On 14 November the Prince of Wales reaches his 65th birthday, the age when, in Britain, he would in almost any other walk of life be pensioned off. However the Prince has not even begun his own job yet — the one to which he was born and about which he has had no say. Had it been up to him he might have trained as an architect, or a landscape gardener, or an organic farmer, or become chief executive of a charity or an environmentalist pressure group.
However, one day he will be King — of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — and King of Australia too, and 14 other of Her present Majesty’s realms and territories. He has secured the succession, with a son and grandson waiting to follow him to the throne. But his mother, in her 88th year, carries on as strongly as ever, apparently ageless, apparently indestructible, and our pensioner Prince sits and bides his time, the oldest man ever to wait to inherit the throne. His late grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, died in her 102nd year. The notion that the Prince, who himself enjoys good health, may be 80 before his own accession is hardly far-fetched, and he may end up becoming Head of State when he is even older than that.
This predicament has been discussed now for decades, as if long life and good health represent some sort of crisis. The Prince is occasionally alleged to be agitated, frustrated, restless. Given those close to him say he enjoys the most excellent relations with his mother it can hardly be supposed that he longs for her to die so he can get on with taking charge of ‘the Firm’. He has much to occupy him and, again unlike many men in their mid-sixties, his workload is steadily increasing rather than diminishing.
His visit to Australia last year — as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee commemorations, but also with the purpose of introducing his second wife to the country — was his tenth major tour of the country, on top of the six months he spent in 1966-67 at Timbertop, the outback extension of Geelong Grammar School. In any year he usually undertakes more royal engagements than anyone else, not just travelling the world and taking an active role in the many charities of his he is patron, but standing in for the Queen at investitures and other state functions. Later this month he presides, for the first time, over the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka.
If one wants a reliable take on the state of mind of the next King, one wouldn’t usually rely on the Americans to give it to us. Time magazine put the Prince on their cover last week, looking alarmingly grey, and next to the cover line ‘The Forgotten Prince’. That ought to have been warning enough; he may have been forgotten in New York, Washington and even Boise, Idaho but he certainly isn’t forgotten at home in Britain, where because of his ubiquity he appears to be in the newspapers almost daily.
Only a fortnight ago he made what appeared to be an intervention into quasi-political discourse that was controversial even by his standards, warning pension providers that the way they ran their business risked being contrary to the public interest. He is constantly accused of seeking to meddle with the activities of his mother’s ministers, writing inquiring letters to them in a spidery hand in black ink that the public has no right to know about. As the Queen winds down, his presence is more constant: and though he lacks the novelty of his son the Duke of Cambridge, or the suburban glamour of the young Duchess, the Prince of Wales is anything but forgotten.
Americans find the concept of monarchy hard to understand, and they find the concept of an heir to the throne who has waited nearly 62 years to succeed even harder to grasp. So when Time told its readers that the Prince feared ‘the prison shades’ closing in on him as the Throne comes closer, one should not perhaps take it too literally. Clarence House denied that the Prince saw his future reign as a form of prison; the author of the Time piece, Catherine Meyer, said the quote had been taken out of context. Certainly, to those of us who have watched the Prince for years, he appears a man more rather than less at ease with himself, not least because of the effect of his second wife upon him.
The Prince did suffer from two things as a younger man: one was there being no settled job description for the heir to the Throne (something he seems to have taken care that his own elder son does not suffer from, with Prince William’s life being more structured and marked out for him than his father’s was at a similar age), the other being precipitated, it seems by his grandmother, into a disastrously unhappy marriage that he handled notoriously badly. As those who saw him at close quarters on his trip to Australia last year will have seen, those days have gone. He has over 400 charities to occupy him, as well as the immense number of duties he performs on behalf of his mother, and his life is desperately busy. As well his conventional good works (which include working for Australian charities and making donations to causes as varied as the victims of Queensland’s floods and the recent bush fires) he makes time to be with his wife, who also happens to be one of his oldest friends and to whom he is genuinely devoted. And he is a man of immense culture, a proper aesthete, and someone infused with the old Saxe-Coburg earnestness that made Prince Albert such a formidable worker for progress.
One danger area for the Prince is his environmentalism, which began more than 30 years ago in a pained outcry against building over the English countryside, tearing up tress and hedges, and with farmers engaging in a form of chemical warfare against pests and diseases. These legitimate concerns seem to have morphed into a save-the-planet fetish that seems to ally him with the massed bands of anti-capitalists who use the notion of man-made climate change as a weapon against big business and profit.
It risks putting him on a collision course with the new Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, who railed recently against ignorant non-Australians who blamed the bush fires of early October on man-made global warming, apparently not realising that they have been happening for millennia. The Prince does become passionate, and particularly about things that he perceives could damage the quality of life — hence his frequent invective against modern architects who wish to use ugly materials to create ugly shapes in cities, such as London, that the Prince loves. He is at heart a sentimentalist, a quality that will in the end endear him more to his various peoples than they yet realise.
I recall on the day before the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales a rumour (and it turned out to be no more than a rumour) going around Fleet Street that the Prince was being warned by Scotland Yard not to walk through the streets behind his ex-wife’s coffin with his sons and his father because of the danger of assassination. It was something many journalists at the time wanted to believe was true, not because they wished the Prince to be on the receiving end of such an attempt, but because it would justify what some elements in the press had been saying ever since Diana’s death in the Paris car crash — that the Prince was now just about the most reviled man on the planet, and the best thing that could possibly happen to him and to the country was for him to renounce his claim to the throne there and then, and to go off and do charity work in Gloucestershire while his mother directly prepared Prince William, then 15 years old, to succeed her. Certainly, the mood that week was ugly, but an ugliness caused by hysteria and irrationality rather than by mature contemplation of the position of the monarchy.
The Royal family then proceeded to get one thing monumentally right: which was that no amount of publicity stunts, wheezes or acts of ingratiation with the public would mend their standing. Only time would do that. And so, led by the Queen herself, the Firm just got on with its job, of keeping out of controversy, of doing good works, of keeping busy; and before long the people over whom they ruled returned to their normal, civilised state. The 1999 referendum in Australia showed this steady, sensible cast of mind absolutely clearly, and it was soon emulated around the rest of the world where the Queen was head of state. The key was that the Royal family provides a stark contrast with the political class who would otherwise rule untrammelled — the bien pensants of Sydney and Melbourne being no more loved then for their self-interested anti-monarchism than they are now. In Britain, the Queen’s popularity continues to rise, because the voters fear the alternative.
But what of the popularity of her heir? He is fortunate to have had first such a bad, and lately such an indifferent press, because it means expectations of him are unreasonably and absurdly low. His wife, a remarkably harmless and well-grounded woman who mucks in with a sporting attitude to the duties that have been forced upon her, has benefited from a similar set of perceptions. She made the Wicked Witch of the West look like a social worker in the period immediately after Diana’s death; now only a fanatical and mean-spirited minority hold anything against her, and when she conducts herself at public appearances with wit and charm those who meet her come away uplifted and in admiration.
As the Queen becomes older — though it may not be until she is much older, given her incredible health and her genetic inheritance — the Prince may assume a more regent-like role. One wonders whether the Queen will make it again to Australia, for example, whereas her son — who professes to love the country, and takes a close interest in it — unquestionably will, and will with his own son and heir more and more become the face of the monarchy in Australasia. Charles has had, and continues to have, his critics, but he has outlived many of them and by his constant sense of duty and hard work has succeeded in facing many more of them down. His presiding over the Commonwealth meeting will be another fascinating moment in this story, for many have said that the organisation must change radically when the Queen dies, and her son will not necessarily be its head. A successful tour of duty in Sri Lanka could put paid to all such mutterings.
The Prince may have his eccentricities — whether they be in some of his environmental policies, or his detestation of brutalist architecture, or his devotion to the works of the composer Sir Hubert Parry. But what, for all of his perceived faults, many people now realise is that he is a good man. He is emulating his mother’s almost incomprehensible sense of duty. He has achieved enough, not least in his charitable work, to demand the right to be taken seriously, and to be considered to have the judgment and sense required of a good monarch.
When he succeeds there will be a small knot of those who wish him to fail, but it looks increasingly unlikely, as the years pass, that he will oblige them. The republican talk in Australia, that his succession would provide the obvious opportunity to reopen the debate and have another referendum, is dangerous from their point of view. Another plebiscite could provide an opportunity for the people of Australia to reject again the sort of politics to which they gave the thumbs down at the recent election, and to stick with an institution that, more than doing no harm, does positive good.
As the Prince of Wales attains pensionable age, the irony is that the most important and strenuous passage of his life lies ahead of him. And perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the man the pundits had deemed was destined to fail is, after all, destined to succeed, and in more ways than one.
Simon Heffer is author of, most recently, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House).