about his own situation in the context of the Princes of Wales who have gone before him. His view of the military is suffused with regret for the vanished days when the Royal Navy really ruled the waves. And he seems to dislike almost everything that has happened in Britain as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the massive growth of towns and cities, and the liberating decade of the Sixties. But here again, it is the Prince’s typicality and trueness to type that stand out: like most 20th-century British royals, he is visibly ill at ease in his own time, and vainly seeks to put the clock back to an earlier – though invariably unspecified – golden age.

Not surprisingly, then, his understanding of the world in which he finds himself is also conventionally princely, which means that it is blinkered, limited and naive. He does not like politicians, whom he regards as too much concerned with short-term objectives, and more interested in partisan success than the good of the country. Nor does he approve of experts and professionals, who are the very antithesis of his ideal of amateurish gentility, and who have, in his opinion, done the nation a great deal of harm. He has no awareness of the sheer complexity of contemporary society, of deep-rooted, long-term economic and social changes, or of the workings of market forces, and he thinks that the best solution to any current problem is to encourage everybody to pull together for the good of the country. Above all, he feels that what is generally needed is a little more deference and a little more character, thereby ensuring the stability of the social fabric, and the preservation of that vital continuity between past and present. Such are the views of Prince Charles in (and about) the last decade of the 20th century – views which George V, and even George III, would wholeheartedly have endorsed.

They would have been equally sympathetic to his plans and prescriptions for confronting (or, more usually, escaping) the future. Like so many heirs to the throne before him, Prince Charles wants a different style of monarchy when he finally becomes king – and like so many of his forebears again, it is not at all clear that he will (or should) be allowed to get his way. But as any historian could tell him, such a desire for change is itself extremely traditional, and it is tradition which imbues all his pet projects and favourite schemes. Modern architecture is intrinsically suspect and the classical style is by definition superior to it – an absurd opinion, which in a society less diseased by deference than Britain would long ago have been laughed off the stage. Ordinary people should be housed in model villages like Poundbury, but this is merely the same as saying that the best solution to the country’s current housing shortage is to build more estate cottages for the agricultural labourers. As for London, the only hope is to return to the 18th century and re-create the capital that Canaletto celebrated – a view which is not only unrealistic and unrealisable, but which betrays a complete ignorance of the many ways in which life was, for the majority of Londoners, so much worse then than it is now.

Like many of his predecessors, the present Prince of Wales is unable to come to terms with the limitations (and the privileges) of his own position, and Dimbleby’s biography fails to provide the essential historical perspective which might have helped him to do so. He makes no attempt to write about what it means to be heir to the throne in the light of those who have gone before, and his knowledge of the British monarchy before the reign of King George VI is either very limited or coyly and mistakenly concealed. The result is that throughout the book, he is far too close to his subject, which means that all sense of proportion is lost. At more than six hundred pages, the biography is much longer than Prince Charles’s very limited achievements thus far merit. There is no need for lengthy accounts of such esoteric and ephemeral episodes as the mass in the Vatican that never was, or the dinner in Palm Beach with Armand Hammer that finally did happen. The Prince’s many charities and trusts are worthy ventures, but they are described in a detail which is altogether excessive. And the extended sections devoted to his journeys of self-discovery, and his explorations of Eastern religions, are embarrassing rather than enlightening.

The idea behind this book was that the more we were told about the Prince of Wales, the more we would come to admire him as a character of decency and distinction. But as Dimbleby candidly admits, this is a very high-risk strategy. To be sure, Charles emerges from this account as a man who genuinely cares about the arts, the environment and education; who worries about the homeless and the hopeless in our inner cities; who found Thatcher’s brand of conservatism to be lacking in humanity; who writes letters which on occasion show real insight and depth of feeling; and who works assiduously in the discharge of his public duties. Thus described, he is probably the most civilised and sympathetic member of the royal family since Prince Albert. ‘All I want to do,’ Charles plaintively remarks, ‘is to help other people.’ But as Albert unhappily discovered, and as Charles has also found out to his dismay, there is a considerable difference between being good and doing good. Royalty is not now, and never has been, primarily about helping other people, and any prince who thinks it is is doomed to disappointment and frustration.

This means that there is a great deal of disappointment and frustration in the course of Dimbleby’s pages. There is also a surfeit of self-pity. ‘What are you supposed to do,’ Prince Charles complained on learning that there wasn’t unanimous support for the proposal that he might be made Governor-General of Australia, ‘when you are prepared to do something to help and are told you are not wanted?’ There are several serious answers to that ignorant and self-indulgent question. One is that in the aftermath of the Whitlam-Kerrimbroglio, it is probably just as well that he was not made Governor-General. Another is that it is entirely reasonable, with the growth of republican sentiment in Australia, that many people should not want a royal proconsul. A third is that the Prince should long ago have learned to distinguish between his person and his position, and should not have regarded this prudent and essentially political decision as a personal rebuff. And finally, it might be observed that his response vividly illustrates the vanity, wimpishness, petulance, arrogance and self-centredness which are unattractively in evidence throughout Dimbleby’s book. In one guise, Charles may be Prince Charming; in another he is the whinger of Windsor.

For all his undoubted decency and dutifulness. Prince Charles emerges as a curiously unwinning and unintegrated character. He likes good manners, but can be abominably rude. He does not eat meat, yet he enjoys hunting, shooting and fishing. He complains endlessly about his lot, but seems ungrateful for the privileges of his position. He champions the Queen’s English, yet his unscripted remarks are embarrassingly contorted and ungrammatical. He resents intrusions into his privacy, but divulges the most intimate details of his own life and of his family life to his biographer. He is drawn to Henry V’s soliloquy before the Battle of Agincourt, yet does not seem to realise that Shakespeare was parading both the vanity and the vainglory of kingship. He seems to think, in his more arrogant moments, that he can walk on water, but he also possesses a remarkable capacity for shooting himself in the foot. And in marrying Lady Diana Spencer, he thought he had chosen the ideal bride, yet it turned out that he had made the most terrible mistake of his life.

The most important thing that a Prince of Wales has to do is to choose the right wife. Neither George IV nor Edward VIII managed it, and Charles is understandably haunted and harassed by his own failure, and by the sustained and adverse publicity to which he has been subjected as a result. So much so, indeed, that the prime purpose of this book is not just rehabilitation, but retaliation: an attempt to regain the initiative for the Prince in the unedifying and long-drawn-out battle with his estranged wife for popular opinion and public support. To some degree, at least, this enterprise deserves success. It is clear from Dimbleby’s account that Charles is the more substantial and serious figure, less prone than Diana to fritter away his time working out, lunching out, shopping out, crying out and passing out. It also seems clear that, having proposed, he was sincerely resolved to be faithful to her, and to make the marriage work. During the early stages of their life together, he showed genuine concern about her depression, bulimia and cries for help. And he was (and is) a more affectionate and attentive father than the most spiteful tabloid revelations would claim.

But this is only part of the picture. For it also emerges that the Prince of Wales was wholly mistaken to embark on this marriage in the first place. By the time he reached his early thirties, he was clearly getting desperate, and as he became more anxious, he also became more indecisive. He set much store by Lord Mountbatten’s advice – ‘choose a suitable and sweet-charactered girl before she meets anyone else she might fall for’ – but it was hopelessly out of date. The more explicit assumption among many courtiers that his bride’s virginity was more important than her maturity was no less unworldly and ill-founded. And although the age gap of 13 years was not insuperable, the fact that Charles and Diana had few interests, fewer experiences and no friends in common did not bode well. Two of the Prince’s friends – Lord Romsey and Nicholas Soames – were aware of this, and wisely but vainly tried to dissuade him. Despite Jonathan Dimbleby’s subsequent disclaimers, it really does seem that Charles was bullied into proposing marriage by his father, and that while he knew she was in love with him, he was emphatically not then in love with her.

To make matters worse, it emerges that no one – least of all Charles – had fully considered what the marriage would involve, either for him or for her. He was already set in his ways, and seems never to have realised that his comfortable, self-sufficient bachelor life would have to be re-ordered, re-arranged and re-negotiated to take account of his wife’s existence. And although the courtiers had been worrying about the need for a Princess of Wales for more than a decade, they seem to have given very little serious attention to the question of how she should be treated when she finally materialised. One result of this was that Charles and Diana never seem to have established a relationship which went beyond sex and superficiality, which meant that the marriage was in serious trouble almost from the beginning. Another was that she seems to have had precious little help and support from the palace bureaucracy as she adjusted to her new role. And it never seems to have occurred to anyone that as she grew up, she would become the most spectacular royal celebrity and media star there has ever been, or that she might acquire opinions and develop a character of her own, and resent being treated as a docile, decorous, dutiful trophy wife.

Self-evidently, the faults were not all on one side, and Dimbleby makes as strong a case for Charles as he can. But when it came to vanity, petulance and self-centredness, the Prince soon – and quite unexpectedly – met his match in the Princess, as the virgin bride became the mouse that roared. He also came to resent the fact that she was so much more popular and glamorous than he was, and possessed a far more deft touch than he did in handling and manipulating the media. As their marriage deteriorated, and as Charles took up again with Camilla Parker-Bowles, it is as easy to understand why the Princess encouraged her friends to talk to Andrew Morton as it is to understand that the Prince was horrified and humiliated when Diana: Her True Story appeared. For someone as lonely, insecure and unhappy as Charles, it proved impossible to maintain a dignified silence, and the temptation to reply has eventually become irresistible. Hence this book. But whether this right royal riposte will succeed in rehabilitating the Prince is far from certain. For while Dimbleby claims that the Prince of Wales is ‘an individual of singular distinction and virtue’, there is too much contrary evidence in his biography to make this conclusion credible, let alone convincing.

In any case, the Prince’s virtues and distinctions (or lack of them) are not the fundamental issue, and only someone as self-absorbed as Charles could seriously suppose that they are. The real problem is the failed marriage, and this is compounded by the still-considerable popularity of the Princess of Wales. If their separation continues indefinitely, the Prince risks becoming an even more risible figure than he already is to many people. Yet if he initiates divorce proceedings, he may sink still lower in public estimation. And whatever he decides to do, Diana will not go away. In earlier times, she could have been beheaded, incarcerated or exiled. But these are not acceptable options today. Whether she wants revenge or not, she will probably remain a thorn in Charles’s side for the rest of his life. She has powerful friends in high places, she can always upstage him in the media when she so decides, and she can be confident that she will finally triumph when at some future date she sees her son crowned as King William V. If Charles was an authentically noble or heroic figure, it might be possible to agree with him that he is trapped in a latterday Greek tragedy. As it is, the spectacle of these two sad, spoiled, solipsistic individuals slugging it out in public via their proxy authors is pathetic.

To firm and fervent monarchists, it is also highly – perhaps self-destructively – irresponsible. It may be true, as the so-called (and often self-appointed) ‘constitutional experts’ tell us, that Charles’s rights of succession are unaffected by all of this. But there can be no doubt that the much-publicised collapse of the Waleses’ marriage, and their own competing complicity in the media coverage, are doing the House of Windsor a great deal of damage. In a recent editorial, the New York Times took the view that the British monarchy now exists for only one purpose: ‘our amusement’. And this has become a widely held view, in Britain, the United States, in Europe and throughout the Commonwealth. When Paul Johnson appears to be talking sense on a contemporary issue, and when the defence of the monarchy is left to such characters as Lords Rees-Mogg and St John of Fawsley, things are clearly getting rather serious. For the Prince and his advisers, the last redoubt of hope must be that in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time, this will all have blown over and been forgotten. Like most Princes of Wales, only more so, Charles has to go on waiting as patiently as he can for as long as he has to.

The difficulty is that at present, it is impossible to know whether this strategy will actually work. As befits a man of pessimistic inclinations, the Prince himself has his doubts. For instead of accepting his lot as heir to the throne, and whiling away the time until the crown inevitably and inexorably becomes his, Charles constantly gives the impression that he is running for office. And perhaps, in the end, he will be and should be, though whether he fully understands this is not clear. Consider the remarks he made on his visit to Australia earlier this year. They were interesting, apparently his own and, as is so often the case, had not been fully thought through by or at the Palace. It is the sign, Charles observed, of a mature nation that such issues as whether the monarchy should be kept or abolished can be discussed openly and candidly, and be subjected to a referendum. This was something, he went on, about which only the Australian people themselves had the right to decide. Quite so. But if the Australians are to be allowed to exercise this right, then for how much longer can – or should – the inhabitants of Britain be denied it?