Nick Cohen

As a republican, I used to look forward to Charles III. Now I’m scared

The Prince of Wales has shown himself too vain to accept the limits of constitutional monarchy

As a republican, I used to look forward to Charles III. Now I’m scared
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When republicans meet, we console ourselves with the thought that our apparently doomed cause will revive. The hereditary principle guarantees that eventually a dangerous fool will accede to a position he could never have attained by merit, we chortle. With Charles III, we have just the fool we need.

I don’t laugh any more. Britain faces massive difficulties. It can do without an unnecessary crisis brought by a superstitious and vindictive princeling who is too vain to accept the limits of constitutional monarchy.

If you want a true measure of the man, buy Edzard Ernst’s memoir A Scientist in Wonderland, which the Imprint Academic press have just released. It would be worth reading if the professor had never been the victim of a royal vendetta. Ernst describes growing up in post-war Bavaria, and realising that men who had committed unthinkable crimes were all around him. When his stepfather persisted too long in criticising the laziness of the young generation, Ernst burst out: ‘Isn’t it lucky that we are not as well-organised and efficient as you? We will never manage the logistics of gassing six million Jews.’

He worked in a German homeopathic hospital, and found its directors believed the pseudoscience could accomplish nothing beyond placebo effects. They knew that Samuel Hahnemann’s theory that ‘like cures like’ made no sense. Onions make you cry, but that does not mean onions can cure hay fever just because it also makes you cry, particularly when a homeopath dilutes a trace of onion so thoroughly not one oniony molecule remains in the ‘medicine’.

Ernst came to Britain, fleeing the hierarchical stuffiness of the West German medical system of the 1970s. By then it was already clear that he had no time for quackery in its medical, social and political guises. If they ever met, Prince Charles was bound to hate him.

In 1992, Ernst decided on a career change that mystified his colleagues. He had published more than a thousand papers, and received 14 medical prizes. Instead of taking a prestigious academic post, he applied for an obscure professorship at Exeter University so that he could investigate the safety and effectiveness of alternative medicines.

His decision was not so surprising. Ernst’s specialism was the rehabilitation of patients. He noticed that his colleagues would send their charges off for spinal manipulation, acupuncture and massage therapy when they had no evidence to justify the treatments. You only have to look in a chemist to see why he was interested. Alternative therapy is a huge business, worth $1.6 billion in Britain and $100 billion worldwide. But glance at its products, and you will never see independent assessments of a treatment’s efficacy or dangers.

Ernst and his team of researchers displayed great ingenuity in designing random-ised clinical trials, which were imitated in research centres around the world. They found that chiropractic manipulation of the spine was dangerous in itself — we should ban it. Meanwhile homeopathic remedies, spiritual or distance healing and acupuncture had no medical benefits beyond placebo effects.

From the start, Ernst experienced the hostility of therapists, who responded to criticism with the ferocity of Scientologists. He concluded that they thrived in a wider British culture that ‘was curiously indifferent to the concept of truth’.

Inevitably, Prince Charles raged the loudest. Few supporters of monarchy understand that the Prince’s views are almost medieval in their obscurity. His published writings show that in the dispute between Galileo and the papacy, our future sovereign is on the side of the papacy and against the scientific method, and remains on the papacy’s side four centuries after the event and long after the church has conceded defeat.

After Prince Charles promoted a diet that recommended curing cancer with coffee enemas, Professor Michael Baum told him: ‘The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.’

No chance of that, as Ernst found out. He warned that the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health was promoting treatments without assessing their effectiveness. He told the Prince’s Duchy Originals business that it was passing off bogus herbal remedies as reputable treatments. When the Prince persuaded an economist without medical training to produce a report urging the NHS to save billions by adopting quack remedies, the Times obtained an early draft. Ernst told its reporter that the Prince was peddling misleading information and ‘overstepping his constitutional role’.

The Prince’s private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, disgraced himself and the traditions of free debate in this country by demanding that Exeter University discipline Ernst. After a 13-month investigation, Exeter found no evidence to justify Peat’s charges, but royal displeasure was enough to cow its servile administrators. Ernst had made Exeter an internationally acclaimed centre of medical research. No matter. First they limited his contacts with the press, and then they stopped raising funds for his centre. Ernst left, and without funding his team disbanded. Exeter University returned to the comfort of being a mediocre home for failed Oxbridge candidates, and Britain lost its only centre for evaluating the safety and effectiveness of the ‘cures’ that cranks and hucksters push at the public. All because of a prince who lacks a well-rounded adult’s ability to learn his own limitations as well as the limitations of monarchical power.

As the reign of Charles III approaches, it is the duty of monarchists to tackle him. The hereditary principle is their system. Prince Charles is their problem. At the very least, they should insist on Parliament defining where a royal can intervene in politics and public life. If they had any sense — and I doubt that all of them do — they would insist on the crown skipping a generation. They must surely have seen enough by now. They must surely know that a King Charles III will be nothing but trouble.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and the author, most recently, of You Can’t Read This Book.